Towards a strong practice-based virtue ethics for nursing
Illness creates a range of negative emotions in patients including vulnerability, powerlessness and dependence on others for help. The nursing literature is saturated with debate about a 'therapeutic' nurse-patient relationship. However, despite the current agenda regarding patient-centred care, literature concerning the development of good interpersonal responses and the view that a satisfactory nursing ethics should focus on persons and character traits rather than actions, nursing ethics is dominated by the traditional obligation, act-centred theories such as consequentialism and deontology. I critically examine these theories and the role of duty-based notions in both general ethics and nursing practice. Because of well-established flaws, I conclude that obligation-based moral theories are incomplete and inadequate for nursing practice. Instead, the moral virtues and virtue ethics provide a plausible and viable alternative for nursing practice. I develop an account of a virtue-based helping relationship and a virtue-based approach to nursing. The latter is characterized by three features: (1) exercising the moral virtues such as compassion and courage, (2) using judgment and (3) using moral wisdom - moral perception, sensitivity and imagination. Merits and problems of this approach are examined. Following Macintyre, I conceive nursing as a practice; nurses who exercise the virtues and seek the internal goods help to sustain the practice of nursing and thus prevent the marginalization of the virtues. The strong (action-guiding) practice based version of virtue ethics proposed is context-dependent, particularist and relational. Several areas for future philosophical inquiry and empirical nursing research are suggested to develop this account yet further.