This essay addresses the ethical implications of the physician-patient relationship from the Confucian perspective, which holds that the physician must regard the patient as a family member to treat the patient properly. It is well known that there are two primary approaches to moral authority in contemporary Western medical ethics. One is internal, and assumes that the good inherent to medicine is the source of moral authority in medical activities. The other is external, and denies that the ends and ethics of medicine can be determined by typical medical activities. It holds that medical ethics should be based on general moral principles, such as autonomy and justice. However, the Confucian model seems to be at odds with both of these approaches. On the one hand, Confucians do not think that medicine constitutes a self-contained domain of activity with its own ethics; rather, medicine is seen as a continuum of familial relationships and ethics. On the other hand, Confucians also hold that the physician-patient relationship should follow the example of the flexible relationships among family members rather than the rigid general principles of autonomy and justice.
The Western model is aimed at action, whereas the Confucian view focuses on personal affective relations. The greatest problem with the Confucian model is its notorious paternalism; that is, it appears to fail to pay sufficient attention to the potential conflict between patient and physician about the good, ignoring the issue of patient autonomy. In the modern Western tradition, the model of the physician-patient relationship is based on two self-sufficient agents (patient and physician) who are united in pursuing a certain good, where each is the final source of what is good for him- or herself. However, the real physician-patient encounter demands a deeper commitment between the two than this model suggests. When entering a physician-patient relationship, what the patient seeks is care from the physician, not autonomy. That is to say, the patient first of all trusts the physician. To earn that trust, it is not enough that the physician treat the patient based only on the principle of autonomy or what the patient requires. Rather, a deep attachment – analogous to a familial relationship – must be developed that can serve as the basis of the encounter between the patient and physician. The Confucian physician-patient model, which is rooted in such a relationship, does not contrast but rather complements its Western counterpart.