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Comments on the dilemma in the March issue: Questioning morals
  1. Steven McCulloch


In the dilemma discussed in the March issue of In Practice, a dairy client with a large herd asked you to bring out an equine booster on your upcoming visit. The client's disabled daughter had been riding their eight-year-old pony at local pony events, to great success. The daughter had been invited to partake in the Pony Club summer camp. Everything on the passport was fine; however, you discovered that the flu booster was out of date by two days. As the pony would have to recommence the course of treatment, it would not be ready to ride in time for the summer camp. The owner was upset and asked you to falsify the certificate (IP, March 2016, vol 38, pp 150–151). Richard Brown suggested that it was worth having a calm conversation with the client to find a solution. Phone calls could be made to colleagues or the organisers of the summer camp; it was possible that the organisers might agree to a special isolation and quarantine protocol for this pony. The club might also have spare ponies that the daughter could ride. The client should be informed that if you were to falsify the certification, there could be serious consequences. Once the immediate situation was resolved, it might be worth having a conversation with owner about ensuring their animal was up-to-date with its vaccination to avoid a similar situation in the future.

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Brown describes the potential loss of a significant client to the business as ‘irrelevant’, because professional ethics should trump business considerations; this is perfectly valid and I entirely agree with it. However, it is interesting to ruminate on how confident we might be of making such a statement in the following circumstances. Consider if the dairy client accounts for 0.1 per cent, then 1 per cent, then 10 per cent and then upwards to 100 per cent of practice turnover.

Brown's primary focus is on the disabled child, and not the business significance of the dairy farmer or the wrath of his client's wife. Here, the analysis of the scenario painted by ‘Questioning morals’ should be straightforward: false certification is a black and white matter that risks animal health and welfare issues and loss of public trust. Brown invokes the professional code of conduct and even the loaded term ‘negligence’. However, if false certification is so obviously wrong, why the need for discussion?

As the farmer's wife has claimed, the disabled daughter's quality of life is a greater good than ‘any negligible risk of equine flu’. What Hume famously called our ‘moral sentiments’ are activated by the plight of this young disabled girl, who has now been let down by her mother. We are tempted to think that making an exception in this case is the right thing to do. Here, Brown sensibly warns us of the consequences of false certification both to ourselves and also of the indirect harm caused to those who have supported us in our careers. The non-self interested reference to others perhaps better neutralises the allure of doing a good turn for the child, compared to the references to the codes of ethics.

I have previously questioned Brown's support for what might be called supererogatory acts of veterinary practice. In this case, for example, there is no clear duty to make numerous telephone calls to the event organisers and elsewhere. However, ‘Questioning morals’ might just be the sort of scenario where the veterinarian might go beyond the call of duty –within the bounds of professional ethics – to do a good turn by the young girl so she can enjoy her well-deserved time at the pony event.

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