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Medical ethics as therapy
  1. A Zucker
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Zucker
 Department of Philosophy, Director, Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics, 202 Ellis Hall, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA; zuckera{at}


In this paper, the author examines a style of teaching for a medical ethics course designed for medical students in their clinical years, a style that some believe conflicts with a commitment to analytic philosophy. The author discusses (1) why some find a conflict, (2) why there really is no conflict, and (3) the approach to medical ethics through narratives. The author will also argue that basing medical ethics on the use of narratives has problems and dangers not fully discussed in the literature.

  • therapy
  • narratives
  • stories
  • analytic
  • clinical

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  • iWhat is the moral difference between: (1) your planning to drown a child in a bathtub and getting ready to do it, only to have the child fall into the tub thereby letting you accomplish the child’s death merely by doing nothing and (2) your actually carrying out the drowning by holding the child’s head under water?

  • iiThe therapy approach I am discussing resembles some aspects of the feminist approach to ethics through care and trust, where there is more to understanding philosophy than mere surface logic. There is what is hidden just below the surface—what can only be gleaned through a kind of therapy, which of course includes all relevant past experiences.

  • iiiAlso see Kass’s comments about ethics related to his position about cloning and stem cell research: The wisdom of repugnance. In Kass L, Wilson J. The ethics of cloning. Washington DC: AEI Press, 1998.

  • ivFor those unfamiliar with chaos theory see Also see The Butterfly Effect. In: Glieck J, Chaos. New York: Viking Press, 1987, and Mandelbrot B, The fractal geometry of nature. New York: WH Freeman & Co, 1977 (chapter 1).

  • vI leave it to the reader to decide how close this sort of classroom therapy is, can, or should be to what Ludwig Wittgenstein might have meant when he said that his philosophy was therapeutic: “… the inherent dialogical character of philosophy, which is a responsive activity: difficulties and torments are encountered which are then to be dissipated by philosophical therapy (Biletzki A, Matar A. Ludwig Wittgenstein. In: Zalta EN (ed). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2003 Edition). Available at (accessed 21 April 2005).