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

One vet says the best way to ensure equine welfare is “through a synergism of law, morals, and ethics.”

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"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

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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