Specifying, balancing, and interpreting bioethical principles

J Med Philos. 2000 Jun;25(3):285-307. doi: 10.1076/0360-5310(200006)25:3;1-H;FT285.


The notion that it is useful to specify norms progressively in order to resolve doubts about what to do, which I developed initially in a 1990 article, has been only partly assimilated by the bioethics literature. The thought is not just that it is helpful to work with relatively specific norms. It is more than that: specification can replace deductive subsumption and balancing. Here I argue against two versions of reliance on balancing that are prominent in recent bioethical discussions. Without meaning to address the substance or the overall merits of either view I criticize, I attack Gert, Culver and Clouser's implicit reliance on some overall dimension of balancing as a basis of resolving conflicts among norms and Beauchamp and Childress's residual acceptance of 'justified balancing'. The former authors' description of resolving conflicts depends upon a type of value commensurability that (as they otherwise seem to admit) does not obtain, while the latter authors' role for justified balancing would be better served by continued specification.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Ethical Theory
  • Ethics
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Humans
  • Philosophy
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Principle-Based Ethics*
  • Social Values