The best books about medical ethics and end-of-life

Raphael Cohen-Almagor Author Of The Right to Die with Dignity: An Argument in Ethics, Medicine, and Law
By Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Who am I?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, DPhil, St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, is Professor of Politics, Olof Palme Visiting Professor, Lund University, Founding Director of the Middle East Study Centre, University of Hull, and Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Raphael taught, inter alia, at Oxford (UK), Jerusalem, Haifa (Israel), UCLA, Johns Hopkins (USA), and Nirma University (India). With more than 300 publications, Raphael has published extensively in the field of political philosophy, including Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Tolerance; Challenges to Democracy; The Right to Die with Dignity; The Scope of Tolerance; Confronting the Internet's Dark Side; Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism, and The Republic, Secularism and Security: France versus the Burqa and the Niqab.

I wrote...

The Right to Die with Dignity: An Argument in Ethics, Medicine, and Law

By Raphael Cohen-Almagor,

Book cover of The Right to Die with Dignity: An Argument in Ethics, Medicine, and Law

What is my book about?

This is one of my major books, the product of ten years of research in the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and The Netherlands.

It's based on intensive fieldwork conducted in libraries, hospitals, and medical centers, involving in-depth interviews with dozens of professionals around the patient’s bed as well as with patients and their families. This interdisciplinary study in medicine, law, and ethics covers a wide range of theoretical and practical issues concerning end of life that physicians, nurses, ethicists, and scientists confront time and again. The book considers the philosophical difficulties inherent in the concepts of medical ethics, but, at the same time, it's not confined strictly to the philosophical realm. It argues for physician-assisted suicide performed under strict regulation designed to prevent potential abuse.

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The books I picked & why

Principles of Biomedical Ethics

By Tom L. Beauchamp, James F. Childress,

Book cover of Principles of Biomedical Ethics

Why did I love this book?

This is a classic book.

It is probably the most influential book in the field of medical ethics since the field was established during the 1960s.

I use this book and its invoked Georgetown Mantra of Bioethics, which includes the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, in all my medical ethics courses, and refer to this book often when I'm writing about medical ethics and end-of-life concerns.

Its guiding principles are relevant today as they were when the book was written. 

I invited Tom Beauchamp to one of the conferences I organised. Tom subsequently contributed a chapter to my edited volume Medical Ethics at the Dawn of the 21st Century (New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2000), Vol. 913 of the Annals.

He also invited me to present my book at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University. When I was teaching at Johns Hopkins I also enjoyed meeting his life partner, Ruth Faden, who is also a brilliant medical ethicist.

By Tom L. Beauchamp, James F. Childress,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Principles of Biomedical Ethics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Principles of Biomedical Ethics, eighth edition, provides a highly original, practical, and insightful guide to morality in the health professions. Acclaimed authors Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress thoroughly develop and advocate for four principles that lie at the core of moral reasoning in health care: respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice.Drawing from contemporary research, and integrating detailed case studies and vivid real-life examples and scenarios, they demonstrate how these prima facie principles can be expanded to apply to various conflicts and dilemmas. Ideal for courses in biomedical ethics, bioethics, and health care ethics, the text is enhanced…

Book cover of For the Patient's Good: The Restoration of Beneficence in Health Care

Why did I love this book?

Edmund (Ed) D. Pellegrino was a man of many qualities and achievements.

He was one of the forefathers of medical ethics. He was a learned Catholic. He was hailed as a “complete physician” among “a handful of other high-profile physician leaders of the twentieth century.

In a long and remarkable career that spanned over 55 years of research and scholarship, Pellegrino published more than 550 scholarly books and articles.

In For the Patient's Good, the authors discuss the notion of beneficence as a guiding principle in medical ethics. They examine the content of the concept of 'patient good' from ethical, philosophical, and practical aspects, speaking about the duties of the medical professionals to their patients.

Ed and I used to meet during my visits to Washington. We had lengthy conversations about medical ethics, philosophy, religion (Catholicism, Judaism), and education.

He was the keynote speaker in one of the conferences I organised. I greatly appreciated him. We kept in touch up until his death in 2013.

By Edmund D. Pellegrino, David C. Thomasma,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For the Patient's Good as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beneficence - doing the right and good thing - is the fundamental principle of medical ethics. It points all medical decisions and actions toward advancing the patient's best interests. Yet in our normally pluralistic society where rights are asserted more frequently than obligations, this ancient principle tends to be obscured or confused with paternalism.

This book attempts to rejuvenate and redevelop the notion of beneficence as a guiding principle within the ethics of medicine. The authors examine the content of the concept of 'patient good' from both philosophical and practical viewpoints, and they strive to supplement and in some ways…

Book cover of Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Aging Society with "A Response to My Critics"

Why did I love this book?

Like Pellegrino, Daniel (Dan) Callahan is also one of the forefathers of the field of medical ethics. 

A prolific author, Dan published 47 books and some 800 articles and blogs. Dan is also the co-founder of the Hastings Center in New York, one of the leading research centers on medical ethics in the world. In many ways, his vision established medical ethics as a legitimate field of studies.

In Setting Limits, Callahan suggests the concept of a “full biographical life span,” meaning the point at which it can be said that a person has lived a complete, fulfilling, whole life. He does not determine a specific age but suggests a range — late seventies, early eighties, which in his opinion is equivalent to a natural, complete life cycle. 

Callahan claims that today medical technology can extend life beyond the point that he believes is sensible and worthwhile. He deliberates what can be done to avoid such a result.

I was fortunate to visit the Hastings Center twice, in 1994 and 1999. Dan and I fiercely and candidly debated his ideas, articulated in his books The Troubled Dream of Life, What Kind of Life, and Setting Limits, as well as my ideas discussed in the two books that I was writing at that time: The Right to Die with Dignity and Euthanasia in the Netherlands.

Although we did not share the same views on end of life, I always appreciated his wisdom and liked him as a person. I have consulted with Dan on some of my later projects, and the two of us kept in touch up until Dan’s death in 2019.

By Daniel Callahan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Setting Limits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a provocative call to rethink America's values in health care.

Book cover of Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom

Why did I love this book?

In 1991, Dworkin taught at Oxford a seminar titled “Abortion, Euthanasia and Dementia”.

Until then, I never paid too much attention to these subjects, not more than any lay person with general knowledge. I attended the seminar simply because Dworkin delivered it.

This was the most interesting and thought-provoking seminar I have ever attended in my life. It opened my interest in medical ethics, a field that is still one of my preoccupations.

Dworkin was writing at that time Life’s Dominion. Each week he would circulate a chapter of his book, to be discussed in the following week.

We were some twelve students in class; each of us read and commented on the chapters. There was a very lively exchange and fierce debates.

Again, while I disagreed with some of Dworkin’s arguments, I could not but appreciate the force of his reasoning. After that seminar, I decided to embark on research on one of the three seminar themes: Euthanasia.

Life’s Dominion has become the center of some of my counter-arguments as Dworkin believed that euthanasia should also be granted for people who suffer from dementia whereas I oppose euthanasia and restrict acts that aim to shorten life to competent patients who voluntarily wish to end their lives.

By Ronald Dworkin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Life's Dominion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Internationally renowned lawyer and philosopher Ronald Dworkin addresses the crucially related acts of abortion and euthanasia in a brilliantly original book that examines their meaning in a nation that prizes both life and individual liberty. From Roe v. Wade to the legal battle over the death of Nancy Cruzan, no issues have opened greater rifts in American society than those of abortion and euthanasia. 
At the heart of Life's Dominion is Dworkin's inquest into why abortion and euthanasia provoke such controversy. Do these acts violate some fundamental "right to life"? Or are the objections against them based on the belief…

Debating Euthanasia

By Emily Jackson, John Keown,

Book cover of Debating Euthanasia

Why did I love this book?

The book brings together two contradictory viewpoints.

While Jackson argues that we should legalise assisted suicide in order to enable ‘good death’ and honour patients’ wishes, Keown opposes such a legislation, thinking that voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are gravely unethical and what we need to do is to improve care, not to offer death.

This is an excellent exchange of ideas that I have used in my classes on end-of-life concerns.

John Keown and I meet in Washington every once and a while. Although we disagree on whether physician-assisted suicide should be offered, we agree on the need to preserve the dignity of the person as well as on many other fundamental issues.

I greatly appreciate John’s scholarship.

By Emily Jackson, John Keown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Debating Euthanasia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this new addition to the 'Debating Law' series, Emily Jackson and John Keown re-examine the legal and ethical aspects of the euthanasia debate.

Emily Jackson argues that we owe it to everyone in society to do all that we can to ensure that they experience a 'good death'. For a small minority of patients who experience intolerable and unrelievable suffering, this may mean helping them to have an assisted death. In a liberal society, where people's moral views differ, we should not force individuals to experience deaths they find intolerable. This is not an argument in favour of dying.…

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