Is it ... legal, ethical, moral?

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Is it ... legal, ethical, moral?

Rein in ethical dilemmas by considering what's at stake, what the rules are—and how your personality steers your thinking.
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Feb 01, 2008

YOU PROBABLY GOT ETHICS TRAINING IN SCHOOL, BUT that's very different from the experience you get in practice, when you're actually facing the tough questions. You want to do what's right for the horse. You need to know the law, so you don't put your practice at risk. You sure don't want to pay fines or put your license on the line. How can you keep it all on the straight and narrow? Consider this article your refresher. Let's get ethical.

Ethical, legal, moral

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ethics as "the accepted principles of right and wrong that govern the conduct of a profession." Ethics is a value system based on an individual's job and responsibilities.

Law, according to Dr. Jim Wilson in his book Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession (Priority Press, 2002), is a "body of principles that governs conduct and the observance of which can be enforced by courts, or that which must be obeyed and followed by citizens subject to legal sanctions or consequences." Laws are doctrines with sanctions or penalties that can be imposed when they're violated.


Four sides to every situation
Morals are ideas and actions based on right and wrong. Family, friends, your conscience, and sometimes religion influence your morals.

As you can see from these definitions, ethics, law, and morals are intertwined. It could be moral to do something for someone, but it could also be illegal or unethical according to law and veterinary regulations. Something else can be legal, but may violate your sense of morality.

The personal touch

In addition to these factors, there is also a seldom-considered fourth variable that comes into play during the decision-making process: personality type. Our personality influences how we behave, exerting a powerful effect on what we do and how we do it. There are almost as many theories of personality type as there are personality theorists, but for the purposes of this article, let's consider four communication and behavior patterns:

1. Assertive. This is the healthiest and most productive way to communicate. When you're assertive, you let others know your needs, feelings, and concerns without playing games or using manipulation to achieve your goals. You set up boundaries or limits and stay within those parameters.

2. Passive. This type of behavior involves taking the path of least resistance. When you're passive, you have difficulty saying "no" because it might hurt someone's feelings. Passive individuals think they need to please everyone all of the time and are afraid of confrontation or making decisions. Passive behavior can lead to low self-esteem, which leads to self-doubt.

3. Aggressive. Aggression is all about manipulation, power, and control. Aggressive people have a win-lose mindset and limited regard for others' feelings. They want their needs fulfilled at almost any cost. They often have less stringent moral and ethical boundaries and sometimes stretch the gray areas of law.

4. Passive-aggressive. We've all been passive-aggressive at one time or another, or know someone who has. Passive-aggressive people avoid conflict, but at the same time make plans to get what they want in some other way. They'll let things slide that bother them and go behind opponents' backs to create alliances or get payback.

Now let's see how ethics, laws, morals, and personalities might affect a serious decision in equine practice.