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Values as ‘modest foundations’ for medicine

Miles Little, Jill Gordon, Wendy Lipworth, Pippa Markham, Ian Kerridge


Medicine and healthcare have been around for thousands of years, but we seldom ask why they are so important. It seems self-evident that we should seek relief of suffering from some institution in the society in which we live and equally self-evident that each society should provide healthcare for its people at some level. Yet when we inquire further, we are driven to seek foundational answers to iterative questions, seeking answers at deeper and deeper levels. Ultimately, it seems best to accept the Humean refuge [1] and finish with some such statement as “Humans are like that” or “Societies can’t function in any other way”.

These Humean questions suggest that survival, security and flourishing are endpoints for such an inquiry and that medical (and many other) systems are built on these implicit foundations. The ways in which societies build relevant systems (such as medicine, welfare, law, transport, housing and so on) will differ strikingly, but common ground will still exist at the foundational level.

Acknowledging a commonality of foundations does not commit one either to a conservative normativity, nor to a loose relativism. Increasing activity at the level of the International Court of Justice makes clear that there is a possibility of consensus for judging the validity of the interpretations and enactments of foundational values in any society. The ideals of the American Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – are principles very similar to the foundational values of survival, security and flourishing. Person-centered medicine is inescapably based on theories of the person and must therefore be able to offer an account of what personhood is. Values underpin the philosophy and practice of medicine, including person-centered medicine, because they are foundations of personhood, as well as foundations of the societies in which each person lives.


Discourse, evidence-based medicine, foundationalism, medical epistemology, narrative-based medicine, person-centered medicine, reform, values-based medicine

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