What is it about?

This paper challenges the leading common morality accounts of medical ethics which hold that medical ethics is nothing but the ethics of everyday life applied to today’s high-tech medicine. Using illustrative examples, the paper shows that neither the Beauchamp and Childress four principles account of medical ethics, nor the Gert, Clouser, and Culver ten rules version, is an adequate and appropriate guide for physicians’ actions. By demonstrating that medical ethics is distinctly different from the ethics of everyday life and cannot be derived from it, the paper argues that doctors need a touchstone other than common morality for guiding their professional decisions. This conclusion implies that a new theory of medical ethics is needed to replace common morality as the standard for understanding how doctors should behave and what medical professionalism entails. En route to making this argument the paper addresses fundamental issues that require clarification: what is a profession; how is a profession different from a role; how is medical ethics related to medical professionalism. The paper concludes with a preliminary sketch for a theory of medical ethics.

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Why is it important?

For almost 50 years people have been addressing ethical issues in medicine by ticking off the Beauchamp and Childress four principles (respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice) and assuming that they encapsulated the ethics of medicine. My paper argues that this reigning approach, which takes medical ethics to be no more than common morality applied to the medical arena, points medical professionals in the wrong direction. In spite of its longstanding popularity, it should, therefore, be set aside.


Whether or not readers ultimately agree with me, the challenge presented by my paper will invite people to rethink their approach to medical ethics. I look forward to the dialogue that may ensue.

Rosamond Rhodes

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This page is a summary of: Why not common morality?, Journal of Medical Ethics, September 2019, BMJ, DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105621.
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