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Comments on the dilemma in the January issue: ‘Dealing with dark desires’
  1. Siobhan Mullan

Abstract

The dilemma in the January issue concerned a vet who was woken in the middle of the night to treat a cat that had been involved in a road traffic accident. It dealt with the question of whether it was wrong for the vet to have secretly hoped that the cat might die before reaching the surgery, in order to get some rest (In Practice, January 2014, volume 36, pages 54-55). Andrew Knight argued that, on the face of it, such thoughts seemed reprehensible; however, he also noted that vets were only human and worked within a profession with unusually high rates of suicide and mental disorders, and that these were exacerbated by burnout, exhaustion and stress. He emphasised that vets have a primary duty to their patients and that, above all, such thoughts should not be allowed to impact on the care provided. Stress and burnout could result in suboptimal performance and, in order to best care for their pets, vets should not neglect to look after themselves as well.

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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.

Underlying this scenario is a fundamental question regarding the morality of ‘bad thoughts’. Andrew Knight discusses probably the most persuasive argument for trying to avoid these thoughts: that ‘bad thoughts’ might predispose the thinker to ‘bad actions’.

While we know this to be the case for criminally heinous actions, does this hold true for more benign thoughts? Here the vet is not fantasising about doing anything harmful or negligent to hasten the return to bed, just that circumstances outside their control (assuming they hurry to the surgery) will be favourable to sleep. Likewise, in contrast to this case, philosophical discussions of the morality of thoughts tend to focus on actual thoughts of carrying out bad actions.

So, many would argue that, assuming that bad actions do not result from the thoughts there is nothing morally objectionable to having the thoughts themselves.

However, this can seem more problematic when it is logically extended to failed attempts at reprehensible actions. There is perhaps one common school of thought, virtue ethics, which argues strongly that character and, therefore, thoughts, as an expression of our character, have their own moral value. The focus is ‘How should I be?’ not ‘What should I do?’. The question then is not, ‘what harm would be done by such thoughts?’ but rather ‘would a virtuous vet, of exemplary character, really be wishing an animal dead just so they could get a bit more sleep?’

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 inpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk. We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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