Rationalism in Sally Gadow’s Anti-Rationalist Nursing Ethics

Uche S. Odozor, Ngozi H. Obilor, Ngozi V. Odozor


Carol Gilligan’s seminal critique of Kohlberg’s model of human moral development set on course a major current of postmodern ethical thinking. In a short time, it left in its wake a range of adaptations and elaborations in numerous disciplines, under the title of ‘relational ethics’. One of these adaptations is the “relational narrative” of the philosopher nurse, Sally Gadow, which she proposes as “the postmodern turn in nursing ethics.” Like that of Gilligan, Gadow’s work is a critique of (rational) ethical universalism, which purportedly focused on developing and applying a theory of the ‘good’ to all moral situations. On the contrary, argues Gadow, every moral engagement, such as that between a nursing professional and a patient, comes with inherent unique features that render any attempt at universalization impotent. Every clinical situation is defined by the ability of the professional to engage the client in an intimate, caring relationship that enables healing to take place. Thus, like Gilligan, Gadow aimed to make a clean break from the past, which was dominated by what she referred to as ethical rationalism, by replacing it with the relational approach to ethics, which is based on sympathetic and emotional engagement of patients in the clinic. This paper argues that Gadow’s acclaimed break from the past has not been completely successful. Juxtaposing Gadow’s work with the ideas of the earlier scholars she criticizes, the paper found traces of universalist, rationalist assumptions in her thought going as far back as Descartes and Kant, down to Rawls and Kohlberg. Sources of data for this study were library and archival materials, as well as secondary (Internet) resources, which were subjected to critical and content analysis.


Care; Ethics; Gadow; Relational Narrative; Universalism

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3968/10991


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