The nature of nursing means that nursing ethics tends to examine the ethics of caring rather than 'curing' by exploring the everyday relationship between the nurse and the person in care. Early work to define ethics in nursing focused more on the virtues that would make a good nurse, which historically included loyalty to the physician, rather than the focus being on nurse's conduct in relation to the person in the nurse's care . However, recently, the ethics of nursing has also shifted more towards the nurse's obligation to respect the human rights of the patient and this is reflected in a number of professional codes for nurses. For example, this is made explicit in the latest code from the International Council of Nurses.
Although much of nursing ethics can appear similar to medical ethics, there are some factors that differentiate it. Brier-Mackie suggests that nurses' focus on care and nurture rather than cure of illness results in a distinctive ethics. Furthermore, nursing ethics emphasizes the ethics of everyday practice rather than focussing on rarer moral dilemmas. Generally, the focus of nursing ethics is more on developing a caring relationship than concerns about broader principles, such as beneficence and justice. For example, a concern to promote beneficence may be expressed in traditional medical ethics by the exercise of paternalism, where the health professional makes a decision based upon a perspective of acting in the patient's best interests. However, it is argued by some that this approach acts against important values found in nursing ethics. Nursing theories tend to seek a collaborative relationship with the person in care. Also, themes that emphasize respect for the dignity of the patient by promoting choice and control over their environment are commonly seen.
The distinction can be examined from different theoretical angles. Despite the move toward more deontological themes by some, there continues to be an interest in virtue ethics in nursing ethics and some support for an ethic of care. This is considered by its advocates to emphasise relationships over abstract principles and therefore to reflect the caring relationship in nursing more accurately than other ethical views.
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