Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 36, Issue 5, pp 299–320 | Cite as

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

  • Kristján KristjánssonEmail author


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.


Phronesis Medical ethics Aristotle MacIntyre Medical ethics education 



I am grateful to Professor Christian Miller and reviewers of the present journal for comments on an earlier draft.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, School of EducationUniversity of BirminghamEdgbaston, BirminghamUK

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