The Hippocratic Oath occupies a privileged place in medical ethical discourse, but Dr. Robert M. Veatch challenges the assumption that the Hippocratic Oath in particular and professionally-based ethics in general can serve as a foundation for medical ethics. He argues the Hippocratic Oath is neither noncontroversial nor universal in nature. In fact, the Hippocratic tradition is so problematic that Veatch claims it should be “unacceptable to any thinking person” (p. 1). Moreover, the Hippocratic tradition is incommensurate with both religious and secular traditions. Veatch believes that it is impossible to derive a code of moral conduct from the Hippocratic tradition because professional groups lack the moral ontology to secure their claims. Consequently, Veatch suggests that medicine look for an alternative outside of its own profession in a normative moral theory around which religious or secular traditions can converge.
In his first lecture, “The Hippocratic Oath and the Ethic of Hippocratism,” Veatch draws attention to the peculiar cultic, pagan, and social features to show that reasonable modern people should be offended by its strangeness. These peculiarities condition the Hippocratic Oath in such a way that its ethic is also too foreign and particularistic to be adopted by religious and secular ethical traditions. Lecture 2, “The Hippocratic Tradition: A Sporadic Retreat,” traces how the Hippocratic Oath became a universally accepted treatise on the moral conduct of medicine. According to Veatch, medical education became isolated from philosophy, ethics, and the humanities, leaving physicians to construct an ethics without traditional ethical resources. Siloed from rigorous ethical inquiry, medical practitioners did not realize just how anemic the Hippocratic tradition was. In lecture 3, “The Cacophony of Codes in Medical Schools and Professional Associations,” Veatch highlights the incoherence of the practice of oath taking, arguing that professionally generated ethics sever medical practitioners from the shared moral commitments of a society. Lecture 4, “The Limits of Professionally Generated Ethics,” provides a case against professional ethics, namely, that technical expertise does not entail special moral knowledge.
In lecture 5, “Religious Medical Ethics: Revealed and Natural Alternatives,” Veatch explores religious ethics as an alternative source of morality for the practice of medicine. This investigation shows a key reason why religious ethics succeed where professional ethics fail. While both professional and religious ethics claim special moral knowledge, only professional ethics qua professional ethics preclude all lay people from sharing those same moral commitments. By contrast, religious ethics enable both medical practitioners and lay people to hold common moral commitments. In lecture 6, “Secular Ethics and Professional Ethics,” Veatch shows that nonreligious people encounter the same problem of finding a basis for shared ethical commitments. Here, again, secular ethics work because they suppose a “common morality” equally accessible to both medical professionals and lay people. In lecture 7, “Fallibilsm and the Convergence Hypothesis,” Veatch proposes that religious and secular ethics do, in fact, share a common morality sufficient to articulate a medical ethic. This solution has the benefit of providing a universal framework publicly available to religious and nonreligious people alike, without claiming moral certainty for itself—after all, this common moral vision is fallible and subject to revision. Moreover, this ethical system is the shared possession of professional and lay people alike. A survey of the normative theories in bioethics maps the current ethical converges and divergences. Veatch then turns to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights as models for the negotiation of a common medical ethics.