An Alternative View on Medical Ethics
345-BXH-DW Applied Ethics
My field of study is medicine. In this field, physicians typically follow a code of conduct in the Hippocratic Oath to make ethical decisions. However, Kant’s categorical imperative would be better because the oath of ethics expects doctors to blindly abide by ancient rules (Marks), whereas the categorical imperative lets professionals think fairly and critically about each decision (Kant, 30). In this post, I will analyze the ethical issue that presents itself when a patient comes to the hospital with a broken arm following a racially motivated attack. In this case, the doctor can choose to either treat their broken arm and ask if they want help seeking justice against the abusers, or just treat their broken arm. I will explain how a doctor should use the categorical imperative to solve this issue rather than the code of conduct.
A medical code of conduct is a rule governed ethics where past masters dictate the rules. Doctors use the code of conduct when deciding if an action is morally right. Doctors follow several ethical principles outlined in the Hippocratic Oath that was set in place by past medical practitioners. The Hippocratic Oath was first written, “between the fifth and third centuries BC” and it is “one of the oldest binding documents in history” (Marks). The Oath instructs physicians to follow “those physicians in whose steps [they] walk” (Marks), similar to Saint Augustine’s argument for divine command theory that instructs to follow past masters. Augustine says to follow G-d’s instructions above anything else (Augustine, 178). Moreover, Saint Augustine writes that man’s actions must follow “the greatest possible extension of His worship” with no questions asked (Augustine, 178).
Kant’s categorical imperative explains that to decide if an action is morally right, one should imagine there was a general rule that forced everyone to do the same thing and then consider whether the world would be a better place if this was the case (Kant, 30). By imagining that their action would become a universal law that would affect the whole world, physicians must consider that particular case with care in choosing to act. In so doing, they would think “fairly” (Honderich, 125) about the ethical decision and imagine if the world would be a better place, which would consider the wellbeing of their patients, future patients, colleagues and the healthcare system as a whole.
As I mentioned above, my field of study is medicine. In this field, professionals typically use the Hippocratic Oath, a code of conduct, to make ethical decisions. They often work in hospitals and treat ill and vulnerable individuals coming from a multitude of backgrounds and beliefs. Physicians have a responsibility to provide patients with the best care while demonstrating soft skills (McGill Office of Admissions). Many physicians believe that the Hippocratic Oath ensures that all patients are treated to the highest account. It is for this reason that new physicians are required to swear “to uphold the specific ethical standards in the oath” (Wikipedia).
The categorical imperative allows physicians to think fairly and consider the impact their decision would have on the wellbeing of those around them. This thought process can help them become better doctors. As mentioned in the academic standards on McGill University’s website, physicians should acquire a fair and mature outlook, and the categorical imperative promotes “fair” (Honderich, 125) ethical decision making. Kant’s method is thus better than the code of conduct which follows “the greatest possible extension” (Augustine, 178). When using the categorical imperative, physicians think of the wellbeing of those around them by imagining how their maxim would impact the world. On the other hand, when using a code of conduct, physicians are forced to follow laws written on paper-with little to no emotion. All this to say, creating an emotional connection between the physician and the patients improves their relationship and the care provided ((McGill Office of Admissions), and Kant’s theory allows physicians to do so.
To return to the ethical issue that I am analyzing: a doctor should use the categorical imperative when choosing how to help a patient with a broken arm following a racially motivated attack. If a doctor uses Kant’s method, they could think of the type of action, purpose of action and circumstance to formulate their maxim (Stich & Donaldson, 298). The maxim could be the following, “when a patient is hurt because people mistreated him due to his race, to help the patient as much as possible, all physicians must ask if they wanted help seeking justice against the abusers.” By imagining that this became a general rule, I conclude that this rule would make the world a better place. Hurt people will feel protected and empowered by the assistance of their physician. Patients and their families can forge a closer bond with their doctor which would help both parties become more comfortable in vulnerable situations.
If the medical practitioner uses the code of conduct, they will follow a fixed set of rules. This may create an emotional barrier between the doctor and their patients. When a patient approaches a doctor with a broken arm as a result of a racially motivated attack, by the Hippocratic Oath, the doctor is instructed to act to “do no harm” (Marks). He may not want to offend and ‘harm’ the attackers by helping his patient seek justice. By the Hippocratic Oath, the doctor should just medically treat the patient. Consequently, the patient may leave the office feeling unheard and assume their doctor does not care enough to help them. All to say, the use of a code of conduct may worsen the doctor-patient relationship.
The categorical imperative brings forth an alternate view on medical ethics that can improve the doctor-patient relationship. Physicians typically follow the Hippocratic Oath to make ethical decisions, but I am confident that the use of the categorical imperative can change the face of medicine.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, The Modern Library, New York, 1950.
Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1981.
Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
Marks, Jay W., Medical Net, “Medical Definition of Hippocratic Oath”
McGill Office of Admissions, “Academic Standards and Essential Skills”, McGill University, Montreal, 2022.
Stich, Stephen & Donaldson, Tom, Philosophy: Asking Questions—Seeking Answers, Oxford University Press, New York, 2019
Wikipedia, Hippocratic Oath, 2022.