The Forms and Limits of Medical Ethics

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Social Science & Medicine





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As medical ethics has evolved over the past several decades, it has come to be regarded as a domain of applied ethics, that is, the application of a rationally based, philosophical theory to moral problems in health care. But an array of difficulties arise in the attempt to apply general moral theories or norms to concrete problems, difficulties that expose the incompleteness and indeterminacy of philosophical moral theory. The doubtful ability of applied ethics to be practically helpful has led to the development of two main competitors. One is the attempt to reprise and rehabilitate the tradition of moral casuistry, which focuses on the analysis of specific cases rather than on the defense and application of theories and norms. The second is the search for moral insight and guidance in narratives or stories. These alternatives suffer from some of the same difficulties that plague applied ethics, however. Another trend in medical ethics rejects the theoretical preoccupation of applied ethics in favour of contextualism—an insistence on situating moral problems in institutional and organizational structures and in social and cultural backgrounds. Social science investigations of medical ethics pay attention to the former, while feminist critiques of medical ethics are concerned with exposing and eradicating cultural biases against women. Contemporary work in medical ethics is diverse, but these manifold approaches hold out the promise of improving our understanding of morality as a truly practical enterprise.