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Exemplarist medical ethics
  1. Daniel Daly
  1. Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Brighton, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Daniel Daly, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Brighton, Massachusetts, USA; dalydc{at}


The field of medical ethics, such as the discipline of ethics in general, has traditionally focused on moral dilemmas and quandaries at the expense of ‘everyday’ moral issues. The methodologies, norms and principles of the field reflect this. Although the principle of double effect works well in adjudicating the provision of life-shortening medications to relieve pain, it fails to guide the vast majority of mundane moral decisions that providers make daily.

This article contends that exemplarist medical ethics provides action guidance on everyday medical ethical issues. Further, it offers an ethical methodology that is not tethered to a comprehensive doctrine of the good.

The paper develops an account of, and draws on Zagzebski’s exemplarist moral theory. It then describes how medical providers can morally deliberate by appealing to exemplars. I contend there are three modes of exemplarist action guidance: dialogue, emulation and substituted judgement. It demonstrates how each of these modes guides moral deliberation regarding quotidian medical ethical issues. The article then turns to a moral exemplar of medical practice, Dr. Jim O’Connell, who Tracy Kidder profiles in his 2023 book, Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People. The advantages and challenges of this approach are delineated before a brief conclusion.

  • Education
  • Ethics
  • Ethics- Medical
  • Philosophy

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  • Contributors DD is the sole author and guarantor of this work.

  • 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.

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