Phronesis as an ideal in professional medical ethics: some preliminary positionings and problematics

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Phronesis has become a buzzword in contemporary medical ethics. Yet, the use of this single term conceals a number of significant conceptual controversies based on divergent philosophical assumptions. This paper explores three of them: on phronesis as universalist or relativist, generalist or particularist, and natural/painless or painful/ambivalent. It also reveals tensions between Alasdair MacIntyre’s take on phronesis, typically drawn upon in professional ethics discourses, and Aristotle’s original concept. The paper offers these four binaries as a possible analytical framework for classifying and evaluating accounts of phronesis in the medical ethics literature. It argues that to make sense of phronesis as a putative ideal in professional medical ethics—for example, with the further aim of crafting interventions to cultivate phronesis in medical ethics education—the preliminary question of which conception of phronesis is most serviceable for the aim in question needs to be answered. The paper identifies considerable lack of clarity in the current discursive field on phronesis and suggests how that shortcoming can be ameliorated.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-320
Number of pages22
JournalTheoretical Medicine and Bioethics
Issue number5
Early online date19 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015


  • Phronesis
  • Medical ethics
  • Aristotle
  • MacIntyre
  • Medical ethics education


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