PHILOSOPHY 2202: Ethics in Medicine and the Law Fall 2012, University of Winnipeg Brief Synopses of the Major Ethical Theories in Biomedical Context Aristotle, Virtue Ethics, and the Golden Mean: According to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), Nature is an orderly, purposeful, rational system. Everything in Nature has a specific function, involving a fundamental purpose or aim ( telos ), and all creatures are engaged in an ongoing ‘movement’ from potentiality to actuality. For example, a tadpole is a potentiality to grow into a frog, and not, say, a water-buffalo; or an embryo grows and/or differentiates into a fetus. Aristotle speculated that an Unmoved Mover, a ‘behind-the- scenes’ force that ‘moved’ or ‘lured’ creatures to carry out their functions and to accomplish their purposes through this ‘movement’, but which is itself not subject to this movement, was chiefly responsible for this process. Today, of course, we know that the genome of the organism basically governs its biological processes of differentiation and development. In the human life- process, this movement from potentiality to actuality not only has a biological aspect, but also an intellectual aspect, wherein a person develops their talents, fulfills their function (e.g. in society), and accomplishes their goals. The promotion of both of these interrelated aspects is central to our flourishing (which is why the biomedical professions are so important to us). For Aristotle, morality is intimately linked to the capacity of human beings to ‘actualize their potentials’ and to flourish. Generally, our actions are unethical if they thwart either one’s own or another’s teleological movement from potentiality to actuality , such as in the cases of alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, murder, theft, adultery, or by way of medical malpractice. For Aristotle, human actions are ethical if they are directed toward furthering the realization of fundamental aims, both one’s own as well as those of others, the accomplishment of which results in eudaimonia (i.e. ecstatic happiness or flourishing). Human beings, whose fundamental nature is to be found in their rational capacities, are usually only happy when their lives are spent in carrying out those functions that require the employment of such rational abilities. This may be why they are generally drawn to the professions, such as the biomedical professions, in which there is an emphasis on agency and on the performance of intellectual tasks, rather than to occupations and crafts in which carrying out menial, laborious tasks is central. Instead of articulating abstract rules for ethical deliberation, Aristotle emphasized the virtues (e.g. loyalty, courage, honesty), namely, traits of character that are good for a person to have because they promote the intellectual aspect of the teleological life-process. According to Aristotle, virtues are manifested in habitual action and are developed through life and experience. Aristotle held that finding the virtuous course of action in any situation involves acting in accordance with a middle path (the ‘Golden Mean’) between excess and deficiency. For
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