The Many Methods of Medical
Ethics (Or, Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird)
Daniel P. Sulmasy and Jeremy Sugarman
The range of scholarship falling under the umbrella of medical ethics is astounding. For instance, the disciplines of anthropology, economics, epidemiology, health services research, history, law, literature, medicine, nursing, philosophy, social psychology, sociology, and theology all have scholars in medical ethics. All of these disciplines and others have made enriching contributions to the field of medical ethics. Some employ unique methods. Others use similar methods, but have different theoretical orientations. However, it is not always clear whether or how work done in many of these disciplines is considered appropriately scholarship in medical ethics. Nor is it always clear how these methods and disciplines relate to each other. In this chapter, we provide a general orientation to the scope of these many methods and offer what we take to be proper interdisciplinary relationships in medical ethics.
Philosophers hold that there are three basic types of ethical inquiry: normative ethics, metaethics, and descriptive ethics (Frankena 1973).
Normative ethics is the branch of philosophical or theological inquiry that sets out to give answers to the questions, What ought to be done? What ought not to be done? What kinds of persons ought we strive to become? Normative ethics sets out to answer these questions in a systematic, critical fashion, and to justify the answers that are offered. In medical ethics, normative ethics is concerned with arguments about such topics as the morality of physician-assisted suicide or whether it is morally proper to clone human beings.
Metaethics is the branch of philosophical or theological inquiry that investigates the meaning of moral terms, the logic and linguistics of moral reasoning, and the fundamental questions of moral ontology, epistemology, and justification. It is the most abstract type of ethical inquiry, but it is vital to normative investigations. Whether or not it is explicitly acknowledged, all normative inquiry rests upon a fundamental stance regarding metaethical