Intended for healthcare professionals


Medical ethics

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 29 October 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1159

Justice has a wider scope

  1. P J Heath

    EDITOR, - I am concerned that Raanan Gillon's article on the four principles of medical ethics may be in danger of oversimplifying a complex subject beyond reason - in particular in respect of the idea of justice.1 Whereas the first three principles may be thought of as relatively straightforward concepts affecting a clinician's personal moral behaviour in relation to the care of individual patients, justice is of much wider scope: it is capable of interpretation in formal, ethicopolitical, individual, and sociopolitical terms, each of which has its own range and scope of application and finds a specific role in relation to health care ethics.

    The question of the social and political definitions is particularly fraught in these times of the ready identification of justice with economic values, and it is in this area that people look for a more sophisticated analysis of how they may approach allocative questions. In answering their questions I am concerned that we do not start by saying that justice was defined by Aristotle as the equal treatment of equals and the unequal treatment of unequals; in fact, in Heller's view he was saying, in criticising The Republic, just the opposite.2 He did not believe that people could be equal in any way, and his idea of distributive justice was that it should follow the existing political and economic structure of society. Unfortunately, many people take Gillon's view, and in most cases they have already decided to treat people in accordance with their own definition of whether they are already equal or unequal. This runs counter to Gillon's point that we should not seek to impose our views on others.

    Thus, though I agree that the principles of autonomy, beneficence, and non-maleficence can and should be usefully discussed together as guides in medical practice, I believe firmly that justice is a concept of an entirely different order and should be treated separately. Perhaps what is really needed is a deeper exploration of each of these important concepts, when ethical questions are exercising the minds of us all.


    1. 1.
    2. 2.

    The four principles may clash

    1. M Baum

      EDITOR, - Raanan Gillon describes the four principles of medical ethics and gives a commentary on their scope for health care workers.1 In several places he hints at the likelihood of a clash in the application of these principles, and it might have been helpful if he had worked through an example.

      For instance, I agree that to practise beneficence and non-maleficence we need empirical information about the probabilities of the various harms and benefits that may result from proposed health care interventions. The gold standard for accurately estimating the cost versus benefits of any new intervention is the randomised controlled trial, yet patients participating in randomised controlled trials are to some extent objects rather than subjects and therefore, according to Kant's definition, have lost their right to self determination. Here we observe a classic clash of categorical imperatives.

      The conventional argument in dealing with this paradox is that patients can retain their autonomy by volunteering for these trials and giving full informed consent. Yet how often is this consent fully informed, and what about the danger, when consent is being sought, of alarming patients by giving them unsolicited and frightening information, which in itself is a breach of the moral principles of beneficence and non-maleficence? (M Baum, Francis Fraser lecture, British Postgraduate Medical Federation academic assembly, 1986.)2

      Another problem arises when increasing numbers of patients exercise their right to self determination by refusing to participate in the randomised controlled trial while at the same time demanding the best treatments based on the outcomes in volunteers in previous generations of trials. Do such patients have the right to autonomy while denying their responsibility to the very society that presumably confers these rights?3,4

      For too long people such as myself at the cutting edge of research on cancer have been subjected to the ill informed attacks of self appointed ethicists and “consumers' advocates.” Gillon puts it eloquently when he states, “such disagreement about scope does not justify accusing those who disagree with us of bad faith or incompatible moral standards. In principle it is open to resolution within our shared moral commitment.” Please help me to resolve this ethical dilemma.


      1. 1.
      2. 2.
      3. 3.
      4. 4.

      Author's reply

      1. R Gillon

        EDITOR, - Does Paul J Heath's moral stance really allow him to believe that doctors do not need to concern themselves with being just or fair in their medical practice? If not, as I assume, then he agrees that justice is a relevant part of medical ethics. Of course justice is a complex and vigorously debated moral issue, as I tried to indicate - but there is no getting away from the need for it. As for Aristotle, I think that I gave a reasonable and fairly standard interpretation, but exegesis too is inherently contestable.

        In response to M Baum, I do not have a general answer to how to resolve conflicts between the principles, though I believe that as a profession we should do so collectively and within the norms of our society provided that it too is committed to these fundamental moral principles. With regard to clinical research and Kant's categorical imperative, however, no such conflict need arise. It is morally acceptable to treat people as means to an end provided that they understand and agree - that is, provided that they are also respected as ends in themselves. Such respect does not require full information in relation to consent, which is just as well since full information is unattainable. What is required is adequate information, and adequacy varies with people and circumstances.

        Yes, it is undoubtedly true that sometimes people, having been given adequate information, do refuse to participate in clinical trials even though they themselves may have benefited from clinical trials on previous patients. Nonetheless, for my own part I would reject any attempt to coerce them into such participation. The participation of patients in clinical trials is admirable but not morally obligatory. Even if it were, it is not our job as doctors to keep our patients up to the moral mark.

        A non-coercive, non-judgmental policy reflects and shows our proper primary moral commitment as doctors to the interests of our current patients. But I believe that it is also the policy that best promotes the advancement of medical science. Overall we are likely to recruit far fewer research subjects by moral arm twisting than if we ask our patients nicely, pointing out the great benefits of their participation in clinical trials but gracefully accepting any refusals.

        View Abstract

        Log in

        Log in through your institution


        * For online subscription