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Does Evidence-Based Medicine Imply Utilitarianism?

Posted on 4th December 2017 by

Tutorials and Fundamentals

In this blog I want to explore the question of what moral values underpin or justify the practice of evidence-based medicine (EBM). For example, we might be interested in patient outcomes, patient choice, economic factors, public health, or a combination of these. It matters because this provides the standard for evaluating the success of EBM, and informs us about how we can make EBM better. In particular, I want to respond to a recent paper by Anjum and Mumford on ‘A philosophical argument against EBM’ [1], which argues that the values underpinning EBM inevitably collapse.

According to Anjum and Mumford, “the policy side of evidence-based medicine is basically a form of rule utilitarianism” (p1045)

Utilitarianism is the view that, when faced with a moral dilemma, we ought to act according to which of our options causes the greatest amount of overall wellbeing or happiness, and the least amount of suffering. Rule utilitarianism specifically looks at which rules, heuristics or policies are able to do this, rather than looking at each action individually [2]. In the context of medicine, this means we should aim to create healthcare policies which promote the best standard of health for the greatest number of patients.

An important aspect to this approach is that these policies do not always create the best possible benefit for the patient. In some cases, the guidelines will be ineffective. For example, a given treatment may be recommended in general cases of patients with an illness, but in the case of a particular patient we know it would be harmful. It’s just that having this policy in place for all patients is worthwhile overall. How we respond to such scenarios poses a problem for the rule utilitarian.

Here, we might still say that the treatment recommendation is a good guideline (because it maximises patient health) but in this case, it would seem unethical to prescribe the treatment in the knowledge that it will cause harm. We therefore probably want to say that even good evidence-based guidelines have exceptions. However, this risks compromising the whole point of rule utilitarianism – if we have a set of rules which determine how we should act, but we can contradict or find exception to these rules whenever we need to, what’s the point of having those rules at all? It seems we haven’t said anything that won’t dissolve back down into the more general utilitarian principle of maximising health, regardless of what rules/policies we create [3].

One response that Anjum and Mumford suggest is to look at EBM policies not so much as ‘rules’ for how to act, but rather ‘codes’ for how we can act [4]

This way, policies which are based on EBM can offer us guidance for how a practitioner should act, but nonetheless require a practitioner to use their own judgement and common sense in applying them.

I want to respond to this paper by contesting the authors’ initial premise that EBM implies a kind of rule utilitarianism. I would suggest that, if we seriously look at our medical policies, conventions and laws, the picture is in reality far more complicated than this.

To see why this is the case we need to bear in mind that utilitarianism is not the view that ‘consequences matter’. Everyone cares about what the outcomes of their actions are, and pretty much everyone agrees that it’s generally better to cause happiness rather than suffering. What makes utilitarianism unique is the view that only these consequences matter, meaning there are no values that should influence our actions other than the impact that the action will have on other peoples’ lives. For example, this suggests that there is nothing wrong with lying, coercion, torture or manipulation, except for the fact that they can have bad consequences.

Whether these non-utilitarian values should have any significance from a moral perspective is beyond the scope of this article.

What I do want to demonstrate, is that the practice and justification of many medical policies (including EBM ones) implies non-utilitarian values. Consider the following scenario…

An adult patient requires medication for a fatal illness that they are at significant risk of contracting. However, due to their religious beliefs they refuse to take this medication because it contains an ingredient derived from animals. This refusal is clearly bad for them – they have a high chance of dying if they don’t take the medication. A week after the patient saw her doctor and refused to take this medication, she has a small accident and is taken to hospital unconscious.

In a stroke of luck, the same doctor who saw her a week before is passing her ward. The doctor knows the patient’s medical history and knows there is no chance of the patient having an adverse reaction to the medication which she refused. The doctor (a utilitarian) decides to take the opportunity, while the patient is unconscious and while there are no other patients around, to administer the medication to her, without her consent. The doctor has done something good for the patient – she has potentially saved her life, and there is no chance of being found out.

I hope we would agree that in this case the doctor has done something unethical. She has clearly ignored the patient’s own wishes and values, violated her right to consent and openly deceived her. Of course, a rule utilitarian could always avoid stating the uncomfortable conclusion that the doctor was ethical by deferring to policies – it’s better for everyone if we have policies and regulations against doctors deceiving patients, for example. This conclusion seems pretty unsatisfactory however. This suggests that the only reason this doctor’s actions are unethical is because she has violated hospital regulations. There would be nothing wrong, in this view, with creating a law which allowed doctors to deceive patients if only it had desirable consequences for the overall health of patients.

The values of honesty and consent seem to run far deeper than merely pragmatic rules or regulations

What’s ultimately at issue here is the patient’s right to decide how to live her own life – according to her own values, judgements and preferences, which may not always align with a medical model of what a healthy patient looks like. The role of the doctor is not to decide on a set of desirable outcomes for the patient and enforce them on her; rather, it should be to help the patient to determine her own ends, insofar as her health affects this.

These non-utilitarian values also play a role in the literature on EBM specifically. For example, an article from the Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group in 1992 defends EBM on the grounds that it gives patients a clearer understanding of their prognosis, diagnosis and treatment/s [5]. According to their argument, deferring to clinical intuition or expertise, risks leaving patients “in a state of vague trepidation” about their health prospects and choices. By contrast, the openness about evidence which EBM encourages, offers the patient a more transparent picture of their expected outcomes and options. EBM in this way doesn’t just aim at increasing positive utilitarian outcomes, it can also have benefits from the perspective of the patients’ rights, autonomy, and choice.


[1] Anjum RL and Mumford SD. A philosophical argument against evidence-based policy: Philosophical argument against EBP. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. 2017,October;23(5): 1045–1050. doi:10.1111/jep.12578

[2] For an explanation of the difference between act and rule utilitarianism see: Utilitarianism, Act and Rule | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] This is a version of an argument by Smart. Smart JCC (1973) An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics. In Utilitarianism: For and Against (eds J. C. C. Smart & B. Williams), pp. 1–74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Hooker B. (1995) Rule-consequentialism, incoherence and fairness.  Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society;95:19–35.

[5] Guyatt G, Cairns J, Churchill D, et al.  Evidence-Based Medicine A New Approach to Teaching the Practice of MedicineJAMA. 1992 November;268(17):2420–2425. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03490170092032


Sasha Lawson-Frost

I'm a Philosophy Student at UCL. I'm currently doing some research the philosophy of Evidence-Based Healthcare (EBH), particularly looking at how EBH deals with issues relating to patient well-being. Twitter: @sashalfrost View more posts from Sasha

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No Comments on Does Evidence-Based Medicine Imply Utilitarianism?

  • Mburu


    3rd March 2022 at 6:31 pm
    Reply to Mburu
  • Eslam Maher

    I believe utilitarianism is misrepresented in this article. But first, why do philosophy students, when judging a normative ethical theory, use intuition regarding the implication of the theory? Doesn’t this defy the purpose of the theory? Utilitarianism (nor rigorous ethics) is not supposed to provide its adherents with the most intuitive choices or common sense morality.

    There are no “non-utilitarian values” as much as there are no “utilitarian values”. We do not speak of values for a consequentialist theory, we talk about the “consequences” alone. The doctor in your thought experiment was utilitarian in that the consequences of deceiving the patient carries the risk of him/her finding out later on (probably from another doctor) and losing confidence in him or the hospital in general, so as the patient might try and avoid hospitals altogether depending on his beliefs.

    1st September 2018 at 8:54 am
    Reply to Eslam
  • Mike Fraumeni

    Excellent read Sasha. One aspect of EBM that you didn’t mention was politicians use of EBM as a tool to keep costs down and not to fund certain drugs and technologies that have been shown through science to have value for individual patients ie. patient-centred medicine in certain circumstances. In EBM, those onus can be on patients to point out to their health care providers that generic guidelines might not be appropriate for them in their circumstance and that is a huge onus on patients to know this and when to apply this. Also, this timely short article may be of interest to you. Again, excellent read! — “Evidence-Based Medicine”: Corporate Medicine’s Corrupted Instrument. — https://medium.com/@noorchashm/evidence-based-medicine-corporate-medicines-instrument-d98591db940b

    12th July 2018 at 6:05 pm
    Reply to Mike

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