Postmodernity and a Hypertensive Patient: Rescuing Value From Nihilism
Journal of Medical Ethics. 1998 Feb; 24(1): 25-31.
Much of postmodern philosophy questions the assumptions of Modernity, that period in the history of the Western world since the Enlightment. These assumptions are that truth is discoverable through human reason; that certain knowledge is possible; and furthermore, that such knowledge will provide a basis for the ineluctable progress of Mankind. The Enlightenment project is underwritten by the conviction that knowledge gained through the scientific method is secure. In so far as biomedicine inherits these assumptions it becomes fair game for postmodern deconstruction. Today, perhaps more than ever, plural values compete, and contradictory approaches to health, for instance, garner support and acquire supremacy through consumer choice and media manipulation rather than evidence-based science. Many doctors feel a tension between meeting the needs of the patient face to face, and working towards the broader health needs of the public at large. But if the very foundations of medical science are questioned, by patients, or by doctors themselves, wherein lies the value of their work? This paper examines the issues that the anti-foundationalist thrust of postmodernism raises, in the light of a case of mild hypertension. The strict application of medical protocol, derived from a nomothetic, statistical perspective, seems unlikely to furnish value in the treatment of an individual. The anything goes, consumerist approach, however, fares no better. The author argues that whilst value cannot depend on any rationally predetermined parameters, it can be rescued, and emerges from the process of the meeting with the patient.
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