The need for systematic reviews of reasons

Bioethics. 2012 Jul;26(6):315-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2011.01858.x. Epub 2011 Apr 27.


There are many ethical decisions in the practice of health research and care, and in the creation of policy and guidelines. We argue that those charged with making such decisions need a new genre of review. The new genre is an application of the systematic review, which was developed over decades to inform medical decision-makers about what the totality of studies that investigate links between smoking and cancer, for example, implies about whether smoking causes cancer. We argue that there is a need for similarly inclusive and rigorous reviews of reason-based bioethics, which uses reasoning to address ethical questions. After presenting a brief history of the systematic review, we reject the only existing model for writing a systematic review of reason-based bioethics, which holds that such a review should address an ethical question. We argue that such a systematic review may mislead decision-makers when a literature is incomplete, or when there are mutually incompatible but individually reasonable answers to the ethical question. Furthermore, such a review can be written without identifying all the reasons given when the ethical questions are discussed, their alleged implications for the ethical question, and the attitudes taken to the reasons. The reviews we propose address instead the empirical question of which reasons have been given when addressing a specified ethical question, and present such detailed information on the reasons. We argue that this information is likely to improve decision-making, both directly and indirectly, and also the academic literature. We explain the limitations of our alternative model for systematic reviews.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making / ethics
  • Delivery of Health Care / ethics
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Human Experimentation / ethics
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Policy Making
  • Review Literature as Topic*