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The dangers of medical ethics
  1. C Cowley
  1. Correspondence to:
 C Cowley
 School of Medicine, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK; c.cowley{at}


The dominant conception of medical ethics being taught in British and American medical schools is at best pointless and at worst dangerous, or so it will be argued. Although it is laudable that medical schools have now given medical ethics a secure place in the curriculum, they go wrong in treating it like a scientific body of knowledge. Ethics is a unique subject matter precisely because of its widespread familiarity in all areas of life, and any teaching has to start from this shared ethical understanding and from the familiar ethical concepts of ordinary language. Otherwise there is a real risk that spurious technocratic jargon will be deployed by teacher and student alike in the futile search for intellectual respectability, culminating in a misplaced sense of having “done” the ethics module. There are no better examples of such jargon than “consequentialism”, “deontology”, and the “Four Principles”. At best, they cannot do the work they were designed to do and, at worst, they can lead student and practitioner into ignoring their own healthy ethical intuitions and vocabulary.

  • Gillon
  • ethical experience
  • four principles
  • ordinary language
  • teaching ethics

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