The Moral Foundation of the Clinical Duties of Care: Needs, Duties and Human Rights

Bioethics 15 (5-6):520-535 (2001)
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Abstract

It has become fashionable to question attempts to derive internationally agreed duties of clinical care from more general theories of human rights. For example, some argue that such attempts risk moral abstraction through their neglect for the importance of culture and community in shaping moral consciousness and are thus often unhelpful in the resolution of concrete moral dilemmas within medicine. Others denounce the importance of general moral principles altogether in bioethics and attempt to articulate what are claimed to be more practical approaches to resolving moral conflict. This paper challenges such arguments. It does so through arguing that: i) all humans everywhere have the same basic human needs; ii) the satisfaction of these needs varies with culture; iii) the imputation of moral duties on others entails respect for their right to basic need satisfaction, including the right to choose between cultures; iv) internationally accepted clinical duties of care embrace presumptions about the duties and rights of patients which follow from these more general principles and v) problems of moral indeterminacy that arise from putting these principles into practice can be resolved through associated procedural policies of rational negotiation and compromise. The moral importance and practicality of respect for individual human rights within the practice of medicine is thus defended. Indeed, the paper concludes by arguing that without belief in human rights linked to a theory of basic human needs, communitarian theories of morality are incoherent.

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