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Ethical Episodes

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Veterinarian, Heal Thy Profession!

by Joel Marks

A running theme in philosophy is the distinction between appearance and reality. Traditionally this has been given a metaphysical interpretation: The world as we know it is merely phenomenal or illusory. This serves as a justification for philosophy itself, which helps us to discern What Lies Beneath (or Behind or Wherever). While I do not spurn that endeavor, I have also found a more everyday or one might say ethical application of the idea that what we take for granted is not the way things actually are.

A particularly telling example came to light for me just recently when a veterinarian colleague showed me the Veterinarian’s Oath he took upon entering the profession in the United States. I think if you were to ask a layperson what they think that Oath says, the spontaneous response would be, first, “Do no harm.” This was indeed my thought, so imagine my surprise to discover that neither these words, nor any like them, appear in the Oath. It turns out that the popular conception of the veterinarian as “the animals’ best friend” is as far from the reality as the crowing cocks and contented cows pictured on egg and dairy cartons. This is not to say that many, perhaps most, individual veterinarians are not true animal-lovers. But the profession as such, as represented by both its Oath and clarifying Principles, is not animal-friendly in essence. The Veterinarian’s Oath reads in its entirety as follows:

“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.

I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics.

I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.” (Taken from avma.org)

Note that priority number one is ‘the benefit of society,’ not the lives and welfare of nonhuman animals. For ‘society’ in this context surely denotes only human animals. The protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of their suffering, and the conservation of them as ‘resources’ are only means to that end. This suggests what in the law has come to be known as ‘interest convergence,’ which is to say that, as Emory University law professor Ani Satz has pointed out, the welfare of animals is promoted only insofar as it conforms to the ‘benefit’ of human society.

But, really, an informed and reflective person should not be surprised. First of all, it becomes apparent which is the dog and which the tail when you consider the use of the word ‘resources’ in the Oath. (This was changed from ‘livestock resources’ in 1999.) Secondly the ‘medical knowledge’ that the veterinarian is sworn to ‘advance’ is primarily that which would be of use to ‘society,’ that is again, to human beings. The research to prevent and cure human diseases, relieve human suffering, and lengthen human lifespan often involves the imposition of disease, suffering and premature death on animals in the lab.

Even more fundamentally, the very notion of a profession puts (human) society first. This is precisely what distinguishes a profession from a ‘mere’ occupation, for the latter involves using a certain sort of skill or training for the purpose of making a living, but the former adds to that a commitment to the society which, in return, assures a comfortable living and various privileges to the professional.

To put it bluntly, the people who pay the veterinarian are the clients, while the animals, who, indeed, are legally only the property of the humans, are the patients. Thus, the veterinarian’s first commitment is to the human being who owns the animal or, more broadly, to human society (since there are after all individual human beings whose behavior society will not countenance). If any doubt remains, simply consider the very first of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Principles of Animal Welfare:

“The responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as companionship, food, fiber, recreation, work, education, exhibition, and research conducted for the benefit of both humans and animals, is consistent with the Veterinarian’s Oath.” (From avma.org)

Therefore I would like to close with a proposal to the veterinary profession, or actually a set from which to choose:

1) Strike out a new path for professionalism by making respect and concern for nonhuman animals the first priority of your profession; or

2) Strive, including by the example of your own dietary and other personal habits, to bring human society around to the point of view that our own ‘benefit’ resides in forswearing the exploitation of nonhuman animals; or

3) Strive, again by your personal as well as professional example, to bring human society around to the point of view that the relevant ‘society’ or community whose ‘benefit’ is foremost includes all sentient beings.

If the professional organization of American veterinarians were to alter its credo by putting animals first, and thereby cease to endorse and enable their exploitation for human purposes, the bulk of animal suffering and death at human hands would come to a halt in this country overnight. Isn’t that what the veterinary profession is supposed to be all about?

© Prof. Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He commends his website to the attention of all veterinarians: www.TheEasyVegan.com.

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