The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Medical ethics

Medical ethics is the discipline of evaluating the merits, risks, and social concerns of activities in the field of medicine.

Ethical thinkers have suggested many methods to help evaluate the ethics of a situation. These methods provide principles that doctors should consider while decision making.

Six of the principles commonly included are:

  • Beneficence - a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient. (Salus aegroti suprema lex.)
  • Non-maleficence - "first, do no harm" (primum non nocere), from the Hippocratic Oath.
  • Autonomy - the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment. (Voluntas aegroti suprema lex.)
  • Justice - concerns the distribution of scarce health resources, and the decision of who gets what treatment.
  • Dignity - the patient (and the person treating the patient) have the right to dignity.
  • Truthfulness and honesty - the patient should not be lied to, and deserves to know the whole truth about their illness and treatment (though certain exceptions are made for the proper use of placebos).

Principles such as these do not give answers as to how to handle a particular situation, but guide doctors on what principles ought to apply to actual circumstances. The principles sometimes contradict each other leading to ethical dilemmas. For example, the principles of autonomy and beneficence clash when patients refuse life-saving blood transfusion.

To reconcile conflicting principles, Bernard Gert, a philosopher who specializes in medical ethics, propounds a theory that would require us to advocate our action publicly if we were to violate any basic moral principles (e.g., break a promise in order to save a life). Other philosophers, such as R. M. Hare and Michael E. Berumen, would require us to formulate a universal prescription in conformance with logic, such that all rational parties, including the patient (assuming he is rational), would subscribe to the same action in all circumstances that share the same essential properties.

In the United Kingdom, General Medical Council provides clear modern guidance in the form of its 'duties of a doctor' and 'Good Medical Practice' statements.


Death and dying

Reproductive medicine

Medical research

Distribution and utilization of research and care

Critiques of conventional medicine

Critiques of alternative medicine

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Last updated: 06-02-2005 05:12:25
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