Telling it like it was: dignity therapy and moral reckoning in palliative care

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 42 (1):25-40 (2021)
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This article offers a conceptual analysis of self-respect and self-esteem that informs the ethics of psychotherapy in palliative care. It is focused on Chochinov’s Dignity Therapy, an internationally recognized treatment offered to dying patients who express a need to bolster their sense of self-worth. Although Dignity Therapy aims to help such patients affirm their value through summarized life stories that are shared with their survivors, it is not grounded in a robust theory of self-respect. There is reason to be skeptical about deathbed narratives, and Dignity Therapy can unintentionally encourage distorted representations at odds with the self-respect it aims to affirm. Dignity therapy can also encourage distortions of self-esteem that are in conflict with self-respect. Although Chochinov does not address it, the distinction between self-respect and self-esteem is relevant to deathbed accounts. Dillon’s feminist revisioning of self-respect can inform the practice of Dignity Therapy by encouraging honest life stories through a reckoning with one’s moral complexity, especially in moral generativity cases where patients seek forgiveness, relate atonement, or present their lives as examples to be followed. Her concept of self-esteem allows for therapeutic benefits that are less demanding, but no less significant, than those derived from a moral reckoning. Appropriate affirmations of self-esteem can provide much-needed solace when self-respect is damaged beyond adequate repair. Dillon’s account of self-respect and self-esteem enables a richer understanding of the kinds of personal evaluation and disclosure that Dignity Therapy accommodates. As such, their place in Dignity Therapy needs more critical evaluation than it has received.



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Duff R. Waring
York University

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References found in this work

Two Kinds of Respect.Stephen Darwall - 1977 - Ethics 88 (1):36-49.
How to Lose Your Self-Respect.Robin S. Dillon - 1992 - American Philosophical Quarterly 29 (2):125 - 139.

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