Columns for The Lufkin News

The Significance of an Ethical Foundation

Posted Jul 05, 2016 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Last month, I wrote about the role of the hospital Ethics Committee and commented that open and honest communication between healthcare professionals, patients and family solves most ethical dilemmas. That assumes we are speaking the same ethical language and have a common ethical foundation, both in medicine and in society at large. In our increasingly pluralistic society, that is no longer a safe assumption. The recent Orlando attack on a gay nightclub showed us that people can do terrible things when ostensibly motivated by a perverse ethic or belief system.

Ethics, at its core, is simply a set of moral principles or values which guide an individual’s – or a religion’s or a government’s – actions. In the United States, that governing set of principles has been rooted, sometimes more and, regretfully, sometimes less, in a Judeo-Christian ethic based on the inherent (and, according to the Declaration of Independence, Creator-endowed) equal value of every individual. In medical ethics, the two related guiding principles date much further back, to Hippocrates around 400 BC: the sanctity of human life and the concept of “first do no harm”.

Modern medical ethics rests on four major pillars: Autonomy (the patient decides), Beneficence (does it help), Non-maleficence (don’t harm), and Justice (is it fair or impartial). In other words, do our medical recommendations and interventions respect the rights of the individual patient, are they helpful, do they not do harm, and are they fairly and equally available. It is a tall order to keep these broad principles in mind, especially when trying to balance competing interests with limited resources.

American history in general – and medicine in particular – has tended to elevate Autonomy over and above her sister principles. We are a pioneering, individualistic “I did it my way” society. The winds appear to be changing, both in healthcare (with the move toward universal healthcare) and in political discourse. The traditional emphasis on the individual’s responsibility in his or her own pursuit of happiness is taking a back seat to the notion that it is the government’s role somehow to guarantee equal outcomes, seemingly regardless of effort, for all. For example, we just completed a groundbreaking primary season where an avowed socialist garnered significant support on a platform of income redistribution.

Amidst this sea change of process, of roles and responsibilities, can we agree on a common ethic to guide us?

I firmly believe that regardless of who we elect and within whatever system of healthcare delivery we end up with, a Judeo-Christian emphasis on the inherent, God-given value of each and every individual (whether black or white, gay or straight, handicapped or not, born or unborn) is uniquely protective of both the individual and society as a whole. Mass shootings and terrorist acts demonstrate that our moral ethic (or lack thereof) determines our behavior. To paraphrase a Dostoevsky character in The Brothers Karamazov: If God does not exist, all things are permissible. A disturbing corollary appears to be: If my moral ethic condones and encourages killing lots of people, why not do it?

Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “Since belief determines behavior, doesn't it make sense that we should be teaching ethical, moral values in every home and in every school in America?” Whose values? All belief systems are not equal. Governments and terrorist organizations which do not value the individual, inherent worth and equality of “all Men” – to again reference the Declaration of Independence – are not going to treat their (or our!) citizens equally. In fact, they may kill them (and us).

If I had to choose one word to describe the ethical principle I pursue in life and in healthcare, it is love. Not hate, not selfishness. Not religious dogmatism. And not a “love” of government, cult or fanaticism that discriminates or (God forbid!) kills others in the name of some god or political whim. It is the pure Christian commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Is this idealistic? Absolutely. Is it achievable? No, to be honest. But that doesn’t mean I stop working tirelessly, incessantly toward that goal. Our country should do the same.

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Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

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