Using examples from ancient texts, this paper contends that the traditional physician-patient relationship should be understood and interpreted within the matrix of the social and ethical network of a society. As such, the physician-patient relationship is not what we call “a professional relationship,” in that there is no fixed or objective standard to qualify it. In the Confucian tradition, for instance, the physician-patient relationship changes according to the social identity of the patient. The moral responsibility of the physician also becomes ambiguous when he or she is required to treat the patient as a “relative” or “friend.” The patient, in contrast, has a very limited “autonomy,” if there is such a thing, to choose his or her own doctors and make medical decisions. The same situation can be seen in Daoist medical practice when the physician has to struggle between the “Dao of medicine” and the “skill of medicine,” or between the moral dimension of medicine and the efficaciousness of medicine. The medical profession in the past was never an independent entity with independent ethical standards, and has always been part of a wider value system.
Because of this, when medical professionals nowadays try to adopt Western ideas underpinned by different principles and theories, they find moral clashes between two traditions due to their conflicting value systems. As a result, concepts such as “patient rights” are at odds with the traditional understanding of the physician-patient relationship, which emphasizes context and situation. This paper also criticizes virtue-based morality in China, contending that principle-based morality would be better for reconstructing a more objective standard of morality for medical professionals in China.