Epistemic humility and medical practice: translating epistemic categories into ethical obligations

J Med Philos. 2012 Feb;37(1):28-48. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhr054. Epub 2012 Jan 11.


Physicians and other medical practitioners make untold numbers of judgments about patient care on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. These judgments fall along a number of spectrums, from the mundane to the tragic, from the obvious to the challenging. Under the rubric of evidence-based medicine, these judgments will be informed by the robust conclusions of medical research. In the ideal circumstance, medical research makes the best decision obvious to the trained professional. Even when practice approximates this ideal, it does so unevenly. Judgments in medical practice are always accompanied by uncertainty, and this uncertainty is a fickle companion--constant in its presence but inconstant in its expression. This feature of medical judgments gives rise to the moral responsibility of medical practitioners to be epistemically humble. This requires the recognition and communication of the uncertainty that accompanies their judgment as well as a commitment to avoiding intuitive innovations.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / ethics*
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Health Personnel / ethics
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Patient Care / ethics*
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Physician-Patient Relations / ethics
  • Physicians / ethics*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Uncertainty