Medical Ethics and Living a Life

Coles, Robert

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Mar-05-2002
  • Last revised: Aug-31-2006


This is a selection from "The Call of Stories" in which Robert Coles argues for a medical ethics rooted in particular lives and particular situations, rather than (or to supplement) the ethics of abstract rules and principles. He tells the tale of an "uppidy nigger" in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1967 who took issue with her clinic doctor because he was insulting and condescending toward his patients: "I told him I expected more of him. Isn’t he a doctor? If he can lord it over people, being a doctor, then he ought to remember how our Lord, Jesus Christ behaved . . . did He go around showing how big and important He was . . . ?"


Coles asks: How broad and deep should medical ethics be? Should it cut to the bone of a doctor’s life? If ethics is brought down to the personal level of how physicians ought to live their lives, perhaps medical ethics is best taught by reading creative literature, rather than textbooks. He gives examples of novels that provide good stimuli for ethical reflection about medicine and healing.

Primary Source

The Call of Stories


Houghton Mifflin

Place Published