, Volume 32, Issue 5, pp 301-313
Date: 21 Aug 2011

The Confucian bioethics of surrogate decision making: Its communitarian roots

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Abstract

The family is the exemplar community of Chinese society. This essay explores how Chinese communitarian norms, expressed in thick commitments to the authority and autonomy of the family, are central to contemporary Chinese bioethics. In particular, it focuses on the issue of surrogate decision making to illustrate the Confucian family-grounded communitarian bioethics. The essay first describes the way in which the family, in Chinese bioethics, functions as a whole to provide consent for significant medical and surgical interventions when a patient has lost decision-making capacity. It is argued that the practice of not having an established order for surrogate decision makers (e.g., spouse, children, and then parents), as it is done in the United States, reflects the acknowledgment that the family as a social reality cannot be reduced to a stereotype of the appropriate order of default decision makers. This description of the family as being in authority to make surrogate decisions for an incompetent family member is enriched by an elaboration of the differences among the concepts of patient autonomy, family autonomy, and moral autonomy. The Chinese model, as well as the Confucian communitarian life of families, engages a family autonomy that is supported by a Confucian understanding of moral autonomy, rather than individual autonomy. Finally, the issue of possible conflicts between patient and family interests in relation to a patient’s past wishes in the Chinese model is addressed in light of the role of the physician.