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Looking Beyond the Pandemic: Questions from the Field of Medical Ethics

Philosophy and the field of medicine have complementary roles in helping us ask difficult questions and propose workable solutions to today’s pressing concerns.

Doctor looking at clipboard

“Philosophy is good at identifying questions and parsing ways of answering these questions,” says Angela Wentz Faulconer, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy. Dr. Faulconer teaches the Intro to Medical Ethics course at BYU, Philosophy 212, which examines overarching and current ethical questions in the field of medicine. In recent semesters, Faulconer’s students have discussed the ethical challenges medical professionals have faced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These questions have helped students think critically about why ethics are important to consider in medicine and make connections between their humanities education and their future medical careers.

Raising Questions and Caring for Others

One of the main ethical challenges medical professionals have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic is scarce resources. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, people were concerned about how to distribute scarce resources such as food, personal protective equipment, and other necessities. A significant question that arose was this: should healthcare workers be given priority during the distribution of those resources (and later, vaccines) since they care for the well-being of others? To address this question, medical ethics considers both utility and reciprocity.

Utility addresses resource distribution to healthcare workers to enable them to care for patients; without vaccinations, for example, healthcare workers may be unable to care for their patients without exposing the patients or themselves to the virus. However, another utilitarian argument could be made that medical professionals have a responsibility to prioritize patients, meaning patients should primarily receive the resources.

Reciprocity addresses healthcare workers’ sacrifice, arguing that they deserve the resources as compensation. Determining who gets what can be difficult, but thinking about these questions now can provide insight when future problems emerge.

Making a Difference with a Humanities Education

Studying medical ethics gives students an essential perspective in the medical field. For example, philosophical questions arising from resource scarcity help students understand the multifaceted nature of the medical field and why they need to approach problems from various angles. This knowledge begins with a foundational humanities education that explores the breadth and depth of what being human means. Humanities students become well-rounded, empathetic medical professionals by applying their education to their careers.

Faulconer explains that a medical education begins before a student takes premed classes. Students can take the prerequisites for premed as humanities majors, so when they become premed students, they “differentiate themselves from the mass of other medical school applicants” because they are prepared to answer questions about medical ethics during their Multiple Mini Interview (MMI). The MMI assesses applicants’ ability to think critically and communicate well with others, which are two skills that humanities majors spend years honing. A humanities education “makes you a great communicator, and who doesn’t want their healthcare provider to be a great communicator?”

Finding Both Wisdom and Answers

Medical ethics offers students opportunities to lean in to hard societal questions and utilize a humanity-focused education to arrive at solutions to those questions. As Faulconer’s students learn, ethical decisions can be difficult when so many variables are in play. Faulconer suggests turning toward sources of truth. “Science alone doesn’t offer us the wisdom we need. Medicine has taught us what we can do, but not what we should do. Here at BYU, we seek answers through the humanities and the words of the prophets and our resources of faith.”