Medical ethics has now become a field of scholarly inquiry that uses a wide variety of methods. These methods derive from the humanities and the social sciences, including anthropology, economics, epidemiology, health services research, history, law, medicine, nursing, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and theology. Although multiple publications examine how problems in medical ethics might be understood within the context of one or more disciplines, we were unable to identify any book that systematically examined all of these disciplines and their multiple methods of inquiry across the entire broad field of medical ethics. Given the multidisciplinary nature of medical ethics, such an examination seems wanting.
Our interest in this area began during our work as fellows in internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and as graduate students in philosophy at Georgetown University. Our intensive training in both empirical research methods and philosophy made it clear to us that doing quality work in medical ethics requires immersion in one or more of the disciplines that contribute to the field. Moreover, sound training in different disciplines helps make interdisciplinary work productive, relevant, and exciting.
While we had direct experience doing work that involved several disciplines, we were interested in learning more about the ways that other disciplines with which we were less familiar addressed questions in medical ethics. To this end, in the spring of 1994 we conducted a workshop, “Approaching Research Questions in Medical Ethics from Multiple Disciplines,” at the annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine in Washington, D.C. We were fortunate to have noted scholars join us in this workshop: Tom Beauchamp, Ph.D. (philosophy); Gregg Bloche, M.D., J.D. (law); Barbara Koenig, Ph.D. (ethnography); Barron Lerner, M.D., Ph.D. (history); Robert Pearlman, M.D. (empirical research); and Edmund Pellegrino, M.D. (clinical ethics). The workshop confirmed our impression that having an accurate grasp of the methods employed in addressing a particular question in medical ethics is essential, not only for engaging in scholarly inquiry, but also for understanding the work that results from it.
Through these and related experiences, we became convinced that a book that examined the many methods of medical ethics would serve as a valuable resource to scholars, teachers, editors, students, and others interested in medical ethics. However, in beginning this project, we struggled with questions about which methods to include. In the end, we settled on approaches that have arguably played a significant role in the contemporary field of medical ethics. Proceeding roughly from normative to descriptive approaches, these are: philosophy; religion and theology; professional codes; law; casuistry; history; qualitative research; ethnography; quantitative surveys; experimental methods; and economics and decision science.