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Can the study of ethics enhance nursing practice?


Peter Allmark,
Acute and Critical Care Nursing,
University of Sheffield,
Samuel Fox House/NGH,
Herries Road,
Sheffield S5 7AU,


Aim.  The aim of this paper is to suggest that the study of ethics and ethical theories can enhance nursing practice.

Discussion.  Knowledge of ethical theories can be of practical use to nurses in at least three ways. First, it can help nurses uncover to what extent a problem is an ethical one. The questions faced in practice can be empirical, formal or philosophical. Very often, a practical decision requires us to tackle all three types. In the example of a ‘Do not attempt resuscitation’ order, deciding on whether such an order is appropriate requires us to answer empirical questions such as how likely any attempt is to achieve success. It also requires us to answer formal questions such as whether the law permits such an order in the present circumstance. Finally, it requires us to answer ethical/philosophical questions, such as how we should weigh up quality of life against quantity. Second, it can enable practitioners to develop skills and tools to tackle ethical/philosophical questions. In this paper I describe two such tools: Socratic questioning and Aristotelian dialectic. Third, it can help practitioners to develop the soundness of their ethical values and beliefs. All ethical reasoning requires us to use our values and beliefs, and attending to them enhances the quality of our reasoning.

Conclusion.  The study of ethics can enhance nursing practice.

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