Gregory House: ethics deconstructed

Gregory House. What a DICK! I love him.

A Holmes-inspired misanthrope who is both brilliant and flawed, Dr. Gregory House is the theatrical personification of the modern doctrine of relativism. By twisting aspects of the Hippocratic Oath that he has sworn to uphold, House forms his own moral identity and applies it with an admirably unyielding consistency. House saves lives; not because he cares, but because it is the right thing to do.

He applies a rather loose version of the Hippocratic Oath, especially with regard to the following statements (taken from by Dr. Louis Lasagna’s modern version of the physician’s code of conduct):

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

Warmth, sympathy, understanding… ‘I know not’… respect for privacy… humbleness and awareness of frailty… not playing God… treating a person rather than an illness – not exactly House. The doctrine of relativism is humanistic in its application; it denotes the liberal acceptance of philosophy, ‘anything goes’, and is thus largely popular in the culture of modern society; a culture that prefers to shy away from the supposedly dictatorial nature of conservative ethics. But relativism becomes more complicated when one is granted the massive responsibility of saving lives – of preserving the human race. Does the practice of medicine allow for ‘relativism’? Is empathy an inflexible prerequisite for the act of saving a life? Houseian ethics suggest not.

Void of compassion and social grace, Doctor House will do what is necessary to solve the diagnostic puzzle and defeat the illnesses that plague his patients. House criticizes social etiquette for lack of rational purpose and usefulness, and as a strong nonconformist has little regard for social approval. He displays sardonic contempt for authority figures and shows an almost constant disregard for his own appearance, existing in a permanent state of stubble, jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. He avoids wearing the standard white lab coat to prevent patients recognising him as a doctor (his God-like propensity for arrogance makes this act of anti-lab coat subversion humorously ironic). He manipulates, lies and deceives in the name of his moral code, which is to preserve life. The end justifies the means…

House’s blatant disregard for social etiquette makes him deeply attractive. He is the archetype Byronic hero; the quintessential antihero; the baddest of boys. We love him because he is fantastically fallacious. His flaws are best encapsulated in the sarcastic discrepancy inherent his self-actualised moral code. He bears a great distrust for the human race; in fact the principle on which all of his diagnoses are founded is that “everybody lies” – a theory that is proved true time and time again. Yet in spite of House’s blatant disdain for humanity, which is hugely overrated in his opinion, he places high esteem in ensuring the survival of the human race. A genuine misanthrope? Perhaps not?

No matter how rude, contemptuous and utterly infuriating House is, he saves lives and consequently provokes respect and tolerance. He bears the tone of a modern day ‘knight in shining armour’ who, rather than acting out of love for those he saves, acts out of love for the self-prescribed task of saving. He acts with single-minded intent and is so clear in his conscience that guilt is a nonentity. And we are jealous and in love. Not with House the man but with House the philosophy. He lives with a reckless defiance that frees his intellect from the trappings of social convention. He practises relativism to the nth degree and more to the point gets away with it. Why? Because he is needed. The very Hippocratic Oath – the pledge that signifies House as a physician – rather than inhibiting the practise of a self-prescribed moral code, enables it. House gets away with the enactment of extreme relativism because he is A Doctor.

House’s audience lives vicariously through his arrogance; an attitude that humanity conspires to reject in the name of social propriety. We wish to exert our collective ego on the norms and values that restrain our behaviour in the name of order and functionality. Chaos is dangerous, so we act accordingly. We can’t all be doctors.

Right and wrong do exist. Just because you don’t know what the right answer is — maybe there’s even no way you could know what the right answer is — doesn’t make your answer right or even okay. – Gregory House