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Ethics in cross-cultural encounters: a medical concern?


Modern medicine’s investment in the disembodied, objective ‘science’ of biomedicine, where patients are transformed from suffering subjects to objects of investigation, calls for heightened ethical awareness. Around the world, ethical codes of conduct emphasise beneficence and non-maleficence. Lately, we have also seen a quest for autonomy and equitable healthcare for diverse populations. However, these tenets alone do not effectively address the problems which regularly occur in transcultural consultations. By developing a ’space for reflection' based on selected writings of the moral philosophers Axel Honneth, Emmanuel Levinas and Hans Jonas, my aim is to cast light on this issue. Given the differing aspects of the doctor-patient relationship, clearly there are no clear-cut rules to obey. However, a thematic analysis of a quote from a Somali, female refugee, supported by some other studies on medical practice, suggests that, metaphorically speaking, within the developed space for reflection, medical practice has worked itself into a corner. By neglecting the patient as a social being, lacking openness to alterity, and not conveying needed information, they make it very difficult for patients to take responsibility for their situation. In spite of doctors’ benevolence, the result is alienation, increased suffering and thus, potential harm. Similar tendencies are reflected in a number of recent studies on medical consultations. Therefore, rather than blaming the single doctor for moral deceit, we should see these tendencies as a ‘forgetfulness of recognition’ that affects the medical profession, a disturbance which source probably is hidden in doctors training.

  • narrative ethics
  • philosophy of medicine/health Care
  • medical humanities
  • cross-cultural studies
  • medical education

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