The Ethics of Powerlessness is a research project based in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex. The project started in July 2015 and will run for three years. Our aim is to clarify the ethical challenges that arise from human experiences of powerlessness, especially in contexts of palliative and end-of-life care. We develop an ethical framework for understanding and responding to circumstances of profoundly diminished agency, from the perspective of both the affected individuals and those who care for them. We draw on the resources of phenomenology to make clear the underlying structure of experiences of powerlessness. We further draw on a neglected source in the history of Christian ethics in order to recover an understanding of what Thomas Aquinas described as the theological virtues: faith, hope and love (or charity – caritas). Our hypothesis is that a suitably adapted understanding of the theological virtues can provide the core of an ethics of powerlessness that can in turn provide guidance in navigating the challenges of diminished agency – in secular as well as religious contexts. We apply the results of our investigation to the contemporary public policy crisis concerning ethical care for aged or terminally ill patients in NHS settings.
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