This small-scale study develops a new methodology for investigating which ethical principles of health care rationing the public support after discussion and deliberation. In ten groups of about six people, members of the public are asked to discuss a hypothetical rationing choice, concerning four identified patients who are described in general terms but without detailed information. It is explained to respondents that the purpose of the exercise is to find out what general ethical principles they support. Discussions are chaired by an academic specialising in health policy, whose role is to encourage debate but not actively to participate. On the basis of an innovative qualitative data analysis, which translates what people say into ethical principles identified in the theoretical literature, the public appear to support three main rationing principles: (1) a broad 'rule of rescue' that gives priority to those in immediate need, (2) health maximisation and (3) equalisation of lifetime health. To our knowledge, this pluralistic viewpoint on rationing has never been developed into a coherent theoretical position, nor into a quantifiable model that health care managers can use for guidance.