Nursing ethics and conceptualizations of nursing: profession, practice and work


  • Joan Liaschenko PhD RN,

  • Elizabeth Peter PhD RN

Joan Liaschenko,
Center for Bioethics and School of Nursing,
University of Minnesota,
N504 Boynton,
410 Church Street SE,
MN 55455-0346,


Background.  Nursing has been understood as a calling, vocation, profession, and most recently, a practice. Each of these conceptualizations has associated with it an ethics that has emphasized particular aspects of nursing reflecting the social position of nursing in a given historical period. The ethics associated with current understandings of nursing as a profession and a practice are, we believe, no longer adequate to address the social realities and moral challenges of health care work.

Aim.  The aim of this paper is to discuss the limitations of the ethics associated with profession and practice and to show why the concept of work can contribute to a nursing ethics.

Discussion.  The characteristics that have socially defined professionals, among them the possession of a unique body of knowledge, provision of an altruistic service to society, and autonomy in the sense of control over their work and work conditions, only partially reflect the realities of contemporary health care work. This is true even for physicians, an exemplar of a professional group. The ethics associated with the professions has tended to limit what counts as a moral concern and who is authorized to label them as such. More recently, the idea of a practice has been used to argue for an ethics in which professional activities of a certain kind and understood in a specific way are inherently moral. However, this approach is limited for similar reasons. Because morality cannot be separated from the social organization of health care, we argue that considering nursing primarily as work, in contrast to a profession or a practice, offers the possibility of an ethics that more completely reflects the complexity of contemporary health care.

Conclusion.  Beyond the obvious conclusion that nursing is work, conceptualizing nursing as work points to changing social realities that are raising significant ethical issues. As a concept, work inherently conveys value, connects intellectual and manual labour, and recognizes social divisions of labour. At the moment an ethics of work is merely an idea, but we believe that such an ethics would lead nurses to ask different questions and propose different answers to the moral challenges of the present and near future.