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Critique of the “tragic case” method in ethics education
  1. J Liaschenko1,
  2. N Y Oguz2,
  3. D Brunnquell3
  1. 1Center for Bioethics and School of Nursing, University of Minnesota, Minnesota, USA
  2. 2Ankara University Faculty of Medicine, Ankara, Turkey
  3. 3Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, Minneapolis and Saint Paul
  1. Correspondence to:
 J Liaschenko
 Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota, N504 Boynton Hall, 410 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA; jliasch{at}


It is time for the noon conference. Your job is to impart a career-changing experience in ethics to a group of students and interns gathered from four different schools with varying curriculums in ethics. They have just finished 1½ h of didactic sessions and lunch. One third of them were on call last night. Your first job is to keep them awake. The authors argue that this “tragic case” approach to ethics education is of limited value because it limits understanding of moral problems to dilemmas; negates the moral agency of the student; encourages solutions that are merely intellectual; and suggests that ethical encounters are a matter for experts. The authors propose an alternative that focuses on three issues: the provider-patient relationship, the relationships between providers in the everyday world of health work and, the social position of healthcare providers in society. In this approach, teachers are not experts but more like guides on a journey who help students to learn that much of ethical practice comprises living through difficult situations of caring for vulnerable others and who help students to navigate some of these difficulties.

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

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