Response to "Virtue Ethics, Caring, and Nursing"

By Fry, Sara T. PhD, Rn | Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice, January 1, 1988 | Go to article overview

Response to "Virtue Ethics, Caring, and Nursing"


Fry, Sara T. PhD, Rn, Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice


The term "ethics" has several meanings. Sometimes we use the term "ethics" when we refer to the beliefs or practices of a particular group of people, as in "Jewish ethics" or "Christian ethics." At other times we use the term "ethics" to refer to behavior prescribed by codes of professional conduct, as in "physician ethics," "nursing ethics," or "business ethics." When used to refer to a particular form of philosophical inquiry, how ever, the term "ethics" means more than beliefs or professional behavior. It means a mode of inquiry that helps one to understand the moral dimensions of human conduct or morality (Fry, 1986).

To do ethics is to investigate morality using forms of ethical inquiry such as descriptive ethics, metaethics, and normative ethics. Descriptive ethics describes and explains the phenomena of morality or moral beliefs. Metaethical inquiry examines the meaning and justification of moral beliefs and the meaning of moral terms used in normative ethics (good, right, duty, advocacy, etc.). Both of these forms of inquiry are nonnormative approaches because they describe and analyze morality without adopting any particular moral position (Beauchamp, 1982).

Normative ethics examines standards or criteria for right and wrong conduct and utilizes various theories, principles, and rules in arguing what actions one ought to take or choices one ought to make (Beauchamp, 1982). The most common ethical theories used in normative ethics are consequentialistic ethical theories, such as act and rule utilitarianism, and nonconsequentialistic theories, such as act and rule deontology. In recent years, however, a renewed interest in the older tradition of virtue ethics has occurred within contemporary normative ethics.

One reason that virtue ethics has received increased attention in normative ethics is the growth of biomedical ethics. As the use of new technologies and increasingly more complex decision making have required more intensive attention to the moral implications of health care, the kind of persons that health professionals ought to be has received more attention. It is now recognized that simply following one's duty in health care may not be enough when the health and lives of vulnerable individuals are concerned. Virtue ethics argues that certain moral excellences - that is, beneficial dispositions, habits, or traits of character-should be fostered among individuals who treat and care for vulnerable individuals in the health care system. Hence, a goal of virtue ethics is the cultivation of certain character traits among health professionals. Virtue ethics argues that the successful development of certain character traits or morally right motives within individuals will lead to morally right choices and actions.

Thus, where consequentialism and nonconsequentialism define what is good or right in terms of outcomes (in the case of the former) and in terms of the relevant features of actions or choices (in the case of the latter), virtue ethics defines goodness and Tightness in terms of the kind of person one is. Instead of examining the consequences of the health professional's choices or actions or even examining the moral worthiness of the actions or choices themselves, virtue ethics regards choices and actions as the reflections of the character internal to a person. This trend toward defining a person or his character as morally good or right has proved very attractive in contemporary ethics.

Some bioethicists have attempted to show a strong correlation between theories of duty and theories of virtue as well as between ethical principles and virtues. For example, Warnock (1971) argues that there is a strong correspondence between good actions and the good intentions of an individual. To have a moral virtue of nondeception, he states, "could be said to regulate one's conduct in conformity to a principle of nondeception" (p. 86). The virtue would serve as a standard for one's practical decisions. …

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