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Keywords:

  • South Africa;
  • education;
  • ethics;
  • special obligations;
  • moral obligation

Abstract

Many academic philosophers and ethicists are appointed to teach ethics to medical students. We explore exactly what this task entails. In South Africa the Health Professions Council's curriculum for training medical practitioners requires not only that students be taught to apply ethical theory to issues and be made aware of the legal and regulatory requirements of their profession, it also expects moral formation and the inculcation of professional virtue in students. We explore whether such expectations are reasonable. We defend the claim that physicians ought to be persons of virtuous character, on the grounds of the social contract between society and the profession. We further argue that since the expectations of virtue of health care professionals are reasonable, it is also sound reasoning to expect ethics teachers to try to inculcate such virtues in their students, so far as this is possible. Furthermore, this requires of such teachers that they be suitable role models of ethical practice and virtue, themselves. We claim that this applies to ethics teachers who are themselves not members of the medical profession, too, even though they are not bound by the same social contract as doctors. We conclude that those who accept employment as teachers of ethics to medical students, where as part of their contractual obligation they are expected to inculcate moral values in their students, ought to be prepared to accept their responsibility to be professionally ethical, themselves.