This paper briefly outlines some of the key problems with traditional approaches to morality. It suggests that the resulting destabilization of the moral realm has engendered various levels of uncertainty, suspicion and anxiety in the general public and that it has also had a demoralizing effect on nurses. I propose two alternative views of what is morally interesting and applicable to nursing practice and I indicate that destabilization has its upsides.
I begin with a moral tale – a ‘Good Samaritan’ story – which raises fairly usual questions about moral character and motivation but also the more philosophically fundamental question about the relationship between subjectivity and moral agency. I then consider this relationship from the perspectives of two twentieth century philosophers; Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Foucault.
Levinas’ basic point is that the experience of ethical subjectivity is made possible through others: the demand to respond to the existence of others is the basic social structure that precedes individual freedom. He deploys the powerful metaphor of the ‘face of the Other’ to explain this demand and he claims that witnessing the face of another person calls for some kind of ethical response.
If Levinas posits intersubjectivity as a fundamental or primitive feature of the moral realm, a second continental philosopher, Michel Foucault, poses an even more basic question: how have moral subjects and relations of obligation been constituted? The aim of ethical inquiry, for Foucault, is to describe the network of discourses, institutions, relations and practices through which certain kinds of subjects are constituted and constitute themselves e.g. as a kind of person who can act morally. In Foucaultian terms, this network is a set of forces – power relations – which establish norms, ways of behaving, modes of self-evaluation and expression.
Finally, I consider some recent research in philosophy of nursing which illustrates how Levinassian and/or Foucaultian and perspectives can deepen understanding of nurses’ moral practices, specifically, the work of Norwegian public health nurses, Canadian pediatric nurses and Irish midwives. I suggest, that in spite of the instability of morality in general and the particular ethical challenges that face nurses, there are grounds for hope and possible strategies for living in unstable times.