Primary care givers commonly interpret shortages of time with patients as placing them between a rock and a hard place in respect of their professional obligations to fairly distribute available healthcare resources (justice) and to offer a quality of attentive care appropriate to patients’ states of personal vulnerability (compassion). The author argues that this a false and highly misleading conceptualisation of the basic structure of the ethical dilemma raised by the rationing of time in clinical settings. Drawing on an analysis of the Aristotelian virtue of nemesis, or “the sense of justice”, it is argued that, far from being a moral orientation distinct from justice, compassion is a justice response insofar as it is conceptualised as a rational, appropriate response to others’ adversity. The author then proceeds to point out that the perspective on justice and compassion as attributes of healthcare professionalism suggests a novel critical viewpoint on the ethics of managed forms of clinical rationing and the “scarcity paradigm” they engender: clinical conditions where primary care givers’ time is intentionally rendered a commodity in chronically short supply run a deficit of justice, because they fail to make adequate accommodations for the provision of the quality of care human beings deserve in situations of illness and injury, and when they are dying.
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Competing interests: None declared.
Funding: The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of Montreal Centre for Ethics Research (CRÉUM).
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.