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Roles, professions and ethics: a tale of doctors, patients, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers
  1. Søren Holm1,2
  1. 1 Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Department of Law, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
  2. 2 Center for Medical Ethics, HELSAM, University of Oslo, Faculty of Medicine, Oslo, Norway
  1. Correspondence to Professor Søren Holm, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Department of Law, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; soren.holm{at}

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In her paper ‘Why Not Common Morality?’, Rosamond Rhodes argues (1) that medical ethics cannot and should not be derived from common morality and (2) that medical ethics should instead be conceptualised as professional ethics and the content left to the medical profession to develop and decide.1

I have considerable sympathy with the first claim and have myself argued along somewhat similar lines.2 I am, however, very sceptical about elements of the second claim and will briefly explain why (see my 2011 paper in a somewhat obscure journal for a more in-depth argument3).

The first part of Rhodes’s constructive argument is to show that practising medicine is not only a role, it is something more. Medicine is a profession and as such its members have to internalise and personally endorse a specific ethics. Rhodes is careful to state that more work is needed to complete the justification for this claim, but the arguments she does provide are strangely ahistorical. First, it is not that long ago that what we now conceive of as one profession was actually two very strictly separated professions, that is, university educated physicians and apprenticed surgeons. Can we really be certain that medicine is now one, unified profession1? Second the way butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are traduced is also oddly ahistorical. It is only fairly recently in many countries that anyone can butcher meat, bake bread or make candlesticks and legally sell the product to the public. Historically these trades have in Europe not been mere roles, but …

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  • Correction notice This article has been amended since it was first published online. Rosamond Rhodes was originally spelt Rosamund Rhodes.

  • Contributors Only one author.

  • Funding The author has 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 for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • There is also a geographical version of this query. Is US medicine really the same profession as UK, Indian or Papuan medicine?

  • This argument also has a geographical version. Health care and legal systems differ considerably and this is likely to make a difference in the potential risks and benefits of some medical services which might necessitate different professional ethics.

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