The Ethics of House, Part II

The question posed at the end of part I of this series was whether Dr. Gregory House, central character in House, MD, practices medicine within any sort of ethical framework. Often accused of being unethical, and certainly uncaring, House claims to eschew the Hippocratic Oath, medicine’s sacred ethical charge. Much of what we see of House “caring” about patients, or anyone else for that matter, is played out in the subtext, most often revealed in the brilliant non-verbal acting of series star Hugh Laurie — through his expressive eyes and body language.

Although House seems to possess little regard for conventional ethics, I have come to the conclusion that he actually does operate from a reasonably well-defined set of ethical principles. Leading me to wonder further if the well-read House is familiar with the medieval philosopher Maimonides.

Maimonides is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of all time. A Spanish Jew who migrated to Egypt, he is revered as perhaps the greatest of the post-Biblical rabbis. His works include not only religious texts and commentaries, but treatises on logic (he was a rationalist), ethics, and medicine (he was also a renowned physician).

Maimonides is credited with a physician’s oath (actually the attribution is disputed by some), which presents several guiding medical principles. The ethical framework suggested by the oath is one that might resonate with our good, but grouchy, doctor:

May the love for my art actuate me at all time. If nothing else, House is passionate about the medicine; it certainly “actuates” him — it’s what keeps him going and what he lives for. It is, in essence, House’s lifeblood.

In season one, when Foreman has the opportunity to go back to work for his old mentor, “Dr. Marty” (as he is called by House), he notices a “difference in their styles.” Dr. Marty is a laid back, but eminent, LA physician. Foreman sees him as forgiving and reasonable, two things that he clearly does not see in House. Admitting that Dr. Marty is a good doctor, House illuminates the real difference between them: “He thinks you do your job, and what will be, will be. I think that what I do and what you do matters. He sleeps better at night. He shouldn’t.” It’s a defining moment early in the series, revealing House’s passion for medicine — and what he sees as the importance of dedication to its practice.

Medicine seems to haunt House in his every waking moment; he can seldom turn it off (except when watching monster trucks or General Hospital, that is!). And, despite the fact that he claims chronic laziness, eschewing work (especially in the clinic) as if allergic to it, the medicine and his love for it probably is the only thing that motivates him to get out of bed on those days (as he told Detective Michael Tritter in “Words and Deeds”) when the pain is so bad it “sucks the soul right out of you.”

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