The theorisation of ‘best interests’ in bioethical accounts of decision-making

Giles Birchley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
317 Downloads (Pure)


Best interests is a ubiquitous principle in medical policy and practice, informing the treatment of both children and adults. Yet theory underlying the concept of best interests is unclear and rarely articulated. This paper examines bioethical literature for theoretical accounts of best interests to gain a better sense of the meanings and underlying philosophy that structure understandings.

A scoping review of was undertaken. Following a literature search, 57 sources were selected and analysed using the thematic method.

Three themes emerged. The first placed best interests within the structure of wider theory, noting relationships with consequentialism, deontology, prudential value theory, rights and political philosophy. The second mapped a typology of processes of decision-making, among which best interests was ambiguously positioned. It further indicated factors that informed best interests decision-making, primarily preferences, dignity and quality of life. The final theme considered best interests from a relational perspective.

Characterisation of best interests as strictly paternalist and consequentialist is questionable: while accounts often suggested a consequentialist basis for best interests, arguments appeared philosophically weak. Deontological accounts, found in law and Kantianism, and theories of political liberalism influenced accounts of best interests, with accounts often associating best interests with negative patient preferences (i.e. individual refusals). There was much more emphasis on negative interests than positive interests. Besides preference, factors like dignity and quality of life were held to inform best interests decisions, but generally were weakly defined. To the extent that preferences were unable to inform decision making, decisions were either made by proxy authority or by an intersubjective process of diffuse authority. Differing approaches reflect bifurcations in liberal philosophy between new liberalism and neo-liberalism. Although neither account of authority appears dominant, bias to negative interests suggests that bioethical debate tends to reflect the widespread ascendancy of neo-liberalism. This attitude was underscored by the way relational accounts converged on private familial authority. The visible connections to theory suggest that best interests is underpinned by socio-political trends that may set up frictions with practice. How practice negotiates these frictions remains a key question.
Original languageEnglish
Article number68
Number of pages18
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was conducted as part of the ?Balancing Best Interests in Health Care, Ethics and Law? (BABEL) project. The project is led by Professor Richard Huxtable and is a collaboration between the Centre for Ethics in Medicine and the Centre for Health Law and Society at the University of Bristol. The author wishes to thank his colleagues on the BABEL project, Dr Emanuele Valenti, Dr Suzanne Doyle Guilloud, Dr Jon Ives, Dr Jonathan Ives, Dr Sheelagh McGuinness, Professor Judy Laing and Professor Richard Huxtable, for their support. All views and errors are of course my own.

Funding Information:
This research was funded in whole, or in part, by the Wellcome Trust Grant No. 209841/Z/17/Z. For the purpose of Open Access, the author has applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

Structured keywords



  • best interests
  • medical law
  • political philosophy
  • liberalism
  • shared decision-making


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