J Med Ethics 32:424-429 doi:10.1136/jme.2005.013078
  • Research ethics

Distinguishing treatment from research: a functional approach

  1. T Lewens
  1. Correspondence to:
 T Lewens
 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 1TL, UK; tml1000{at}
  • Received 2 June 2005
  • Accepted 16 September 2005
  • Revised 15 September 2005


The best way to distinguish treatment from research is by their functions. This mode of distinction fits well with the basic ethical work that needs to be carried out. The distinction needs to serve as an ethical flag, highlighting areas in which the goals of doctors and patients are more likely than usual to diverge. The distinction also allows us to illuminate and understand some otherwise puzzling elements of debates on research ethics: it shows the peculiarity of exclusive conceptions of the distinction between research and treatment; it allows us to frame questions about therapeutic obligations in the research context, and it allows us to consider whether there may be research obligations in the therapeutic context.