Finding the virtue in medical practice

You may have heard of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, envy, lust, greed, gluttony and sloth. Well, there are also seven so-called “primary” virtues, which derive from ancient sources — four cardinal virtues come from Plato, and three transcendental virtues come from Paul of Tarsus, also known as St. Paul or the apostle Paul.

Robert Roger Lebel, MD, who directs medical genetics at Upstate, recently gave a brief video chat explaining where he sees the seven primary virtues in the practice of medicine.

“Prudence is the primary virtue,” he began. “It is the virtue that informs the other six and without which the other six become empty or hollow, almost useless, efforts.”

1.  Prudence means wisdom. It is making sound judgments when faced with uncertainty. This is what doctors and other health care providers do every day.

2.  Justice is taking appropriate action with patients, to help solve their problems.

3.  Temperance is a soundness of mind. It is tolerance and social decorum.

4.  Fortitude is also known as courage, and it does not mean the absence of fear. It is overcoming fear or other obstacles in order to do what’s right.

5.  Faith, as a virtue, has nothing to do with religion. It is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Health care providers must have faith in themselves, in their colleagues, in their patients, in treatment plans.

6.  Hope is rational optimism, an expectation of favorable outcomes, and Lebel said it is essential to the practice of medicine.

  1. Love, otherwise known as charity, is why people enter the medical profession. They practice medicine because they love the work, they love the science, they love the patients and their colleagues.

Within the profession of medicine are many examples of good and virtuous behavior. Politeness, gentleness, punctuality and more. Each is a species of one of the primary virtues — still compelling after more than 2,000 years.

This article appears in the spring 2015 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

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