When Is It Alright to Kill?

Thoughts on ending suffering and moral dilemmas 

Killing is wrong. Is killing always wrong?

Compassion is good.What is compassion? Is ending suffering compassionate?

Is prolonging life compassionate?

Suffering is bad. Are we compelled to end suffering? 

Dry River - White Mountain National Forest - New Hampshire

This past week while hiking in the Dry River Wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest I came upon an unusual site – a bird that was hiding head first under a rock near bridge. I figured it was injured or less likely seeking shelter from the recent downpours. I tossed a small stone near it to see it I would move – the bird only ruffled a couple of tail feathers. I left it alone and continued to hike across the bridge. 

The downpours continued and I abandoned my hike about thirty minutes later and began heading back over the same route. I was very curious to see if the bird was still there. It was and it had moved about two feet away from the rock it had been hiding under and I could now clearly tell that it was a yellow shafted flicker and that it was severely injured. I am not a veterinarian, nor do I play one on TV – but if I had to hazard a guess I would say the bird had a broken wing. It pained me to see it struggling to move as it arched its neck back to try and flip over as it could barely walk and certainly could not fly. 

Dry River Trail

This bird was obviously not going to make it. The cycle of life and death is rapid and constant in the deep forest – it would only be a matter of time before this injured avian would be found and become easy prey for a fox or some other predator. 

It should be noted by my readers that I am writing from an atheist perspective – I have no thoughts of “playing god” or of being superior. As an often empathetic person I struggled with the desire to end the bird’s suffering immediately with a large rock or to let the bird await its likely violent fate at the hands/paws/teeth of a predator. I waited around for about ten minutes watching the bird and thinking about my two distinct choices. When it was time to move on I had done nothing – which was the choice to let nature take its course. 

Would it have been unethical for me to end this wild bird’s suffering? As painful as it was I did euthanize my dog (and sadly I probably should have 3-5 days earlier) a few years back when it became obvious that she was suffering and would not improve. My immediate family wanted to end my mother’s terminal illness “quicker” in her closing days after she had slipped into a coma – but we were legally prevented from taking such action. There is a distinct human desire to want to control things that cannot be controlled. 

Injured bird

In the end I did nothing beyond think. I did not execute/euthanize the bird much like we only medicated my dying mother as we let her cancer run its course. Of course, potential prison sentences played into that decision – not so with the injured bird. I continued to think about this as I ambled back to the trailhead – a good thought exercise with no easy answers and no guarantee of how I would handle a similar situation in the future – kind of hope it never presents itself to me again. 

As with most pieces at Symptom of the Universe I am seeking discussion from all types. What are your thoughts? What do vegans and vegetarians think? What do the religious think? What do other freethinking atheists think about the ethics of ending misery and suffering?

 If you liked this post you may like some others I have penned on atheism and veganism. By “like” I mean you may want to engage in discussion – agreement does not enter into why I do this! 





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13 Responses to “When Is It Alright to Kill?”

  1. Kate Says:

    Such a touching story. You made me stop and think, thank you.
    I think the real question does not go to vegans or vegetarians but to the western society, specially to our society.
    We are so scared of death, so much so that we see it as un-natural and opressive, I would venture to say: Inhumanae.
    Savings lives at all costs, and I mean humanae or financial costs. Nothing short of eternal life is satisfactory to us, no matter if animal or human.
    Death is a part of life, it is natural.
    I only ask not to suffer, not to be put on artificial life machines just because someone decides that me in a bed with no real human interaction is life.
    Thank you again for this post.

    • Rita Holden Says:

      I am a true believer that death is a state of being dead. You have no thoughts, no feelings, and no existence. Just as you were before conception. If a living creature who is conscious is in pain and suffering,( with no hope of recovery), the human thing to do would be to end their suffering. IF we are talking about a human and they are prepared to go, and make a conscious decision to end it. If they cannot make that decision for themselves, then you must take that responsibility on yourself to help them. An animal however does not have the ability to reason out for themselves that death would be an end to their suffering. They know only survival. Even to the last wave of pain they will fight for life. You should(my opinion) as a human end that pain for them . There are far worse things in this life than death. That being said, life is a gift and a privilege. We are all so fortunate that we are here. We should never waste it or take it for granted because it is so very short.

      • Rita Holden Says:

        By the way I am a christian. I do not believe in an immortal soil. We are a soil and it dies . We have the same ending as animals. The only difference is that we are made in the image of God, and given the power of reasoning. We are meant to be immortal. That is why death is so hard for us. IT IS UNNATURAL!! I do believe in a superior form of life that exists not of our realm. This miraculous life sustaining planet is no coincidence. We are the way we are for a reason. We share similar features and ,ways with some of the other creatures we share this planet with. After all , we had the same creator. We simplify this superior being into a thought pattern we can process in order to make since of things we do. We can not even begin to imagine the power of this being, the intelligence and wisdom. He is very powerful, and very real. He has a personal name just like you do, that he put into the original bible scrolls over 6000 times. JEHOVAH!!!!!

  2. sapblatt Says:

    Thanks Kate! Nicely put thoughts. INteresting – in my wife’s extended family a few states away lies a cousin who fell and for all intents and purposes is brain dead in a coma – he had a living will – and yet they are keeping him alive – no idea why or the legalities involved…

  3. Joe Iacovino Says:

    I empathize… last week I was driving and a minivan traveling in the opposite direction hit a cat, badly. The van did not stop. I slowed and the cat twitched around a bit. I was upset with myself because I always have my knife on me except this day. That said, the cat was clean and obviously a pet, and I would have killed it out of compassion. On my way back from the gym the cat was gone.

  4. Zen Bonobo Says:

    Over the weekend I had to prepare myself to put down a very sick horse. It had coliced with a twist in the last 20 inches of its intestine. At 3:00am we were out of pain killer and the horse went from thrashing on the ground to stretching and arching its neck. That usually begins an even uglier and ever more agonizing death struggle. I had a fire arm with one bullet. I was prepared to do something for the horse. At 4:00am I was expecting more death agony but the horse had dozed off. I roused him and he got to his feet. He hunched into a park and had a huge mineral oil dump. He urinated in a great stream and it was done. He had some how untwisted the gut and rallied. I was stunned. The owner was already into the vet for $800 and it would have been another $400 for a vet put down. She given the go ahead for the put down and the tractor was brought around to drag him to a grave that had been dug out with the excavator. It is such a relief when it works out. I had prepared myself and did not have to do what looked inevitable.

  5. Al Stefanelli Says:


    Murder is wrong, killing can be justified. As a former US Marine, I can tell you with great certainty that ending a life when the person does not wish it to be ended is something that is extremely difficult to come to terms with.

    However, I do agree that if someone is terminally ill and their quality of life is only goiong to deteriorate to the point where it is non-existent, and they wish to end their own life, they should be allowed to, and a physician should be able to be present to make sure it is done painlessly.

    As far as animals go, if it isn’t sick or badly injured, if you kill it, you’d better eat it.


  6. Heather Says:

    Poor thing.. 😦 I think ethically the right thing to do is usually to end a being’s suffering. It’s something I would have wanted to do for the bird, but likely could not have brought myself to do. Ending terminal suffering is the only justifiable reason for killing outside of self defense (and then, of course, I think one should at least try to find another way- restraint, or hiding, etc).

  7. Larry Says:

    Mike–thank you for your thought-provoking piece.

    You did the right thing with the bird. Ending the life of a terminally-ill person carries legal ramifications as you mention (I faced this when my own father lapsed into a coma and finally passed after we removed life support), but in this instance, why not let nature take its course? I think humans meddle in nature’s regimen too much.

    Recently, a neighbor caught a baby rabbit in his backyard to show his grandkids. When he put the rabbit down in the middle of the yard, unprotected, a hawk swooped down, took the rabbit, and ate it on the roof of a nearby house in plain view. Witnessing this, I felt terrible for the rabbit and awed by the force of nature. I learned a valuable lesson–leave nature alone and enjoy it from a respectable distance.

  8. karen Says:

    Hi Mike,

    What a great post. I was inclined towards ending the suffering of the bird, but torn by the aspect of nature taking its course. Your friend Larry put it best, so I won’t repeat it.

  9. Jim Maz Says:

    I would’ve done the same, Mike. Live and let live. The bird paradigm is an excellent one to contrast against our own mundane existence. Here today, gone today. The ancient Greeks had a word for nature – “thea” which means view (I believe the word exists in modern greek also and spelled the same way). This word turned into Theos which means God more or less. What am I getting at? The God that man created is fiction. The real “God” is that bird you saw and the situation it was in, be it flying or wounded. That’s how transitory we are. Just like the bird. We are bound to nature and our inherit weaknesses. Our environment is the one that gives us sustenance, the life cycle and survival of the fittest..not God.

    Obviously, decisions like those you faced with your mom are more than a live and let live choice unless she wanted it that way and specified it beforehand.
    I would have to go with a living will on that one.
    Glad you brought it up as I may be there myself in the coming years.

  10. Robert Says:

    Interesting write up. I wonder what athiesm has to do with the event. Is it to remind your readers, once again, that you’re and athiest? I don’t see this as a religious or ethical matter.

    An animal is in its own environment and is injured. Nature will take its course. The bird will find its way to a safe location or it will become part of the food chain. Nature is like that. It is beautiful, but also violent. If you saw a fox or other animal move in to eat the bird at that time what would you have done? Interfere and deny the fox its meal? I think that human interference in this case is not the right course of action. In the wild, let things be wild.

    In the case of pets or other domesticated animals, a different course can be taken. No one wants to see a pet suffer. When we claim “ownership” of an animal, we accept care of the animal. I think that care of a pet includes not allowing the animal to live in pain unnecessarily. On that note, the laws regarding euthanasia show more kindness to animals than to humans.

    • sapblatt Says:

      Bobby –
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      What atheism has to do with it is that I like my readers to know my perspective/agenda – it also has a lot to do with a christian principle (at least fundamental christian) that man has dominion over animals – genesis is pretty clear about it – so that is why I was interested in anyone with a religious perspective.
      I agree with your interpretation of the events as they unfolded for me – I just think that an argument can be made either way. – Thanks again – Mike

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