The Principlist Paradigm and the Problem of the False Negative: Why the Clinical Ethics We Teach Fails Patients

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The clinical ethics framework that is typically taught to medical students and residents is deeply flawed, and the result of using this framework exclusively to resolve ethical conflicts at the bedside is compromised patient care. The author calls this framework the principlist paradigm and maintains that it blinds clinicians from seeing the full set of moral obligations they have to the patient and limits the range of options they see as available to navigate through ethical conflicts. Although it is important for the moral obligations it does recognize (e.g., those based on the principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice), the principlist paradigm should not be used as the only moral template for case analysis. The author illustrates the paradigm’s limitations with a clinical case study, in which the treating clinicians failed to recognize three important moral obligations to the patient: the obligation to express regret, the obligation to apologize, and the obligation to make amends. The failure to recognize these widely accepted moral obligations can have tragic consequences. The principlist paradigm undertrains clinicians for the complex ethical dilemmas they face in practice, and medical ethics educators need to rethink the tools they offer student clinicians to guide their ethical analysis. The author advocates a reexamination of this standard approach to teaching clinical ethics.

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Suggested Citation: Fiester, Autumn. (2007). "The Principlist Paradigm and the Problem of the False Negative: Why the Clinical Ethics We Teach Fails Patients." Academic Medicine. Vol 82:7. pp. 684-689. The final version of this article may be found at
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