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J Prim Health Care. 2011 Jun 1;3(2):170-4.

Medical ethics: four principles, two decisions, two roles and no reasons.

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  • 1Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, The University of Auckland, PB 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.


The 'four principle' view of medical ethics has a strong international pedigree. Despite wide acceptance, there is controversy about the meaning and use of the principles in clinical practice as a checklist for moral behaviour. Recent attempts by medical regulatory authorities to use the four principles to judge medical practitioner behaviour have not met with success in clarifying how these principles can be incorporated into a legal framework. This may reflect the philosophical debate about the relationship between law and morals. In this paper, legal decisions from two cases in which general practitioners have been charged with professional shortcomings are discussed. Difficulties with the application of the four principles (autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice) to judge medical practitioner behaviour are highlighted. The four principles are relevant to medical practitioner behaviour, but if applied as justifications for disciplinary decisions without explanation, perverse results may ensue. Solutions are suggested to minimise ambiguities in the application of the four principles: adjudicators should acknowledge the difference between professional and common morality and the statutory requirement to give decisions with reasons.

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