Markkula Center of Applied Ethics


By Margaret R. McLean

Ethics tells us that we are more than "what we do"--we are more than our jobs, more than our daily activities, more than our tough decisions. Ethics tells us not only that there are right and wrong actions in which we engage--telling the truth or cheating--but there are also right and wrong ways of "being" in the world--being honest or being a cheat. We are more than what we do; who we are as individuals and who we are in our families and our communities are important.

In the health care community, ways of being and caring are vital. How am I to be a person of compassion? What would be the caring thing to do? How is a community of care and compassion created and nourished?

Many times, we make ethical decisions by following the rules, doing the best we can for ourselves and others. Autonomy, the "A" word in our ethical alphabet, asks us to exercise self-determination, to take charge of what we do. But, there is another way--to focus not so much on following the rules or deciding for ourselves, but on being caring people. We realize the importance of relationships--that this person is someone I love. Here, we understand the importance of compassion and caring, of strengthening relationships, of taking ourselves seriously. We realize that we are all in this together--that the health and wellbeing of each one of us is permanently tied to the good of all of us. Now, we can set aside the rules for a while and concern ourselves with "who we are" as individuals and as members of families. We can exercise our compassion; we can care and care deeply about those we love. Here, in a community of care, we can let our heads follow our hearts--hearts that beat with compassion, fragile hearts that care deeply, hearts linked together in community.

Caring and compassion are twin virtues in healthcare. They build up community and create a place where tough choices can be made. Truthfully, the choices may not be easier, but the realization that a compassionate and caring community stands with us in the emergency room or outside the nursery can help us be who are, to follow both our heads and our hearts, and to realize that, after all, we are in a community that cares for and about our health and well-being.

Margaret R. McLean is director of health care and biotechnology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Posted August 2006

New Materials

Center News