There are situations that are so clearly split between right and wrong that there is no question as to what the ethical decision should be. A classic example is finding a lost wallet containing identification and money. The ethical person returns it to the owner; the unethical person does not.

However, there are the other times in which the right choice isn’t easily made in an ethical dilemma. Sometimes the consequences involved compel an individual to choose one right over another.

At the early December convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, dozens of veterinarians gathered in a room for a roundtable discussion of business ethics. The subjective nature of ethics was an important theme throughout this session. The moderators, equine veterinarians Amy Grice and David Ramey, provided attendees with several ethical dilemmas that a vet could encounter.

“Doing the right thing can differ greatly between one person and another,” says Ramey. “From an ethical standpoint, individuals may have their own ethics, but some ethics are just better than others. That isn’t an excuse for some to practice unethically.”

Consequences Of Ethics

Farriers and vets will find a time when a client asks them to do something that legally or ethically presents a challenge. There are consequences to these decisions, both the ethical and unethical.

The threat of financial harm is a powerful one. An exchange from a panel discussion a few years ago at the International Hoof-Care Summit still stands out to me as one that presents a tough ethical decision.

This panel discussion featured three well-established farriers and an attorney. When a question arose on a case in which the client asks the farrier to do something against his or her beliefs, all panelists were adamant that the farrier should walk away.

I was struck by a young farrier who said taking that ethical stand would not be easy for him. With a fledgling practice at home, he wasn’t in the position to lose barns. Just starting out, his fear of that loss devastating his practice and life made walking away too difficult.

What was so easy to choose for those longtime professionals, wasn’t so for the new practitioner. Certainly there are varied degrees to what “disagree with the client” means, including some black and white propositions, but having a family at home who depends on your income can be a powerful motivator to alter what the right choice is.

Head On The Pillow Test

When the gray ethical dilemmas come up, how do you know when you’ve made the right choice? A few of the vets at the convention session shared their evaluation criteria. One attendee suggested removing the finances from the proposition and then examining the options. Another asked what would you do if the decision today was tomorrow’s news headline. I prefer how Grice judges her own thinking.

“I have a sleep test,” says the Virginia City, Mont., vet. “After I make a decision, I’ll go to bed at night. If I fall asleep easily, I know I made the right choice. If I’m having trouble and chewing on it, then I need to rethink what I did.”

Of course, that demands that we hold a code of ethics to live — and sleep — by in the first place.