What does it mean to be a Good Samaritan?

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Oct 01, 2003

The veterinarian's oath states in part, "Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the... relief of animal suffering... Does this solemn promise encompass our being "Good Samaritans"? What principles are involved in being a Good Samaritan? What are Good Samaritan laws, and how do they affect each of us? To what extent should we contribute our resources in the role of being a Good Samaritan?

Doing goodWhat is the origin of the Good Samaritan? According to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, the Good Samaritan was a "person who was the only one to pity and help a traveler who had been beaten and robbed."

The origin of the term Good Samaritan is derived from a Biblical illustration narrated by the physician Luke. He described a traveler from the region of Samaria who compassionately provided emergency care to a man seriously injured and robbed by thieves on a road near his home in Judea. The Samaritan rendered lifesaving assistance to the Judean, even though at that time there was intense ethnic animosity between the inhabitants of these two geographic regions.

Prior to being helped by the Samaritan, two of the injured man's neighbors traveling along the same road crossed to the other side to bypass him in order to avoid becoming involved with this situation. Ironically, both of these men were teachers of the Mosaic Law and thus were very familiar with the principle of having love for one's neighbor. After providing first aid, the Samaritan took the man to an inn to convalesce. At that time he paid the innkeeper an amount equivalent to two days' wages. He then asked the innkeeper to keep a record of additional expenses involved with care of the injured Judean, and told him that he would also pay for them upon his return.

Although not described in the illustration, the context of the story would lead one to predict that the innkeeper also showed compassion by recognizing the generosity of the Good Samaritan and responding to the needs of the injured man. The fact that he was asked to keep a record of expenses involved while providing care for the injured Judean suggests that he was not expected to absorb them.

However, the context of the illustration also suggests that the innkeeper would not capitalize on the misfortunes of another with the intent of making a financial profit.

Veterinary lessonsThe value of application of the moral and ethical principles illustrated in this parable to all members of society is obvious.

How though might this illustration apply to the veterinary profession? Have you encountered situations with injured animals that were similar to those described in the illustration? Have you encountered Good Samaritans that have brought unidentified injured animals to your hospital with the expectation that you assume the dual roles of being a Good Samaritan and an innkeeper?

Was the Good Samaritan sympathetic, empathetic or compassionate? What are the similarities and differences in the terms sympathy, empathy and compassion? Sympathy is defined as "pity felt for another's trouble." Empathy is defined as "sharing another's emotions of feelings wherein one enters into a situation with another living being as if one were the other living being."

Do the actions of the Good Samaritan suggest that he was sympathetic or empathetic?

Obviously, he had tremendous empathy for the injured man. But his response went beyond empathy. How so?

By definition, the quality of compassion encompasses two different but complementary actions.

First, a person must have empathic awareness of the suffering, distress or troubles of another.

Second, the person must have an empathic desire to help correct the problems. Thus, compassion is not a form of pity that is satisfied only by expression of sorrow. The feeling of sorrow does not transcend to a feeling of compassion until there is a strong desire to help correct the cause of distress or suffering of another.

It was love of neighbor that motivated the Good Samaritan to come to the aid of the individual he had never met before. In addition, he did not allow ethnic prejudice to override his heartfelt response.

Likewise, as members of the veterinary profession, our compassion can only be measured by the action it prompts. Basically, it translates our feelings into unselfish and sometimes sacrificial good deeds. To the extent we learn to put ourselves in another being's shoes, paws, hooves or claws, we will be able to demonstrate compassion.

Was the Good Samaritan generous and kind?

The root word in the term "generosity" is "gen," meaning to create or produce. The Good Samaritan was generous in that he took the initiative to create solutions for another's problem. He was also kind in that he continued to provide help to the injured Judean after initially responding to the emergency. The attribute of kindness attaches itself to a mission until its purpose in connection with that mission is realized.

The Good Samaritan acted altruistically (i.e., he showed unselfish concern about the welfare of another living being). His generosity and kindness were not motivated solely by a sense of duty or obligation or by a desire to acquire prominence. Likewise, his actions were not motivated by self-gain. It is apparent that his humane response emanated from his heart.

Generosity and kindness are core values of the veterinary profession. By definition, they should not be motivated by profit. Especially in this context, they are attributes that are to be lauded rather than criticized.

What role does our conscience play?

In addition to making a commitment to relieve animal suffering, the veterinarian's oath states, "I will practice my profession conscientiously..." The word conscience is derived from the term "scire" and implies knowledge from within. Conscience consists of moral judgment that prohibits or opposes the violation of a previously recognized principle. Conscience tells us we ought to do right, but initially does not tell us what is right. However, our conscience can be trained by thoughts, acts, convictions and rules implanted in our mind by study or experience.

What would you do if you faced circumstances similar to those encountered by the Good Samaritan? The moral and ethical principles illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan serves as a powerful guide to help us practice our profession conscientiously. The ultimate test of how our conscience has been trained is the conduct it inspires.

What are Good Samaritan laws?

Many people are hesitant to give aid to injured persons. Therefore, Good Samaritan laws have been enacted to encourage voluntary care of people and sometimes animals that are injured, ill or unconscious as a result of an accident or other emergency. These laws do so by narrowing the liability of persons who spontaneously provide care for others during such emergencies. In general, liability only occurs when gross negligence can be proven.

The first secular Good Samaritan law in the United States was enacted in California in 1959. Most states now have one or more statutes that, taken together, can be loosely termed as Good Samaritan laws. These laws may be found in state practice acts or in entirely different sections of a state's general statutes.

Most Good Samaritan laws apply to caregivers at the scene of an emergency; they are not designed for emergency care of animals or people brought to a hospital.

There are substantial variations in text and scope of Good Samaritan laws among various states. Thus, veterinarians should exercise informed judgment when circumstances call for them to provide emergency care for human beings. In addition, since many Good Samaritan laws imply a statutory element of gratuity, the implication of billing others for emergency care of animals should be considered.

For additional details, please review the following article: Centner TJ. Legal rights of veterinarians under Good Samaritan statutes. 1997, Journal American Veterinary Medical Association 210, 190 - 194.