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Med Health Care Philos. 2007 Mar;10(1):33-48. Epub 2006 Sep 6.

Using empirical research to formulate normative ethical principles in biomedicine.

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  • 1Centre for Bioethics, University of Aarhus, Taasingegade 3, Building 1443, DK-8000, Aarhus C, Denmark.


Bioethical research has tended to focus on theoretical discussion of the principles on which the analysis of ethical issues in biomedicine should be based. But this discussion often seems remote from biomedical practice where researchers and physicians confront ethical problems. On the other hand, published empirical research on the ethical reasoning of health care professionals offer only descriptions of how physicians and nurses actually reason ethically. The question remains whether these descriptions have any normative implications for nurses and physicians? In this article, we illustrate an approach that integrates empirical research into the formulation of normative ethical principles using the moral-philosophical method of Wide Reflective Equilibrium (WRE). The research method discussed in this article was developed in connection with the project 'Bioethics in Theory and Practice'. The purpose of this project is to investigate ethical reasoning in biomedical practice in Denmark empirically. In this article, we take the research method as our point of departure, but we exclusively discuss the theoretical framework of the method, not its empirical results. We argue that the descriptive phenomenological hermeneutical method developed by Lindseth and Norberg (2004) and Pedersen (1999) can be combined with the theory of WRE to arrive at a decision procedure and thus a foundation for the formulation of normative ethical principles. This could provide health care professionals and biomedical researchers with normative principles about how to analyse, reason and act in ethically difficult situations in their practice. We also show how to use existing bioethical principles as inspiration for interpreting the empirical findings of qualitative studies. This may help researchers design their own empirical studies in the field of ethics.

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