The New Medicine and the Old Ethics, in Albert Jonsen’s own words, is a "secular aggadah." Jonsen explains that one Talmud reviewer defined aggadah as "a magical rabbinic mode of thought in which myth, theology, poetry and superstition robustly mingle" (4). The book begins with a personal essay entitled "Watching the Doctor." Jonsen establishes his premise that the moral history of Western medicine is best understood as a paradox between altruism and self-interest, a paradox alive and well entering the 21st Century.

He then takes the reader on his "secular aggadah," blending history, myths, and stories that trace important moral developments in the practice of Western medicine. In "Askelepios as Intensivist," we learn of the early Greek values of competence in shaping medical practice. Through the influence of the Church in the medieval period, Western medicine incorporates the value of compassion through the Biblical Good Samaritan, struggles with problems of justice in the care of the poor, and further elaborates the meaning of benefit.

In "The Nobility of Medicine," Jonsen describes the contribution of Sir William Osler and other knighted medical men of the 19th Century who established the ethics of noblesse oblige in the medical profession. He traces this noble tradition to the medieval Knights Hopitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem, a group of religious who provided hostels for pilgrims to the Holy Land and cared for the sick. With essays on John Locke and Jeremy Bentham, Jonsen brings us to the 20th Century and the play of individual rights and utilitarian values in the moral life of Western medicine.

In the final essays, Jonsen describes the mingling of these traditions as a means to establish a moral frame for Western medicine in our current times where technology and science have achieved and threatened so much. Ethics, he argues, "is disciplined reflection on ambiguity" (130). In the last essay, "Humanities Are the Hormones," Jonsen brings his "secular aggadah" full circle.

He argues that the paradox of altruism and self-interest that runs through the moral history of Western medicine must continually be vitalized and examined through the Humanities. The Humanities are "the chemical messengers that course through the complicated institution of medicine and enable it to respond to the constantly changing scientific, technological, social, and economic environment" (147).


Dr. Jonsen’s book contributes immensely to the growing conversation on the moral life of medicine. In this conversation, traditionalists often argue against the social construction view, anchoring the medical profession in historical values. Jonsen shows us the complicated web that connects us to these historical values of medicine, and at times, shows us the contradiction of values that 21st Century Western medicine must examine. Anyone interested in professional ethics, the history of medicine, and the debate on the moral life of medicine should read Jonsen’s book.


Albert R. Jonsen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Ethics in Medicine in the Department of Medical History and Ethics, University of Washington, Seattle. He chaired the department from 1987-1998.


Harvard Univ. Press

Place Published

Cambridge, Mass.



Page Count