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Psychiatric involvement in patient morality is controversial. If psychiatrists are tasked with shaping patient morality, the coercive potential of psychiatry is increased, treatment may be unfairly administered on the basis of patients' moral beliefs rather than medical need, moral disputes could damage the therapeutic relationship and, in any case, we are often uncertain or conflicted about what is morally right. Yet, there is also a strong case for the view that psychiatry often works through improving patient morality and, therefore, should aim to do so. Our goal is to offer a practical and ethical path through this conflict. We argue that the default psychiatric approach to patient morality should be procedural, whereby patients are helped to express their own moral beliefs. Such a procedural approach avoids the brunt of objections to psychiatric involvement in patient morality. However, in a small subset of cases where patients' moral beliefs are sufficiently distorted or underdeveloped, we claim that psychiatrists should move to a substantive approach and shape the content of those beliefs when they are relevant to psychiatric outcomes. The substantive approach is prone to the above objections but we argue it is nevertheless justified in this subset of cases.

Original publication




Journal article


J Med Ethics

Publication Date



Coercion, Ethics- Medical, Morals, Paternalism, Psychiatry