Veterinary Ethics Courses: Are They Effective?
Veterinarians constantly face ethically challenging situations in their jobs. They often have to make difficult moral judgments about how to treat an animal, and the stakes of their decisions may be life-or-death for their patients. Because of this, the European Union has required all veterinary schools’ curricula to include ethics courses since 2005. However, it’s uncertain whether having taken an ethics course causes veterinarians to engage in more thoughtful ethical reasoning about the dilemmas they face.
Researchers asked students at a veterinary school in Germany to answer a series of questions that tested their moral judgments. Of the 86 students who completed the questionnaire, 61 reported having previously taken an ethics course. They each wrote down their opinions in response to ethically challenging scenarios, such as a farmer who does not want a veterinarian to attend to his sick cows and a mother who refuses to pay for her daughter’s guinea pig’s life-saving treatment.
The researchers could not identify any significant quantitative differences in judgments or viewpoints between the responses of students who had taken an ethics course and those who had not. Instead, they found that responses varied widely across both groups. Most students seemed to grapple with the conflict between humans’ economic interests and animals’ welfare. In those cases, students often attempted to persuade the animal’s guardian that it was in their financial interest to save the animal.
A qualitative analysis revealed some differences. When asked to identify the main “stakeholders” in each scenario, students often named the veterinarian and the human client as the major players with competing interests, rather than the animal whose life was in peril. Interestingly, in the scenario about the guinea pig, a larger percentage of students who had taken an ethics class (37%) chose to euthanize the animal than students who hadn’t (15%).
Students who had taken an ethics class were also more likely to ask for additional information. They typically presented a wider range of both causes of and solutions to the problems at hand. This may suggest that the ethics courses taught students to identify more considerations involved in animal welfare dilemmas and to assess the competing interests in those dilemmas more critically.
It’s important to note that this study had a limited sample size and was restricted to a single veterinary school in Germany. It’s also true that many other external factors, such as culture and upbringing, could influence students’ ethical views more than an ethics course does. However, this study helps to provide foundational knowledge about the impact of veterinary ethics classes. While they may not change students’ opinions, it appears they may improve the quality of their moral reasoning. While the study’s findings are preliminary, repeat studies in other institutions or countries might yield different results, especially considering animal ethics courses are not all the same.