Abstract

Several scholars have recently criticized the dominant emphasis upon mid-level principles in bioethics best exemplified by Beauchamp and Childress's Principles of Biomedical Ethics. In Part I of this essay, I assess the fairness and cogency of three broad criticisms raised against ‘principlism’ as an approach: (1) that principlism, as an exercise in applied ethics, is insufficiently attentive to the dialectical relations between ethical theory and moral practice; (2) that principlism fails to offer a systematic account of the principles of nonmaleficence, beneficence, respect for autonomy, and justice; and (3) that principlism, as a version of moral pluralism, is fatally flawed by its theoretical agnosticism. While acknowledging that Beauchamp and Childress's reliance upon Ross's version of intuitionism is problematic, I conclude that the critics of principlism have failed to make a compelling case against its theoretical or practical adequacy as an ethical approach. In Part II, I assess the moral theory developed by Bernard Gert in Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules, because Gert has recommended his approach as a systematic alternative to principlism. I judge Gert's theory to be seriously incomplete and, in contrast to principlism, unable to generate coherent conclusions about cases of active euthanasia and paternalism.

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