Do Medical Practitioners Need The Virtues?

2924 words - 12 pages

A revival of Aristotelian thinking with regard to morality, in particular the idea of virtue ethics, has been in the ascendance for the past twenty years, and now forms the basis of a theory of morality which challenges the dominant utilitarian and deontological schools of thought. These two principal theories have shaped the ideas underpinning the teaching and practical application of medical ethics for the second half of the last century, and into the current one1. Whether or not the resurgence of virtue theory in philosophical circles should lead to a questioning of this status quo in medical ethics is open to discussion, and this essay aims to evaluate this debate.

The ascendance of utilitarianism has its roots in the scientific revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, and depends on the classification and measurements of the outcome of an action in terms of consequent happiness and unhappiness. A good act is defined as one from which a net positive amount of happiness will result2. Shortcomings of this approach include the inapplicability of concrete ethical rules to myriad differing situations, and the "tyranny of the majority3"; the disturbing realisation that through utilitarianism we could find ourselves deliberately inflicting pain on a minority to cause pleasure in a majority in order to increase the "net" happiness. Kantianism arose in the early 19th century and places importance in the motives of an action, unlike the utilitarianism preoccupation with consequences. Kantian deontology is based on universal moral rules defining duties individuals should abide by4. Its inherent inflexibility leads to frequent conflicts when one moral rule appears to contradict another. From a medical ethics point of view, a further fault becomes apparent in that it is possible to conceive of a doctor scrupulous in his or her adherence to the doctrine of utilitarianism or deontology, yet still lacking characteristics we would seek in a "good doctor." There seems to be something lacking in the detached, calculating, analytical reasoning offered by the dominant doctrines.

Aristotle founded the doctrine of virtue theory in the 4th century BC. He agreed with Plato that humans are essentially social beings, but diverged from his teacher by concentrating on commonsense application of ethical concepts involving goodness and moral philosophy as opposed to a study of theoretical abstracts. The basic principle is that an adherent of virtue theory can become more moral by habituation; aspiring to become more virtuous, this aspiration is reinforced when a good act is performed, the reward being a feeling of advancement towards the virtuous ideal. Through this process, the aspiring virtuous person will eventually find themselves equipped with an array of virtues; honed character traits through which they can evaluate ethical scenarios, and act in such a way as to perform only good acts. The cultivation of virtues is the means to the end of...

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