Law, Morals, and Ethics in Equine Practice (AAEP 2012)

"The No. 1 goal of the equine veterinarian is to help the welfare of the horse," reported Rick Lesser, DVM, during a series of sessions focused on ethics, scope of practice, and racing at the 2012 American Association of Equine Practitioners' (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 1-5, in Anaheim, Calif. "The best way to do this is through a synergism of law, morals, and ethics."

Lesser described the specific meanings of these concepts: Laws are principles and regulations established by some authority--these imply no free will and are imposed from the outside, with penalties incurred for violating the rules.

The word ethics describes the science of the rightness or wrongness of our actions and can encompass various philosophical approaches. He summed up Aristotle's virtue ethics, with a goal of excellence, as "the best thing to do." German philosopher Immanuel Kant's logic of moral obligation suggests that "doing our duty is the goal," with no credit given to doing the right thing. And, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham's consequentialism maintains that "it is the outcome of our actions rather than the motives" that are relevant to ethical decisions. Lesser noted that consequentialist ethics stimulated veterinarians to form the AAEP in 1954, particularly with the welfare of the racehorse in mind.

Individuals make moral decisions within the confines of circumstances and his or her intentions. Lesser stated that individuals' morals come from internal decisions that are "more vulnerable and changeable than ethics." He cited an example of a horse needing expensive colic surgery: "While the ethical decision would be to perform the surgery with the horse's welfare in mind, if the owner can't afford the surgery then the moral decision is to euthanize to stop the horse's pain."

Lesser recommended four productive steps to effective moral reasoning:

  • Keep the ethical normal (i.e., equine welfare) in sight at all times.
  • Be aware of our own motives and biases that might undermine that objective.
  • Take stock of existing circumstances and intentions that bring pressure to bear on our decisions.
  • Take note of laws that guide us.

With these steps in mind, Lesser emphasized the importance of a valid and licit (within the letter of the law) veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). A valid relationship requires that all parties operate in an informed, autonomous, and free manner--this means that a veterinarian informs and arms an owner with knowledge about the horse's treatment and that the veterinarian is free to decide whether the given treatment in best for the welfare of the horse. Neither the vet nor the trainer should be pressured by an owner to perform a questionable procedure that is contrary to the horse's welfare. In addition, Lesser clarified that if an action complies solely with the letter of the law but is in opposition to the spirit of the law, it isn't considered an ethical decision.

For decisions that matter, Lesser summarized by stressing the following: "Knowing is not enough. Wishing is not enough. Excellence comes from doing the right thing."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.