FACE: Where Compassion Meets Ethics in Global Health

Since our program was established in 2018, many have identified us as either a program that focuses on compassion or one centered on ethics. We cheerfully concede that our lengthy name – The Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) at The Task Force for Global Health – and the unusual juxtaposition of compassion and ethics may contribute to this lack of clarity. In fact, many of our colleagues and partners do focus primarily on one or the other.

At FACE, we believe our dual identity is a source of strength. We consider compassion our ‘animating force’ and ethics our ‘guiding framework.’ In other words, compassion inspires and sustains our work, while ethics helps us understand what to do and how to do it. Without compassion – which enables us to see a whole person or community, not just the parts relevant to a given public health intervention – ethics frameworks can fall short. Compassion and ethics are mutually reinforcing; one cannot fully grasp the scope and importance of ethical decision-making without a deep experience of shared humanity and solidarity – essential components of compassionate action. Likewise, an act intended to relieve suffering can be misguided or even cause unintended harm without the guidance of ethical thinking.

A commitment to compassion helps us to more meaningfully apply ethics in global health, moving ethics beyond abstract philosophy or a discrete set of codified principles overseen by regulatory bodies. Instead, we seek to bring ethics to the center of day-to-day practice, applying the strengths of ethical frameworks along with the wisdom and power of a compassionate lens.

On a macro-level, ethical frameworks in global health are shaped by overarching principles of social justice, human rights, and equity. These values permeate discourse and ideology in global health. Less examined are the micro-level ethics, which require us to constantly reflect on our actions as global health practitioners. What can we do better? Are there unintended consequences to our desired outcomes? Have we listened to, seen, and understood the needs of communities with which we work? To what shared values do we appeal when we need to make difficult trade-offs?

Without both compassion and ethics, we would be unable to address some of the most challenging and complex issues that arise in global health practice. Through compassion-based initiatives and ethical approaches we can better understand these challenges and evaluate the impact of our actions. And through that reflexivity, characterized by a humble acknowledgment that we do not have all the answers, we can devise more effective, contextually appropriate, and sustainable solutions to global health problems.

— Ashley L. Graham & David G. Addiss



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