Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Education

Ethics made easy

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 01 November 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:0611404
  1. Daniel K Sokol, PhD student in medical ethics1,
  2. Gillian Bergson, foundation year 1 doctor2
  1. 1Medical Ethics Unit, Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice, Imperial College, London
  2. 2Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire

Getting to grips with the main features of the different ethical theories can be daunting. Daniel K Sokol and Gillian Bergson make it a bit simpler

You may already have heard a little about some of the ethical theories that are used to guide and justify ethical decisions. The four principles approach to ethical decisions comprises consequentialism, deontology (duty based ethics), virtue ethics, and principlism.

To provide an insight into each of the main approaches, we have invited representatives of each ethical theory to comment on the case of Adam Zapple, a naive young man who is tempted.

The case of Adam Zapple

Adam Zapple is feeling peckish. On his way home, he notices an elderly woman biting into an appetising apple. Although only 10 minutes away from his well stocked fridge, Adam considers mugging Granny to steal her juicy looking apple. Should he do so? Over to our expert panel.


Colin, the consequentialist - Well, this is an easy one. It's obvious that, on balance, mugging Granny will cause more harm than good. Sure, Adam will enjoy the apple, but Granny's misery will far outweigh his enjoyment. And let's not forget any bystanders who may get upset by the mugging. In fact, Adam himself might feel guilty afterwards and get depressed. But if Adam were about to starve, however…

Dan, the deontologist - It'd still be wrong, Colin, you spawn of the devil. It's just wrong to beat up innocent people, whether it's to steal an apple or save your own life. There are some things people just shouldn't do.

Colin - Oh, so you'd rather die of hunger than steal an old lady's apple?

Dan - Definitely, stealing is wrong. Simple as that. What if everyone stole things whenever it suited them? No, I would kindly ask the lady…

Colin - To …

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