Ethical Decision Making: Right vs. Right

I mentioned in my back to school post a couple of weeks ago that I am taking an ethics class this semester. This class is one of the required classes for my behavior analysis master’s program. The class has been pretty interesting so far and each class has been filled with plenty of good discussions and debate.

Recently we read a book chapter by Rushworth Kidder called “The Ethics of Right versus Right.” (If you’re interested, the full chapter is actually available for free.)

Tough choices and ethical dilemmas are often very hard to make. What makes these decisions hard, according to Kidder, is that they are often choices of “right” vs. “right.” Both possibilities have value and merit, yet one must be picked over the other. (Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t still right vs. wrong choices. These just aren’t ethical decisions.)

The most interesting part of this chapter was that Kidder names four basic paradigms that encompass most of these ethical dilemmas, the right vs. right choices. Ethical choices often involve decisions between:

  • Individual versus community
  • Truth versus loyalty
  • Short term versus long term
  • Justice versus mercy

These four basic paradigms can be useful for analyzing ethical choices and realizing what has created the conflict. If you have a better understanding of a choice, then you should be better prepared to solve it.

Ethical questions arise all the time in both animal training and in animal rescue work. I’ve been thinking recently of some of the ethical questions I’ve run into and how they fit into these four paradigms. For instance, many decisions in animal rescue work deal with how to allocate scarce resources. Many of these questions are often questions of “individual versus group” or questions about “short term versus long term.”

For example, should a rescue spend a significant amount of money to save an animal that needs extensive medical care, when the same amount of money could provide vaccinations and basic health care for half a dozen other animals? Or, during training, is it okay to do something that is very unpleasant for the animal for the short term if it will have long term benefits for both the animal and owner? And so on.

Of course, there are no “right” answers to any of these questions. Solutions often depend on the specifics of a certain situation and the personal values of the people involved. Still, I think it’s pretty interesting to think about what underlying decision makes something a hard ethical choice. If someone breaks a well known rule, should you provide the appropriate consequences or show the person a bit of mercy? Have you had to choose between something that would benefit an individual as opposed to something that would be better for a larger community or group?

What do you think about these paradigms? If you find this interesting or would like to see more examples, I encourage you to check out the link to the chapter toward the top of this post. Now, the book does focus entirely on examples that deal with people. I’d love to hear what sorts of ethical and moral decisions have you come across while working with and training animals. For example, I think many people run into ethical decisions regarding how to act and what to say when interacting with people who train in ways that differ from how they train.

If you liked this post, take a moment to share it!


Don't miss out on great information about animal training! Subscribe now to the Stale Cheerios newsletter and receive email updates when new posts are published.

Disclaimer: StaleCheerios posts occasionally contain affiliate links. Affiliate links are one way that StaleCheerios can continue providing top-quality content to you completely for free. Thank you for supporting our hard work! Learn more here.

  • KD

    Hi Mary, love your blog. This is similar to a decision I'm constantly going back to. I was asked to train a number of unhandled horses and foals for a person who has a history of letting his horses starve – some literally to death. The animal welfare authorities know all about him, but for some reason can't take them from him. I went over and trained a couple in order to get them out of there and into new homes (which they now are), and I'm now training the others, but he's slow to sell these, and refuses to sell them all. It's a difficult position because while I'm going there, I'm ensuring they have adequate food, water and care, but I'm ALSO enabling the owner to keep them without any worries, and be seen to be caring for them properly (and he plans to breed more!!! – has his own stallions) – they aren't starving now, so the authorities definitely won't do anything. However, as they didn't do anything even when they *were* starving, I *think* I'm doing the best thing. But I do revist that decision quite often and wonder.

    • Hi KD,

      Thanks so much for leaving a comment on my blog.

      So sorry that I've been long to respond, March has been a busy month.

      I've been in similar situations, where providing training is helping the animal, but where the owner is not willing to change his / her behavior. It's a tough situation since it is hard to see an animal suffer when we know we could help.

      We rescued some horses awhile back from a breeder who planned to kill them. They all turned out to be great horses and we placed them in homes where they are well loved and cared for. We later learned that this is not the first time the breeder has “fallen on hard times” and dumped horses on a rescue. So, he is breeding, selling, and then dumping what he doesn't want onto rescue groups. We don't want to support those kinds of breeders! But, we also want to be able to help horses in need. It's tough sometimes to make some of these choices.

      If you don't mind, I'd love to post your dilemma as a blog post and see what other people think.



      • achieve1dream

        The decisions mentioned in these two comments are definitely the hard ones!! 

        My biggest pet peeve is backyard breeders and puppy mills.  When people buy dogs from these people to “save” them they are just opening up space and providing funds for them to breed more animals.  So the difficult decision is do you save all of the dogs that are being kept in horrible, miserable conditions at puppy mills now so others can just take their place or do you leave those poor dogs to suffer so the puppy mill has to shut down because they aren't making money and save the possible hundreds of puppies they could produce in the future?  That's one reason I'm glad they are finally doing something to shut these places down, because that's a really awful decision to have to make!

        • I agree with you!

          Some of these situations are very hard to think about.

          As far as puppy mills, I think that's one area where we should be trying to act locally to get dogs out of those situations and to get local puppy mills shut down, but also acting on a much larger level to get legislation passed to shut these kinds of operations down for good.

          I think there have already been some good efforts to educate people about puppy mills, pet stores, and shelters (as well as the importance of spaying and neutering), but that we need to be continuing to educate people.


          • achieve1dream

             Yes, there are a lot of good things they are doing, but to me the frustrating part is the idiots who just don't care and don't want to learn.  There will always be stupid people doing stupid things and there is nothing we can do about it if they don't want to learn.  We will just keep fighting for what we believe in because we are definitely making a difference in the lives of some animals.  🙂

  • Sue Sussana

    You bagge,this link is false ” (If you’re interested, the full chapter is actually available for free”

    Too bad