Med Humanities 29:65-71 doi:10.1136/mh.29.2.65
  • Original article

Principlism or narrative ethics: must we choose between them?

  1. J McCarthy
  1. Correspondence to:
 Joan McCarthy
 PhD, Department of Nursing Studies, University College Cork, Ireland;
  • Accepted 4 June 2003


This paper addresses a current debate in the bioethics community between principlists, who consider that principles are at the heart of moral life, and narrativists, who see communication at its core. Using a case study entitled “The forgetful mourner” to introduce the tensions between each of these positions, I go on to explain the central tenets of both principlism and narrative ethics. Rather than focus on their respective weaknesses, which many theorists do, I emphasise instead, the contribution that each approach can make to understanding moral life and the process of ethical decision making in health care situations. My ultimate aim is to identify the, sometimes overlapping, skills that both principlism and narrative ethics require on the part of health professionals who deploy them. I conclude that a good principlist has narrativist tendencies and a good narrativist is inclined toward principlism.