What is Bioethics: Rules and Consequences

We all face ethical questions, uncertainties and conflicts. Sometimes they are mundane, everyday sorts of inquiries (should I keep a promise to meet a friend on time?), others are much bigger, character affirming and even life altering (should I withdraw life sustaining treatment for this patient?).

Bioethics, specifically medical ethics, helps us to reason through some of the difficult ethical questions that arise in medicine.

1. WATCH this video of Dr. Maggie Little offering an introductory look at bioethics.

GOAL: Reflect on the history of bioethics and how it came to be what it is today.

This video offers an introductory look at bioethics. It will provide the necessary groundwork for thinking about the meaning of ethics in medicine as we start to look at both paradigm historical cases and contemporary cases.


2.  READ this article: Berwick, Donald. (2017) “Moral Choices for Today’s Physician”, JAMA 318(21):2081-2082.

GOAL: See a physician’s perspective on the basis of what ethics means in medicine, how it is part of everyday clinical interactions and why it matters.

As you read this article, considermoral choices that you’ve made in your lives.  Consider:

  • How are moral choices different from other choices (e.g. choosing what to eat for dinner or what to wear to class)?
  • How might moral choices might be particularly important to you in your role as a physician?

3. READ: Stonington SD. Whose Autonomy? JAMA. 2014;312(11):1099-1100. 

GOAL: help students to recognize that respecting autonomy is complicated and can conflict with other obligations in the clinical setting (respect autonomy on the one hand and secure beneficence on the other). Moreover, autonomy is relational. We make choices with others and dependent on our interactions/relationships with others and within a particular social context.

As you read CONSIDER… Autonomy is a complicated concept. While in the US it is often understood as the capacity of an individual to make independent choices, this isn’t the reality of choice and this article helps us to see why. Our choices are always enmeshed in complicated interpersonal (e.g. family) and structural (e.g. cultural norms) social relations. 

POST-SESSION REVIEW — here are some of the Key Ethics Concepts that arise in the above material:

You can find more Key Ethics Concepts on the Ethics Resources Page.


If you’re looking for more, you can find physicians’ stories of ethics at the bedside in a number of journals and books, here are a couple of samples (COMPLETELY OPTIONAL) …