A Morally Permissible Moral Mistake? Reinterpreting a Thought Experiment as Proof of Concept

Nathan Emmerich, Bert Gordjin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
157 Downloads (Pure)


This paper takes the philosophical notion of suberogatory acts or morally permissible moral mistakes and, via a reinterpretation of a thought experiment from the medical ethics literature, offers an initial demonstration of their relevance to the field of medical ethics. That is, at least in regards to this case, we demonstrate that the concept of morally permissible moral mistakes has a bearing on medical decision-making. We therefore suggest that these concepts may have broader importance for the discourse on medical ethics and should receive fuller consideration by those working the field. The focus of the discussion we present is on a particular thought experiment originally presented by Sulmasy and Sugarman. Their case formed the basis of an exchange about the moral equivalence of withdrawing and withholding life-saving treatment. The analysis Sulmasy and Sugarman set out is significant because, contrary to common bioethical opinion, it implies that the difference between withdrawing and withholding life-saving treatment holds, rather than lacks, moral significance. Following a brief discussion of rejoinders to Sulmasy and Sugarman's article, we present a constructive reinterpretation of the thought experiment, one that draws on the idea of suberogatory acts or "morally permissible moral mistakes." Our analysis, or so we suggest, accounts for the differing moral intuitions that the case prompts. However, it also calls into question the degree to which this thought experiment can be thought of as illustrating the moral (non)equivalence of withdrawing and withholding life-saving treatment. Rather, we conclude that it primarily illuminates something about the ethical parameters of healthcare when family members, particularly parents, are involved in decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
JournalJournal of Bioethical Inquiry
Early online date07 Mar 2018
Publication statusEarly online date - 07 Mar 2018


  • Journal Article


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