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Bearing Response-Ability: Theater, Ethics and Medical Education


This paper addresses a growing concern within the medical humanities community regarding the perceived need for a more empathically-focused medical curricula, and advocates for the use of creative pedagogical forms as a means to attend to issues of suffering and relationality. Drawing from the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, I critique the notion of empathy on the basis that it erases difference and disregards otherness. Rather, I propose that the concept of empathy may be usefully replaced with that of ethical responsibility, which suggests a shared sense of humanity outside the boundaries of presumed knowledge of the other. To illustrate this argument, I theorize the importance of theater within medical education. Theater, I argue, may engender ethical responsibility in the Levinasian sense, and thus may allow learners to differently engage with the experience of the suffering other. As such, I examine Margaret Edson’s widely used play Wit as a platform for such an ethical encounter to occur. Thus, rather than working to understand the value of theater in medical education in terms of knowledge and skill acquisition, I theorize that its primacy within medical curricula arises from its ethical/relational potential, or potential to engender new forms of inter-human relationality.

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  1. Mine is not the only theoretical critique of the use of empathy as it pertains to art and illness. For example, Bennett (2005, 8) provides a second, useful contemplation of empathy within trauma related art, locating a “critical and self-reflexive empathy” in her analysis.

  2. She, of course, is not a “she” at all, but in my case, an assemblage of flattened images and sounds, shown in quick succession.


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Correspondence to Kate Rossiter.

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Rossiter, K. Bearing Response-Ability: Theater, Ethics and Medical Education. J Med Humanit 33, 1–14 (2012).

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  • Theater
  • Medical education
  • Ethical philosophy
  • Levinas
  • Empathy
  • Suffering
  • Responsibility
  • Humanist pedagogy