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November 1986

Percival's Medical Ethics: The Moral Philosophy of an 18th-Century English Gentleman

Author Affiliations

From the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

Arch Intern Med. 1986;146(11):2265-2269. doi:10.1001/archinte.1986.00360230211030

Since its appearance in 1803, Percival's Medical Ethics has been the dominant influence in Anglo-American medical ethics and the paradigmatic source for the first, and subsequent, Code of the American Medical Association. Its influence is exceeded only by the Oath and Deontological books of the Hippocratic Corpus. Yet, the moral philosophy underlying Percival's Medical Ethics has not been well studied, and, indeed, seems misunderstood in the standard account given by most contemporary commentators.

In this article, I would like to offer some evidence contrary to the standard account that: (1) Percival's Code is mere etiquette and not ethics, (2) it lacks philosophical substance, and (3) it perpetuates a spirit of paternalistic condescension totally unsuited to our democratic times.

Against this view I will suggest that (1) Percival was a better moral philosopher than credited, (2) beneath the surface of professional decorum there is a sound and definable moral theory, and

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