, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 125-139
Date: 24 Jan 2012

The desired moral attitude of the physician: (III) care

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Abstract

In professional medical ethics, the physician traditionally is obliged to fulfil specific duties as well as to embody a responsible and trustworthy personality. In the public discussion, different concepts are suggested to describe the desired moral attitude of physicians. In a series of three articles, three of the discussed concepts are 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 the second article, the emotional and virtuous core of the desired professional attitude—compassion—has been presented. Compassion as a professional attitude has been distinguished from a spontaneous feeling of compassion, and has been related to a general idea of man as vulnerable and solidary being. Thus, the dignity of the patient is safeguarded in spite of the asymmetry of compassion. In this article, the third concept of the triad—“care”—is presented. Care is conceived as an attitude as well as an activity which can be directed to different objects: if it is directed to another sentient being, it is regarded as intrinsically morally valuable; implying (1) the acceptance of being addressed, (2) a benevolent inclination to help and to foster, and (3) activity to realize this. There are different forms of benevolence that can underlie caring. With regard to the professional physician’s ethos, the attitude of empathic compassion as developed in the two previous articles is proposed to be the adequate underlying attitude of care which demands the right balance between closeness and professionalism and the right form of attention to the person of the patient. ‘Empathic compassionate care’ does not, however, describe the whole of the desired attitude of a physician, but focuses on the morally-emotive aspects. In order to get also the cognitive and practical aspects of biomedicine into the picture, ‘empathic compassionate care’ has to be combined with an attitude of responsibility that is more directed to decision-making and outcome than a caring attitude alone can be. The reconstruction of the desired professional attitude in terms of “empathic compassionate care” and “responsibility” 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.