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Comments on the dilemma in the July/August issue: ‘Honesty and euthanasia’
  1. Siobhan Mullan

Abstract

The dilemma in the July/August issue concerned a client who wanted her dog to be euthanased; it had bitten several people and was required to wear a muzzle in public. The situation was complicated by the owner's teenage son, who strongly opposed ending his pet's life. You noticed a possible infected neoplasm on the dog's leg and the owner suggested convincing her son that the dog had to be put down because of the ‘incurable cancer’ (In Practice, July/August 2013, volume 35, pages 422-423). Peter Fordyce proposed that the best way forward might be to go through with the euthanasia. Not only had previous behavioural modification failed but the owner would likely seek out a different vet if you refused. He argued that prolonging the situation would probably bring further physical, psychological and legal risk to the family. While the vet should not lie to the son directly, it might be acceptable to go along with the deception if it came from the mother, for the greater good of the family's harmony.

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Siobhan Mullan is a research fellow at the University of Bristol with interests in practical welfare assessment and animal ethics. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

Siobhan Mullan is a research fellow at the University of Bristol with interests in practical welfare assessment and animal ethics. She holds the RCVS diploma in animal welfare science, ethics and law.

In order to achieve the best outcome, Peter Fordyce suggested a pragmatic approach using two levels of deception. The mother would engage in a more active form of deception of her son, leaving the vet needing only to involve themself in a more passive form of half-truths and possible-truths.

While it was acknowledged that any form of deception is best avoided, this type of ‘sin of omission’ perhaps seems more palatable, but why is this and is it right? There has been discussion on the morality of acts and omissions for millennia but more recent research in the field of moral psychology has shed further light on how people really act and has helped to untangle some of their motivations. Two things have become clear from observational and experimental studies across a range of general and specifically healthcare settings. First, people are more willing to cause a morally undesirable outcome through omission than a deliberate act of commission. Just think about how many people would pocket the extra change given at the checkout compared to actually taking the same amount directly from the till. Secondly, people condemn others less strongly when a morally undesirable outcome occurs by omission than by commission. By using an experimental design that included an observer-punisher for some of the participants of a low value economic game it has been hypothesised that this desire to avoid condemnation by others is a major driving force in our favouring omissions rather than commissions to achieve the same (or sometimes worse) outcomes (De Scioli and others 2011).

Most of veterinary practice is carried out in full view of others and the potential for this type of observer influence is high. The question is whether it matters, and how to deal with it if it does. Being aware of such subconscious effects is the first step to answering these questions in practice.

Have you faced a dilemma that you would like considered in a future instalment of Everyday Ethics? If so, e-mail a brief outline to einpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk. We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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