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Comments on the dilemma in the January issue: ‘When in Rome . . .’
  1. Steven McCulloch

Abstract

In the dilemma discussed in the January issue of In Practice, you were working on a short stint for a charity NGO in a developing country. A farmer had walked in with a 13-week-old dobermann puppy and had asked you to clip its ears and dock its tail. You were not comfortable with this, but the farmer said he would do it himself if you did not. Also, a local vet had offered to do it for you, if you would help with the anaesthesia (IP, January 2016, vol 38, pp 46-47). Richard Brown suggested that this was not an urgent matter, and time should be taken to assess the situation. You needed to look at the law in the country, what local veterinary colleagues would do, the local standards of welfare, and the capability of the farmer before making any decision. Even though it might be against your own ethical stance, on welfare grounds the best option might be to carry out the procedure yourself with high-quality care. As in any situation, prevention was better than cure: before working abroad you should do some research to provide yourself with information on the kinds of situations that might arise.

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THAT the vet should gather further information about the issue is sound advice, because if clipping and docking are legally prohibited or contrary to the charity employer's policy, the conflict is effectively resolved. Suppose that the procedures are legally permitted and the charity has no stated policy on clipping and docking, how might the vet proceed? First, the vet should consider their own personal ethics. If they do not feel comfortable performing the procedure, they should decline. Clipping and docking at 13 weeks is legally prohibited in their own country based on welfare grounds. This legal prohibition on animal welfare grounds is sufficient reason to decline the request, and the vet should not do something against their will which might later play on their conscience.

The crux of the moral conflict arises because the farmer claims he will perform the surgery himself if the vet declines to do it. The vet is faced either with performing the surgery, or declining with the consequence that the farmer may do it himself, where the dog's suffering will be greater. This dilemma highlights consequentialist and deontological reasoning in ethics. In consequentialist ethics, there are no absolute prohibitions and agents act to bring about the best consequences. In deontological reasoning, where agents act according to a system of moral rules, some acts are absolutely prohibited, no matter what the consequences.

In this scenario, the vet who reasons in a deontological manner will be opposed to clipping and docking, no matter whether the dog suffers more if the farmer carries out the procedure. For the consequentialist, the right action is determined by the consequences alone. If the vet believes the world will be a better place should they clip and dock, then they ought to clip and dock. Conversely, if the consequentialist vet believes the world will become a worse place, for instance by perpetuating the practice of cosmetic surgery, then they should decline.

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