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Is the four quadrant approach to military medical ethics a cargo cult? A call for more unity between philosophers and practitioners
  1. Simon Paul Jenkins
  1. Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Simon Paul Jenkins, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK; s.jenkins.4{at}


Moral theory should be practically useful, but without oversight from the philosophical community, the practical application of ethics by other institutions such as the military may drift into forms that are not theoretically robust. Ethical approaches that drift in this way run the risk of becoming ‘cargo cults’: simulations that will never properly fulfil their intended purpose. The four quadrant approach, a systematic method of ethical analysis that applies moral principles to clinical cases, has gained popularity in the last 10 years in a variety of medical contexts, especially the military. This paper considers whether the four quadrant approach is a cargo cult or whether it has theoretical value, with particular reference to the more popular four principles approach. This analysis concludes that the four quadrant approach has theoretical advantages over the four principles approach, if used in the right way (namely, with all four quadrants being used). The principal advantage is that the four quadrant approach leaves more room for clinical judgement, and thus avoids the charge of being too algorithmic, which has been levelled at the four principles approach. I suggest that it is the fourth quadrant, which invites the user to consider wider, contextual features of the case, which gives the approach this key advantage. Finally, I make a more general proposal that theoretical ethicists should work closely with those practitioners who apply ethics in the world, and I call for a symbiotic relationship between these two camps.

  • medical ethics
  • moral philosophy
  • four quadrant approach
  • theory
  • practice
  • cargo cult
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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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