April 14th, 2023

What Does Your Oath Mean?

As most of you will know, whenever anybody qualifies in the UK as a veterinary professional they are required to take an oath which says something along the lines of “I won’t be evil”. But have you ever actually thought what that oath really means?

As Professor Thomas Blaha, President of the German Veterinary Association for Animal Welfare, points out, oaths are too general to really mean anything. They offer no decision-making guidance or set down any instruction for when an individual is faced with an ethically difficult situation. An oath simply instructs a person to use their best judgement, which is vague to the point of rendering it nearly meaningless.

As Professor Blaha demonstrates in his lecture to the Animal Welfare Foundation “Taking veterinary ethics from an oath to the next level”, it could be argued that there is a need to decide a clearer set of ethical guidelines. Applied ethics are separated from enforceable laws, but are something which most people are expected to use in their daily lives, whatever their job. The difference between regulations and ethics is that regulations are imposed from the outside by a higher authority, while ethics inform how a person sees themselves, and gets a sense of humanity from their actions. To enshrine ethics in law would defeat their very purpose. Ethics must be adopted voluntarily, not followed under duress, as A Clockwork Orange taught us. Another problem with enforcing ethics is that it is often a subjective issue, and mistakes can be made. Attempts to enforce ethics in the past have produced results that most people nowadays consider to have been serious injustices, like criminalising homosexuality. Any ethical code must be open to criticism and repudiation; if it is not, it is totalitarianism.

For this reason, Professor Blaha has devised a “Codex of Ethics” for the veterinary community to apply. This does not have any legal power, but he hopes it will help vets make ethically right decisions. The codex could also help vets in scenarios where they are challenged about a decision that they have made, allowing them to demonstrate that they acted according to an agreed upon ethical guideline.

To watch the presentation, just follow the link here.

VETed Talk: Taking veterinary ethics to the next level

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