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Empirical research in medical ethics: How conceptual accounts on normative-empirical collaboration may improve research practice

Sabine Salloch*, Jan Schildmann and Jochen Vollmann

Author Affiliations

Institute for Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, NRW-Junior Research Group "Medical ethics at the end of life: norm and empiricism", Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany

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BMC Medical Ethics 2012, 13:5  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-13-5

Published: 13 April 2012



The methodology of medical ethics during the last few decades has shifted from a predominant use of normative-philosophical analyses to an increasing involvement of empirical methods. The articles which have been published in the course of this so-called 'empirical turn' can be divided into conceptual accounts of empirical-normative collaboration and studies which use socio-empirical methods to investigate ethically relevant issues in concrete social contexts.


A considered reference to normative research questions can be expected from good quality empirical research in medical ethics. However, a significant proportion of empirical studies currently published in medical ethics lacks such linkage between the empirical research and the normative analysis. In the first part of this paper, we will outline two typical shortcomings of empirical studies in medical ethics with regard to a link between normative questions and empirical data: (1) The complete lack of normative analysis, and (2) cryptonormativity and a missing account with regard to the relationship between 'is' and 'ought' statements. Subsequently, two selected concepts of empirical-normative collaboration will be presented and how these concepts may contribute to improve the linkage between normative and empirical aspects of empirical research in medical ethics will be demonstrated. Based on our analysis, as well as our own practical experience with empirical research in medical ethics, we conclude with a sketch of concrete suggestions for the conduct of empirical research in medical ethics.


High quality empirical research in medical ethics is in need of a considered reference to normative analysis. In this paper, we demonstrate how conceptual approaches of empirical-normative collaboration can enhance empirical research in medical ethics with regard to the link between empirical research and normative analysis.