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Ethical decision-making in veterinary practice: using the head and the heart
  1. Siobhan M. Mullan, BVMS, PhD, DWel, MRCVS
  1. Department of Clincal Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, Langford House, North Somerset, BS40 5DU, UK
  1. e-mail: siobhan.mullan{at}

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Ethical decision-making is at the heart of veterinary practice. A recent study by Batchelor and McKeegan (2012) showed that nearly all vets surveyed faced ethical dilemmas at least once a week, with a third of vets saying they encountered three to five dilemmas a week. Exactly how veterinary surgeons resolve these dilemmas will have a bearing on whether good decisions are made and how clients and the wider public view individual vets and the profession as a whole. A paper by Quinn and others (2012), summarised on p 446 of this week's Veterinary Record, describes how first-, third- and final-year veterinary students approached hypothetical ethical dilemmas. They found that, overall, veterinary students use a balance between justice reasoning, characterised by trying to achieve a fair outcome for all, and a care-centred approach, being empathetic to people and/or animals. The authors point out that others have considered this type of care-justice balance to be a sign of moral maturity (Gilligan and Attanucci 1988), although there is no evidence that these veterinary students developed that maturity during their course. Other studies have shown that, in the past at least, veterinary (and medical) students did not make any progress in their moral reasoning ability during their course, and even appeared to have …

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