, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 397-410
Date: 11 Dec 2011

The desired moral attitude of the physician: (II) compassion

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Abstract

Professional medical ethics demands of health care professionals in addition to specific duties and rules of conduct that they embody a responsible and trustworthy personality. In the public discussion, different concepts are suggested to describe the desired implied attitude of physicians. In a sequel of three articles, a set of three of these concepts is presented in an interpretation that is meant to characterise the morally emotional part of this attitude: “empathy”, “compassion” and “care”. In the first article of the series, “empathy” has been developed as a mainly cognitive and morally neutral capacity of understanding. In this article, the emotional and virtuous core of the desired professional attitude—compassion—is elaborated. Compassion is distinguished from sympathy, empathy and pity. Several problems of compassion as a spontaneous, warm emotion for being a professional virtue are discussed: especially questions of over-demand, of justice and of concerns because of a possible threat to the patient’s dignity and autonomy. An interpretation of compassion as processed and learned professional attitude, that founds dignity on the general idea of man as a sentient being and on solidarity, not on his independence and capacities, is developed. It is meant to rule out the possible side effects and to make compassion as a professional attitude and as professional virtue attractive, teachable and acquirable. In order to reach the adequate warmth and closeness for the particular physician-patient-relation, professional compassion has to be combined with the capacity of empathy. If appropriate, the combination of both empathy and compassion as “empathic compassion” can demand a much warmer attitude towards the patient than each of the elements alone, or the simple addition of them can provide. The concept of “care” that will be discussed in a forthcoming article of this sequel is a missing necessary part to describe the active potential of the desired moral attitude of the physician more completely. The reconstruction of the desired professional attitude in terms of “empathic compassionate care” is certainly not the only possible description, but it is a detailed proposal in order to give an impulse for the discussion about the inner tacit values and the meaning of medicine and clinical healthcare professions.