I, Medical Robot. On the differences between a virtuous doctor and a good robot

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Petra Gelhaus


Rationale, aims and objectives: The aim of this article is to argue for the necessity of emotional professional virtues in the understanding of good clinical practice. This understanding is required for a proper balance of capacities in medical education and further education of physicians. For this reason, an ideal physician, incarnating the required virtues, skills and knowledge, is compared with a non-emotional robot that is bound to moral rules. This fictive confrontation is meant to clarify why certain demands on the personality of the physician are justified, in addition to a rule- and principle-based moral orientation and biomedical knowledge and skills.Methods: Philosophical analysis of thought experiments inspired by science fiction literature by Isaac Asimov.Results: Though prima facie a rule-oriented robot seems more reliable and trustworthy, the complexity of clinical judgment is not met by an encompassing and never contradictory set of rules from which one could logically derive decisions. There are different ways in which the robot could still work, but at the cost of the predictability of its behaviour and its moral orientation. In comparison, a virtuous human doctor who is also bound to these rules, though less strictly, will more reliably keep to moral objectives, be understandable, be more flexible in case the rules come to their limits and will be more predictable in these critical situations. Apart from these advantages of the virtuous human doctor referring to his own person, the most problematic deficit of the robot is its lacking deeper understanding of the inner mental events of patients which makes good contact, good communication and good influence impossible.Conclusion: Though an infallibly rule-oriented robot seems more reliable at first view, in situations that require complex decisions such as clinical practice, the agency of a moral human person is more trustworthy. Since this is a crucial precondition for good clinical practice, sufficient attention should be given to develop these virtues in addition to the usual attention on knowledge, skills and adherence to moral rules and principles.

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Author Biography

Petra Gelhaus, Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine, University of Muenster, Germany; Department for Health and Society University of Linköping, Sweden

Assistant Professor, Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine, University of Muenster, Germany; Department for Health and Society University of Linköping, Sweden


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