Since its inception contemporary medical ethics has been regarded by many of its practitioners as 'applied ethics', that is, the application of philosophical theories to the moral problems that arise in health care. This 'applied ethics' model of medical ethics is, however, beset with internal and external difficulties. The internal difficulties point out that the model is intrinsically flawed. The external difficulties arise because the model does not fit work in the field. Indeed, the strengths of that work are its highly nuanced, particularized analyses of cases and issues and its appreciation of the circumstances and contexts that generate and structure these cases and issues. A shift away from a theory-driven 'applied ethics' to a more situational, contextual approach to medical ethics opens the way for ethnographic studies of moral problems in health care as well as a conception of moral theory that is more responsive to the empirical dimensions of those problems.