It’s about people.

by Theresa Stephenson

Every week I go to the lecture for my mandatory course, Philosophical Issues in Health Care. Every week we discuss various moral dilemmas that confront workers in the medical system. And every week I sit in the lecture hall with other nursing and health science students and discuss medical practices in abstract, theoretical terms: we argue about moral “rights” and “wrongs” and apply these convictions to real-life case studies.

Every week I leave that class rattled and surprised at what my peers have said. We wrestle with topics like euthanasia, the allocation of medical treatment, and neonatal testing. I am floored by the radical arguments that people come up with. In class we often forget that the case studies we mull over are actually real cases, presenting us with real people and real problems. We over-analyze scenarios; we harshly, and often wrongly, judge people’s quality of life. Even though we speak with the best intentions, we get so carried away that we’re more wrapped up in the philosophical arguments than the real, living patients that we will soon be treating.

When we get caught up in philosophical theories we forget what’s actually important – the humanity of our patients.

I have no interest in being a philosopher. Neither Mill’s utilitarianism nor Kant’s ethics serve as my moral compass. Instead, my treatment of patients is/will be guided by their humanity. Only by acknowledging the humanity of each patient can we compassionately serve him or her with integrity and fidelity.

At times, when I listen to my peers talk about human life I fear the future of Canadian health care. I hope that when we arrive in the hospital, fresh out of university, we will know how to justly deal with morally perplexing situations. But if not, if we panic, I hope that we remember the inherent dignity of each human life. Difficult cases are a reality in every hospital in Canada. Human life is in the hands of medical providers: I hope that they will choose treatment over termination and life over death.

1 thought on “It’s about people.

  1. Blair Marshall


    Your article caught my eye earlier in the week because it popped on my minifeed on facebook shortly after I had just finished conversation making a defense of philosophy in social and political life with friend. Personally, I haven’t had the “privilege” of studying philosophy in a secular environment, all of mine was in a Catholic, so I can only imagine the struggles and frustrations it entails; regardless, I still think you raise an important point. Although I believe philosophy and the lives of real people, particularly in medical ethics, are intimately connected I am still prone to abstracting theories and principles as though it was as impersonal as fixing a car. For my own part, I suppose I would attribute this fault to either carelessness (most times) and/or fear of being guided simply by my emotions. Nonetheless, your article reminded me that health is a good of the person, not the good. The goal of a physician is treat the sickness in relation to the person, not as something separate from them.

    After reading your post I recalled a section of a book I read a while ago from Cardinal Ratzinger written in the late 70’s called “Eschatology – Death and Eternal Life.” In this section he’s not so much dealing with abstractions of ethical principles as he is addressing cultural trends and the attempt to treat death (and thus life) as simply a natural process, devoid of any meaning. He says: “No more can [the home] be that sheltering space which brings human beings together in birth and living, in sickness and dying. Indeed, sickness and death are becoming purely technological problems to be handled by the appropriate institution. These basic human things are thus pushed to the margins, not just so far as our deliberate thoughts about them are concerned, but socially, structurally. They cease to be physical and metaphysical problems which must be suffered and borne in a communion of life, and become instead technical tasks technically handled by technical people.” p. 70 (the rest of the section “Theology of Death” p. 69-103 is available on google books:

    When we have a deconstructed view of humanity as a conglomerate of self-made parts then medicine does become a purely technological endeavor. The body, in this case, becomes mechanism of the person who is defined not as a body-soul composite, but the subject of a set of psychological experiences. All of this seems to come to a head when dealing with euthanasia. While trying to give dignity to the dying by ending their suffering, doctors are actually stripping their death, and life, of meaning and thus their dignity. No reasonable compassionate person desires to see others suffer, particularly the kind of suffering that one often encounters near the end of life; however, no amount of suffering justifies the willful cessation of life which is a absolute, not a contingent good.

    This denial of suffering seems to have further implications in other medical practices. Based on the materialistic approach, the ultimate goal of science is not to provide cures for the diseases of Parkinson’s, AIDS or cancer; although these are proximate goals, the true disease they are trying to cure is our humanity—humanity is the disease because it is our humanity that allows us to feel beyond the mere physical sensations. The problem is not the desire to alleviate suffering but the belief that if the science were developed well enough it would be possible to live as though we are not limited by our humanity—by our finitude—that life need not ever be tainted with pain. I doubt that many people would express this as their own view; however, I think it is the logical conclusion of secular materialism and that it is and will continue to have far reaching implications in our society.

    So to try to come back to the original point, ethics and philosophy and medical treatment are necessary, no doubt, but they are not sufficient. Medicine is at the service of humanity (properly understood). People often quote John Paul II talking about the “cultural of death” regarding abortion and euthanasia, but the treatment of patients as objects and not persons also stems from this culture—that is a culture that has lost its sense of what it genuinely means to be human. Finally, I think John Paul II demonstrated with courage, especially during the last years of his life, that suffering does not cause us to loose our dignity but helps us embrace it by uniting our suffering with those of the Son of God.


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