Virtuous acts as practical medical ethics: an empirical study


Emeritus Professor Miles Little, Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. E-mail:


Rationale, aims and objectives  To examine the nature, scope and significance of virtues in the biographies of medical practitioners and to determine what kind of virtues are at play in their ethical behaviour and reflection.

Methods  A case study involving 19 medical practitioners associated with the Sydney Medical School, using semi-structured narrative interviews. Narrative data were analysed using dialectical empiricism, constant comparison and iterative reformulation of research questions.

Results  Participants represented virtuous acts as centrally important in their moral assessments of both themselves and others. Acts appeared to be contextually virtuous, rather than expressions of stable character traits, and virtue was linked to acts that served to protect or enhance fundamental values attached to ontological security and human flourishing. Virtue ethics, in this sense, was the single most important ethical system for each of the participants.

Conclusion  Virtue ethics, construed as the appraisal of acts in contexts of risk, danger or threat to foundational values, emerged as the ‘natural’ ethical approach for medical practitioners in this case study. Teaching medical ethics to students and graduates alike needs to accommodate the priority attached to virtuous acts.