published on February 7, 2019
Medical Error and Moral Repair
One limitation of medical ethics modeled on ideal moral theory is its relative silence on the aftermath of medical error: not just on the recognition and avoidance of malpractice, wrongdoing, or other such failures of medical ethics, but on how to respond given medical wrongdoing. Ideally, we would never do each other wrong; but given that inevitably we do, as fallible, imperfect agents we require non-ideal ethical guidance. For such non-ideal contexts, Nancy Berlinger’s analysis of medical error and Margaret Walker’s account of moral repair present powerful hermeneutical and practical tools toward understanding and enacting what is needed to restore relationships, trust, and moral standing in the aftermath of medical error and wrongdoing. Where restitutive justice aims to make injured parties whole and retributive justice to mete out punishment, reparative justice, as Walker describes it, “involves the restoration or reconstruction of confidence, trust, and hope in the reality of shared moral standards and of our reliability in meeting and enforcing them.” Medical moral repair is not without its challenges, however, in both theory and practice; the standard ways of holding medical professionals and institutions responsible for medical mistakes or malpractice function retributively and restitutively, either impeding or giving benign inattention to patient-practitioner relationship repair. This paper argues for the value of medical moral repair, while considering some complications of extending and synthesizing Berlinger’s and Walker’s respective accounts on medical error and moral repair.