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What ‘Just Culture’ doesn’t understand about just punishment
  1. Samuel Reis-Dennis
  1. Correspondence to Dr Samuel Reis-Dennis, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA; sreisde1{at}


Recent years have seen the rise of ‘Just Culture’ as an ideal in the patient safety movement, with numerous hospitals and professional organisations adopting a Just Culture response to incidents ranging from non-culpable human error to intentional misconduct. This paper argues that there is a deep problem with the Just Culture model, resulting from its impoverished understanding of the value of punitive, fundamentally backward-looking, practices of holding people accountable. I show that the kind of ‘accountability’ and ‘punishment’ contemporary Just Culture advocates endorse disrespects both patients and providers. I claim, first, that punishment is good because it respects participants in the healthcare system by restoring an equilibrium of social and moral status that wrongdoing disturbs, and, second, that it only does so when it communicates a backward-looking message of resentful blame.

  • medical error
  • ethics
  • philosophical ethics
  • persons
  • moral psychology

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

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

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