The contribution of Kantian moral theory to contemporary medical ethics: a critical analysis

Med Health Care Philos. 2005;8(1):5-18. doi: 10.1007/s11019-005-0104-7.


Kantian deontology is one of three classic moral theories, among virtue ethics and consequentialism. Issues in medical ethics are frequently addressed within a Kantian paradigm, at least --although not exclusively--in European medical ethics. At the same time, critical voices have pointed to deficits of Kantian moral philosophy which must be examined and discussed. It is argued that taking concrete situations and complex relationships into account is of paramount importance in medical ethics. Encounters between medical or nursing staff and patients are rarely symmetrical relationships between autonomous and rational agents. Kantian ethics, the criticism reads, builds on the lofty ideal of such a relationship. In addition to the charge of an individualist and rationalist focus on autonomy, Kantian ethics has been accused of excluding those not actually in possession of these properties or of its rigorism. It is said to be focussed on laws and imperatives to an extent that it cannot appreciate the complex nuances of real conflicts. As a more detailed analysis will show, these charges are inadequate in at least some regards. This will be demonstrated by drawing on the Kantian notion of autonomy, the role of maxims and judgment and the conception of duties, as well as the role of emotions. Nevertheless the objections brought forward against Kantian moral theory can help determine, with greater precision, its strengths and shortcomings as an approach to current problems in medical ethics.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Emotions
  • Ethical Analysis
  • Ethical Theory / history*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Germany
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Philosophy* / history

Personal name as subject

  • Immanuel Kant