Part Two

Professional Ethics

By Dr. Tom Vaughan '55 | Dean Emeritus

Animal Rights

Quite another matter is the issue of animal rights and the unwanted adversarial relationships that have sprung up between some human groups and various sectors of the biomedical and animal industries. Our clientele is a diverse group: small pet animal owners, large biomedical research laboratories, feedlot operators, humane shelters, race tracks, zoological parks, foreign countries, industry, government and the military. They espouse many different beliefs and philosophies, some with great sincerity. But there is a commonality that everyone expects from a veterinarian and that is a concern for the humane and provident care of animals, and a reverence for life in the lower species, regardless of their lot. If there were but one qualifying trait for all veterinarians, it should be compassion—before intelligence, above talent, beyond experience and all the other worthy credits. Without compassion, we practice only with license. Whether man was given dominion over the lower animals or not, he should strive mightily to govern the beast within himself. This finds ample avenues for expression regardless of our specialty or discipline. Schools encourage kindness and can reinforce and influence good behavior; but compassion must exist naturally and find its way to the surface of a personality as compulsively as an artesian spring. Where it does not exist, there should be a test to detect its absence and a law to bar that individual from practice.

Code Of Ethics

Receiving their annual share of attention are the collegiate honor codes, perhaps as good a laboratory as academia can provide for teaching and testing morality. The concept has been argued as earnestly as religion and politics, and may have more variations on the same theme than a Hungarian rhapsody. Stated most simply, they are designed to monitor academic dishonesty and misconduct. Their strengths lies in the degree to which both the faculty and the student body in an individual school are dedicated to make them work. Their weakness reposes in the lack of moral fiber or sensitivity to the need, that is, a calloused consciousness. A clinical psychologist who had studied the problem at some depth described it thusly, “We tend to forget the fact that values and standards underlying approved behaviors will, when unattended, diminish in influence. The imperceptible and day-to-day weakening of a standard is likely not apparent to those of us heavily involved with the responsibilities [of]… daily tasks and routine.” Moreover, some sort of perverse paradox exists when we expect society to provide us with students of high intellect and sound character, but show less concern or no surprise when graduates go forth lacking in integrity and other qualities of character necessary to confirm a professional commitment to the public trust.

Interestingly, some of the severest criticism has been directed not at the failure of efforts to apply the provisions of honor codes, but at the inconsistencies of application, nor do we find much more consistency in the public sector.

Although interpretations of ethics in public office abound, a model of simplicity is the Alabama State Ethics Law, which provides standards for state employees.

A state employee shall not:

1. Use official position for personal gain

2. Solicit or accept something of value (other than social entertainment as by lobbies) that would influence the performance of their duties

3. Serve on any regulatory board that regulates a personal or family enterprise or profession

4. Use confidential information for personal gain

5. Accept anything of value from someone they regulate

6. Contract (for products or services of the state) without competitive bid

Not surprising is the irony that the standards exceed the authority by which they are enforced.

After all has been said and done about dress codes and honor codes and all the regulations by which we try to conform, from the time we first enter the curriculum, we are undergoing the rites of passage into the profession. We are already among the privileged. There must be a boundary between what we were before and what we hope to become. There has to be an investment on our part, sacrificing those things we are willing to leave behind and committing ourselves to a higher calling. Those unwilling to do this will make at best an incomplete entry into the profession and will never be completely accepted nor realize their fullest potential.

It is given that after age six or so, we are stuck with our personalities, and any improvements or corrections thereafter must concentrate on behavior modification. Most simply, this resolves into reinforcement of good behavior and punishment of bad behavior. It is an application of the psychology of expectations—that moral suasion which influences a person’s conscious choices and even subconscious actions. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy. Expect the worst and you’re not apt to be disappointed. Expect the best and you challenge the best. It is that same motivation that takes a motley rabble of rinkydinks in April and molds them into a team that wins the Little League Championship in August. They played above their heads because someone they respected thought they could and made them believe in themselves. Behavior, then, is partly a product of one’s environment, i.e., associations and experiences; but a person is ultimately responsible for his own actions.

As well-crafted as a code of professional ethics may be, it can never serve as a substitute for a personal code of conduct. If you depend too heavily on another as a role model, if you cannot “walk with crowds and keep your virtue”5 a code will be at best an unsteady crutch. The usefulness of it comes from the fact that it symbolizes those values we believe in. It serves also, as Burns said, “to haud the wretch in order.”

Every justice will agree that the Honor Code serves best when its provisions and its punishments stand only as mute reminders. When the courts must be convened to handle alleged misconduct, the code has, in a sense, failed.

Respect for The Individual

In older days the Honor Code of the University of Virginia was the declaration, “I swear to conduct myself as a gentleman” (or words to that effect), to which the student affixed his signature, and that was that. Much of the meaning behind that elegantly simple vow was respect for the individual. Profanity, vulgarity and coarseness are inexcusable in any form. Smutty jokes at the expense of unwilling ears and racial, sexist or ethnic slurs are foreign to any cultivated mind, but are as reprehensible in a professional society as dirty hands to a surgeon. We degrade ourselves if we come to accept rather than apologize for our bad behavior.

As with the lifelong pursuit of any other worthwhile endeavor, we have a great deal more to learn than just the motor skills and cognitive base needed to practice with a reasonable degree of competence. Morality is not some steady state achieved by taking regular doses of continuing education. It is individual good sense and sensitivity and an ethic based on duty, obligation and trust. This is the best medicine for treating the moral anemia that seems to beset so much of society. A regard for individual rights and liberties is valid only for so long as the boundaries of moral behavior and civic duty are respected, and the public interest maintained.


After all the “Thou Shalt Nots” and implied threats of unspeakable sanctions for these and all our manifold sins and wickedness which we have most grievously committed, it seems needed in the spirit of humanity to end on a softer note.

In Victor Hugo’s immortal Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, an honest but impoverished young man, is driven by circumstances to steal a single loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. He is caught, convicted and sentenced to five years of hard labor. He is caught again attempting to escape and sentenced to 19 years as a galley slave. Upon his release, he is a hardened criminal and proceeds to steal from a priest; but this time, when apprehended, he is befriended by the priest, who feigns that he gave the man the confiscated silver. Given his new freedom, Valjean gratefully returns the priest’s silver and begins life anew.

Patching together some excerpts of Robert Burns’ poems, and adding a tail of my own, this:

Letter to a Young Friend

Yet they wha fa’ in Fortune’s strife,
Their fate we should na censure;
For still, th’ important end of life
They equally may answer:
A man may hae an honest heart,
Tho’ poortith hourly stare him;
A man may tak a neebor’s part,
Yet hae nae cash to spare him.
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman
There, but for the grace of God,
You might see me a’comin’.

Yr humbl and obdt svt,