The Physician’s Moral Responsibility

  • Paul Carrick
Part of the Philosophy and Medicine book series (PHME, volume 18)


What sense of moral responsibility did the ancient physicians characteristically possess when granting or denying their patients’ requests for abortive remedies or lethal poisons? This is the question which we are now prepared to explore. The term “responsibility” is an exceedingly rich one containing several different senses. I intend to focus here on what H. L. A. Hart has called “role responsibility.” That is, I shall be inquiring into what duties or institutional constraints are borne by an individual in virtue of his or her working role in a given society.1 My purpose here is not to reconstruct an ancient scale by which to praise or blame the conduct of the Pre-Christian physician. Rather, I aim at identifying and weighing the moral force of some of the relevant craft and related institutional values that may have influenced the typical Greek or Roman doctor’s conduct when his medical assistance was sought by patients seeking to prevent or end life.


Moral Responsibility Moral Duty Role Responsibility Positive Duty Hippocratic Oath 
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  1. 1.
    Hart, H.L.A.: 1968, Punishment and Responsibility, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 211–230. Such role responsibilities can be classified into two types of duties: (a) moral duties and (2) legal duties. I shall mainly deal with the former.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Hippocrates: 1952, On Intercourse and Pregnancy, Ellinger, Tage (trans.), Henry Schuman, Inc., New York, p. 48; and Littre: Oeuvres, XIII, 7, p. 490.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Largus, Scribonius: 1887, Compositiones, ed. by Georg Helmreich, Teubner, Leipzig, p. 2. Scribonius and Erotian took Hippocrates to be the true author of the Oath.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Temkin, Oswei: 1975, ‘The Idea of Respect for Life in the History of Medicine’, in Respect For Life: In Medicine, Philosophy, and the Law, ed. by Stephen Barker, Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, pp. 10–11.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Carrick
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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