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Moral experience: a framework for bioethics research
  1. Matthew R Hunt1,2,
  2. Franco A Carnevale3,4
  1. 1Centre de recherche en éthique (CRÉUM), University of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  2. 2Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3School of Nursing, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  4. 4Pediatric Ethics Committee, McGill University Health Centre, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Matthew R Hunt, Centre de recherche en éthique (CRÉUM), University of Montreal, C.P. 6128, succ. Centre-ville, Montreal, QC H3C 3J7, Canada; 1matthew.hunt{at}


Theoretical and empirical research in bioethics frequently focuses on ethical dilemmas or problems. This paper draws on anthropological and phenomenological sources to develop an alternative framework for bioethical enquiry that allows examination of a broader range of how the moral is experienced in the everyday lives of individuals and groups. Our account of moral experience is subjective and hermeneutic. We define moral experience as “Encompassing a person's sense that values that he or she deem important are being realised or thwarted in everyday life. This includes a person's interpretations of a lived encounter, or a set of lived encounters, that fall on spectrums of right-wrong, good-bad or just-unjust”. In our conceptualisation, moral experience is not limited to situations that are heavily freighted with ethically-troubling ramifications or are sources of debate and disagreement. Important aspects of moral experience are played out in mundane and everyday settings. Moral experience provides a research framework, the scope of which extends beyond the evaluation of ethical dilemmas, processes of moral justification and decision-making, and moral distress. This broad research focus is consistent with views expressed by commentators within and beyond bioethics who have called for deeper and more sustained attention in bioethics scholarship to a wider set of concerns, experiences and issues that better captures what is ethically at stake for individuals and communities. In this paper we present our conceptualisation of moral experience, articulate its epistemological and ontological foundations and discuss opportunities for empirical bioethics research using this framework.

  • Empirical bioethics
  • ethical theory
  • hermeneutics
  • moral experience
  • qualitative research

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  • Funding MRH's research is supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research post-doctoral fellowship.

  • Competing interests None.

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

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