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J Med Ethics. 2001 Feb;27(1):44-50.

How should doctors approach patients? A Confucian reflection on personhood.

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  • Department of Family Medicine, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China.


The modern doctor-patient relationship displays a patient-centred, mutual-participation characteristic rather than the former active-passive or guidance-cooperation models in terms of medical decision making. Respecting the wishes of patients, amounting to more than mere concern for their welfare, has become the feature central to certain modern bioethics theories. A group of ethical principles such as respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice has been proposed by bioethicists and widely adopted by many medical societies as an ethical guide to how doctors, in their daily practice, should treat their patients. However, seeing patients as persons who are rational, self-conscious beings capable of valuing their own lives, and who are consequently entitled to the liberty and rights to choose for themselves, is in general the backbone of Western bioethical principles. Since Confucian philosophy has long been a representative of the East-Asia cultural tradition and Confucian bioethics has recently been developed as a theory of applied ethics, examining Confucius's idea of "persons" may shed some light on the current bioethical debates. Confucius's concept of persons, which is best interpreted via his theories of "chun-tze", (the morally ideal person) encapsulating a two-dimensional approach, (the "autonomous person" and the "relational person"), provides a more comprehensive model regarding what a person is and how he/she should be treated. This two-dimensional approach sees a person not only as a rational, autonomous agent but also as a relational, altruistic identity whose self actualisation involves incessant participating in and promoting of the welfare of his fellow persons. Hence this may balance the current bioethical trend whereby "respect for autonomy" often triumphs.

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