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Translational Ethics

This postdoctoral project, carried out by philosopher and associate professor Kristine Bærøe, is about bridging the theory-practice gap in medical ethics by translational approaches to core issues in medical research, clinical care, and public health.

Balancing stone bridging the gap
Balancing stone bridging the gap


Background and aim

The gap between theory and practice in medical ethics is recognised as both wide and deeply rooted.[1-4] Theoretical discourses are constrained by claims on ideal abstractions, consistency, and detached, distant reflections while ethical practice is embedded in the empirical, complex social contexts of healthcare with practical conclusions directly linked to individual responsibility.[5] While acknowledging these epistemological differences it is also reasonable to consider that ethical theorists and practitioners are subject to different spaces of ethical knowledge. This means they are also representing different versions of potential ethical expertise. In this way, the gap between theory and practice may also be fortified by justified assignments—on both sides—of social authority in medical ethics.[2]

‘Translational research’ in medicine requires researchers to identify steps to transfer basic scientific discoveries from the laboratory benches into bedside decision-making. On a parallel track, some medical ethical research share a similar aim of producing and transferring knowledge: theoretical research on normative issues concern how the world should be and this knowledge can be transferred into the real world in terms of improved institutions and individual actions shaping medical practice. So far, philosophical works in medical ethics have not been subjected to requirements of identifying steps to transfer theoretical conclusions into adequate and useful interventions to improve medical ethical practice. Quite recently, however, in the internationally leading Journal of Medical Ethics, A. Cribb suggests it is now time to debate ‘the business of translational’ in theoretical medical ethics as well. [1]

A central question then arises: What does it take for theoretical work on medical ethics to have an adequate impact on ethics as it is played out in the field of practice? To arrive at a conclusion on how to conceptualise the field ‘translational ethics’ while addressing this question, will have important implications: From a clarified understanding of what ‘translational scholarship in ethics’ involves, focused, targeted, and mutually supportive initiatives of translational work is more likely to emerge. A shared conceptualisation can help move the theoretical field of ethics towards more relevant, justified and actual impact on the field of practice.


  1. Cribb, A., Translational ethics? The theory-practice gap in medical ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics, 2010. 36(4): p. 207-210.
  2. Cribb, A., Beyond the Classroom Wall: Theorist-Practitioner Relationships and Extra-Mural Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2011. 14(4): p. 383-396.
  3. McNamee, M. and T. Schramme, Moral Theory and Theorizing in Healthcare Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2011. 14(4): p. 365-368.*
  4. Molewijk, B., A.M. Slowther, and M.P. Aulisio, The practical imortance of theory in clincial ethics support services Bioethics, 2011. 25(7): p. ii-iii.
  5. Cowley, C., Why Medical Ethics Should Not be Taught by Philosophers. Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, 2005. 5(1): p. 50 - 63.