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The community of nursing: moral friends, moral strangers, moral family

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Unlike bioethicists who contend that there is a morality common to all, H. Tristan Engelhardt (1996) argues that, in a pluralistic secular society, any morality that does exist is loosely connected, lacks substantive moral content, is based on the principle of permission and, thus, is a morality between moral strangers. This, says Engelhardt, stands in contrast to a substance-full morality that exists between moral friends, a morality in which moral content is based on shared beliefs and values and exists in communities that tend to be closely knit and religiously based. Of what value does Engelhardt's description of ethics as moral friends and moral strangers have for nursing? In this essay, I attempt to show how Engelhardt's description serves to illustrate how the nursing community historically had been one of moral friends but has gradually become one of moral strangers and, hence, at risk of failing to protect patients in their vulnerability and of compromising the integrity of nursing. Building on Engelhardt's concepts, I suggest we might consider modern nursing like a moral family to the extent that members might at times relate to one another as moral strangers but still possess a desire and a need to reconnect with the common thread that binds us as moral friends. Nursing is a practice discipline. Given the challenges of modern bioethics, an applied ethic is needed to give moral direction to clinicians as we strive to conduct ourselves ethically in the practice of our profession. To that end, nursing should reflect upon and seek to reconnect with the content-full morality that is historically and religiously based.

Keywords: ethics; moral theory; nursing philosophy

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2008

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