Medical Ethics: A very brief Introduction.


Ethics is the branch of philosophy that helps you work out what it means to be good
On the face of it, medicine appears to be the perfect ethical profession, you diagnose illnesses and treat patients to relieve suffering and cure disease, what could be better?

Doctors are on the whole envied not so much for their lifestyles and salaries, but for the fact that they spend their days helping people, I.e. being good. They don't (on the whole) loose sleep (like enlightened bankers) worrying that their work is self-serving, vain and harmful to the fabric of society.

A doctor is good because they use their knowledge and skills to help others. So where are the ethical dilemmas?

Consider screening for breast cancer.

If 2000 women regularly attend breast screening for 10 years,
· 1 life will be saved by detecting the cancer early.
· 10 women out of this group will be wrongly diagnosed with cancer. They will have surgery to remove part of or their whole breast, and may also receive radiotherapy or chemotherapy when they do not, in fact, have cancer at all.
· 200 of these women (one in ten) will experience a ‘false alarm’ where the mammography shows something that might be cancer, but that additional investigation proves is normal.


The psychological strain of waiting to find out whether or not there is a cancer can be severe. The investigations can continue for many months and leave a woman uncertain and vulnerable about her health and disease in the long term.

Do good doctors advocate breast screening?

Other questions you might consider:
What are rights based ethics? Is health care a human right?
What are utilitarian ethics? How do we manage limited healthcare resources fairly?
What are virtue ethics? What are the characteristics of a good doctor?
What duties do doctors have? What duties do patients have?
Are markets amoral? What about markets in healthcare?
What is autonomy and how does illness and the doctor-patient relationship affect a patient's autonomy?
What is ethical pluralism? How do we know right from wrong in practice?




There is a slightly less short introduction for medical students here
See the reading list for books about medical ethics

See the Medsoc guide to cinema for films about doctors

Ali G has another view