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Principles of biomedical ethics symposium
A waste of time: the problem of common morality in Principles of Biomedical Ethics
  1. Jan Reinert Karlsen1,
  2. Jan Helge Solbakk2
  1. 1Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, Norway
  2. 2Centre for Medical Ethics, Institute of Health and Society, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jan Helge Solbakk, Centre for Medical Ethics, Institute of Health and Society, PO Box 1130 Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway; j.h.solbakk{at}


From the 5th edition of Beauchamp and Childress' Principles of Biomedical Ethics, the problem of common morality has been given a more prominent role and emphasis. With the publication of the 6th and latest edition, the authors not only attempt to ground their theory in common morality, but there is also an increased tendency to identify the former with the latter. While this stratagem may give the impression of a more robust, and hence stable, foundation for their theoretical construct, we fear that it comes with a cost, namely the need to keep any theory in medical ethics open to, and thereby aware of, the challenges arising from biomedical research and clinical practice, as well as healthcare systems. By too readily identifying the moral life of common morality with rule-following behaviour, Beauchamp and Childress may even be wrong about the nature of common morality as such, thereby founding their, by now, classic theory on quicksand instead of solid rock.

  • Common morality
  • moral change
  • moral theory
  • particularity
  • universality
  • moral life
  • rationality
  • stem cell research
  • science ethics
  • biobanking
  • ancient philosophy and literature
  • empirical ethics
  • applied and professional ethics
  • autonomy
  • ethics committees/consultation
  • history of health ethics/bioethics
  • philosophical ethics

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  • Funding The FP6-funded project GeneBanC is acknowledged for their financial support.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.