Sick autonomy

Perspect Biol Med. 2003 Fall;46(4):484-95. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2003.0093.


Complex social and economic forces have placed patient autonomy at the center of medical ethics, and thereby displaced an older ethic of physician beneficence. This development arose, and is sustained, by waning trust in the traditional doctor-patient relationship. As patients have increasingly become clients and consumers, a contract basis for medical care has put the ancient covenant of care in jeopardy. Here, a philosophical approach to harmonize the apparent conflicting claims of patient autonomy and physician beneficence is offered by demonstrating that autonomy need not be understood as protecting a threatened identity. If persons are regarded as atomistic, certain defensive notions of individualistic rights-based autonomy prevail; if a relational construction of personal identity is employed instead, then respect for autonomy becomes part of a wider morality of relationship and care. By reconfiguring trust within this latter understanding of personhood, bioethics better balances its concerns over choices and actions with those of relationship and responsibility. Neither atomistic autonomy nor the ethics of responsibility can claim hegemony, for they are mutually interdependent, and a complete account of medicine's moral axis requires that they be integrated. This reorientation is crucial for reasserting the ethos of clinical medicine, whose fundamental mandate remains the care of others.

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Patient Participation*
  • Patient Rights
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Principle-Based Ethics
  • Trust