Moral instability: the upsides for nursing practice
This article briefly outlines some of the key problems with the way in which the moral realm has traditionally been understood and analysed. I propose two alternative views of what is morally interesting and applicable to nursing practice and I indicate that instability has its upsides. I begin with a moral tale – a ‘Good Samaritan’ story – which raises fairly usual questions about the nature of morality but also the more philosophically fundamental question about the relationship between subjectivity and moral agency. I then consider this relationship from the perspectives of two twentieth century philosophers: Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Foucault. Levinas' basic point is that the experience of ethical subjectivity is made possible through others: the demand to respond to the existence of others is the basic social structure that precedes individual freedom. If Levinas posits intersubjectivity as a fundamental or primitive feature of the moral realm, Foucault poses an even more basic question: how have moral subjects and relations of obligation been constituted? The aim of ethical inquiry, for Foucault, is to describe the network of discourses, institutions, relations, and practices through which certain kinds of subjects are constituted and constitute themselves, e.g. as a kind of person who can act morally. Finally, I consider some recent research in philosophy of nursing which illustrates how Levinasian and/or Foucauldian perspectives can deepen understanding of nurses' moral practices, specifically, the work of Norwegian public health nurses, Canadian pediatric nurses, and Irish midwives. I suggest that in spite of the instability of morality in general and the particular ethical challenges that face nurses, there are grounds for hope and possible strategies for living in unstable times.