Conflicts of interest are receiving increased attention in medical research, clinical practice and education. Criticism of, and penalties for, conflicts of interest have been insufficiently discussed and have been applied without adequate conceptual backing. Genuine conflicts of interest are situations in which alternative courses of action are ethically equivalent, decision-making being less a matter of moral deliberation than of personal weighing of interest. In contrast, situations usually thought of as conflicts of interest are mostly temptations to follow an attractive but undue option that causes harm by failing to uphold well-entrenched ethical standards. Examples of moral quandaries that pose as ethically neutral conflicts of interest are healthcare providers enticed to favour certain products; patients being referred to non-therapeutic trials entailing risks and non-optimal healthcare; industry-supported scientists failing to deliver unbiased research results and reports or participating in ghost-writing; and sponsored educators who praise their supporters beyond objective evidence. All these are moral blemishes, where integrity gives way to material incentives at the cost of provoking risky and harm-producing situations, thus constituting false conflicts of interest when they are in fact ethical misdemeanours. Disclosure has been the most widely recommended response to avoid the concealment of conflicting and ethically suspect interests. Regulations regarding disclosure reveal a utilitarian stance that shows more concern for the magnitude of support or sponsorship than for the underlying ethical transgression. Education and oversight should directly address and help correct the moral attitude towards undue influence of inducements and marketing strategies falsely posing as conflicts of interest.
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Competing interests None.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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