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Ethics of placebo use in clinical practice: why we need to look beyond deontology
  1. Rosanna Plowman,
  2. Sally Spurr
  1. Medicine, University of London St George's, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Sally Spurr, Medicine, University of London St George's, London SW17 0RE, UK; m1700928{at}


Beneficent clinical usage of placebos has been a problem for the application of Kant’s deontology in medical ethics, which, in its strictest form, rejects deception universally. Some defenders of deontology have countered this by arguing placebos can be used by a physician without necessarily being deceptive. In this paper we argue that such a manipulation of Kant’s absolutism is not credible, and therefore, that we should look beyond deontology in our consideration of placebo usage in clinical practice. We conclude that Kant’s deontology cannot be made compatible with placebo use in clinical practice due to the primacy it affords to the principle of autonomy.

  • autonomy
  • ethics
  • philosophical ethics
  • truth disclosure

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  • Contributors As first author, RP took responsibility for the conception and design of this paper, read the referenced literature and wrote the initial draft. Second author SS collaborated in further drafts of the work and revising it critically for important intellectual content. Both authors were responsible for final approval of the version submitted.

  • 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 for publication Not required.

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

  • Data availability statement Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

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