Opinion: The Value of a Common Cottontail

As a profession learned in the causes of animal suffering, one of the most fundamental ethical questions we veterinarians can ask ourselves is, “to what extent do we have a moral obligation to maintain the health of an animal that has no perceivable benefit to society?” To answer this question, I examine the nature of a moral obligation within the context of the veterinary profession.

The moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian is restricted in some ways by the nature of moral obligations. For example, moral obligations are always achievable which means veterinarians are not responsible for the treatment of an animal for which they lack the knowledge or resources to treat. However, if the veterinarian has the ability and a moral obligation to treat the animal, then the animal ought to be treated so long as treatment does not come into conflict with a greater moral obligation.

A veterinarian’s moral obligations towards a Bengal tiger or a Basset Hound should theoretically be the same as a veterinarian’s obligations towards an ordinary bunny. We should not consider endangered status or existence of an owner because the intrinsic value of an individual Bengal, Basset and bunny are (at this point) assumed to be the same.

If the life and health of an animal have an intrinsic value, then by virtue of their training, veterinarians have a moral obligation and responsibility for suffering that accompanies increased knowledge of the causes of suffering. Essentially, the claim that this moral obligation exists is a determination that the value of the healthy animal is greater than the cost in time, money, effort or emotion of caring for the animal. However, the value of the animal may not be enough to warrant this investment.

Animals also have extrinsic value, which is the value an animal has as a means to an end (e.g the charm of a wild animal, the production value of a cow, or the sentimental value of your family’s cat). Extrinsic values can be subjective (e.g. I feel rabbits are adorable and you feel they are garden gnawing goblins) or objective (e.g. the price of a rabbit pelt). The problem with objectivity is that it is much easier to believe in an objective value when we have science-based evidence to support our claim. Proof of an objective intrinsic value is nearly impossible beyond the metaphysical realm. This is problematic because we must prove the value exists in order to reasonably claim we have a moral obligation towards saving an animal with little to no extrinsic value. In other words, to say veterinarians ought to save the aforementioned rabbit, one relies on the premise that an individual rabbit – with no means of paying for its healthcare or value to society – is worth being saved.

Most animal lovers would make the argument that animals have a worth beyond their extrinsic value. That is, most animal lovers will claim that a veterinarian should treat a rhinoceros even if the rhinoceros does not act as a source of income for an individual or organization. However, once we strip an animal of the things that make it fun, exciting, or enjoyable to people (think sewer rat), the obligation that most of us we feel we or others have towards the animal diminishes.

A snag we hit when attempting to defend the intrinsic value of an animal is that even if you could prove its objective existence, the intrinsic value may not be enough to warrant a moral obligation on the part of the veterinarian, or anyone for that matter (e.g. say we could establish that bunnies have an intrinsic value of 10 units but the cost of treatment is worth 100 units, then the health of the bunny is not enough to justify cost of treatment).

Another issue with the veterinarian’s moral obligation to an animal is that the intrinsic value of that animal could be so insignificant that any expenditure would not be justified. This occurs when, despite the intrinsic value, the extrinsic value of an animal is greater when humans act against the animal’s well-being. Unfortunately, for many animals their quantifiable extrinsic value is greater when they are not treated (i.e. a rabbit: with no owner to cover the cost of treatment) or dead (i.e. a rhinoceros: whose remains can be sold for an exorbitant amount of money).

In order to determine if an act ought to be done, we weigh the extrinsic and intrinsic value of acting against not acting:

A Moral Obligation Exists When:

Extrinsic Value + Intrinsic value > Cost (money, time, emotion, etc.)

It occurs often that no extrinsic value exists, and the intrinsic value of the animal does not outweigh saving the animal. The clearest instance of this truth in veterinary medicine is evidenced by our control of parasites wherein we actively kill some animals (fleas, roundworms, etc.) for the benefit of another animal that has a greater extrinsic value to us (tigers, dogs, etc.):

No Moral Obligation Exists to Save the Rabbit (or flea) when:

(no extrinsic value) + Intrinsic Value of the Animal < Cost of Treatment

Despite my desire to argue otherwise, it is difficult to claim veterinarians have a moral obligation to assist animals that do not provide some benefit to mankind. This same notion is reiterated in the Veterinarian’s Oath whereby we swear to “benefit society” through the “relief of animal suffering” as opposed to relieving animal suffering for its own sake. From a conservation point of view, this post is frustrating. From a practical point of view, this means that rather than attempting to convert people to conservation by claiming a bunny should be saved by virtue of its being a being, energy should be directed to revealing the extrinsic value(s) of the bunny.  Success will require application of psychology, patience, economics, empathy, public health, philosophy, and – of course – veterinary medicine.


María Juarez (Class of 2021) hopes to use comparative reproductive physiology to promote the preservation of North American species and improve the health of livestock. As an admirer of ethics and economics, she hopes augment community conscious conservation strategies after veterinary school.