Get access

Robot decisions: on the importance of virtuous judgment in clinical decision making


  • Petra Gelhaus MD

    Corresponding author
    1. Assistant Professor, Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine, University of Muenster, Muenster, Germany and Department for Health and Society, University of Linköping, Linköping, Sweden
    Search for more papers by this author

Dr Petra Gelhaus, Department of Health and Society, Institute of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Linköping, 58183 Linköping, Sweden, E-mail:


Rationale, aims and objectives  The aim of this article is to argue for the necessity of emotional professional virtues in the understanding of good clinical practice. This understanding is required for a proper balance of capacities in medical education and further education of physicians. For this reason an ideal physician, incarnating the required virtues, skills and knowledge is compared with a non-emotional robot that is bound to moral rules. This fictive confrontation is meant to clarify why certain demands on the personality of the physician are justified, in addition to a rule- and principle-based moral orientation and biomedical knowledge and skills.

Methods  Philosophical analysis of thought experiments inspired by science fiction literature by Isaac Asimov.

Results  Although prima facie a rule-oriented robot seems more reliable and trustworthy, the complexity of clinical judgment is not met by an encompassing and never contradictory set of rules from which one could logically derive decisions. There are different ways how the robot could still work, but at the cost of the predictability of its behaviour and its moral orientation. In comparison, a virtuous human doctor who is also bound to these rules, although less strictly, will more reliably keep at moral objectives, be understandable, be more flexible in case the rules come to their limits, and will be more predictable in these critical situations. Apart from these advantages of the virtuous human doctor referring to her own person, the most problematic deficit of the robot is its lacking deeper understanding of the inner mental events of patients which makes good contact, good communication and good influence impossible.

Conclusion  Although an infallibly rule-oriented robot seems more reliable at first view, in situations that require complex decisions like clinical practice the agency of a moral human person is more trustworthy. Furthermore, the understanding of the patient's emotions must remain insufficient for a non-emotional, non-human being. Because these are crucial preconditions for good clinical practice, enough attention should be given to develop these virtues and emotional skills, in addition to the usual attention on knowledge, technical skills and the obedience to moral rules and principles.