Should Doctors Prescribe Placebos?


A doctor could prescribe a sugar pill for a patient who isn’t really sick but needs to feel that something is being done.

Q1 Analysis

This is a Q1 violation if you believe that doctors should never be deceptive, even if it is for a greater good. It is also a Q1 violation if you don’t think that placebos can ever be the best treatment.

Q2 Analysis

This is a Q2 violation if you would be upset to discover that you have been receiving faux medication because your doctor thinks your medical condition is largely or entirely mental, even if the treatment had seemed effective.


The conflict here is between the desire for a physician to be honest and the desire for a physician to do what, in the physician’s opinion, is best for the patient. There are circumstances in which a physician thinks that a patient’s symptoms are related to a need to feel like they are being taken care of as opposed being a sign of some non-mental illness. The physician must either tell the patient of this diagnosis or prescribe a treatment that delivers the feeling of being cared for without having any biological effect.* It is not possible to do both because placebos do not work for patients who know they are taking placebos.

If the use of placebos is morally allowable, is it allowable under all circumstances in which it might be effective or only under certain specific conditions? Should all other reasonable causes for the patient’s symptoms be ruled out first? Is it still allowable if the patient has indicated a desire to know the truth, no matter what it is? Is it allowable if the patient has a limited income but the placebos would cost money?

In which of these situations would a physician be morally correct?

*This could include not only placebo medications but also harmless unnecessary tests, a change in diet, a change in habit, or a procedure that the doctor knows has no medical effect (depending on the doctor’s medical philosophy, this might include acupuncture, aura adjustment, etc.)

You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at and See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.

Posted on August 17, 2010 at 10:27 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

2 Responses

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  1. Written by India
    on August 23, 2010 at 6:29 am
    Reply · Permalink

    “Assuming that a woman who complains of severe cramps every month just has a low tolerance for normal pain”.

    As someone who suffers from chronic pain, this makes me want to go into orbit. Let’s assume that this woman does indeed ‘just’ have a low tolerance of ‘normal’ pain. The point it that SHE feels the pain HER way. It is irrelevant whether 9 out of 10 cats wouldn’t feel this pain at this level. Grr…..

  2. Written by pk
    on September 10, 2010 at 10:16 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I’m not sure about your Q2 analysis: placebos have been shown to have demonstrable effect in conditions that are not ‘largely or entirely mental’ (for example, stomach ulcers) – that’s part of what’s so entirely and bizarrely fascinating about them.

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