Curriculum for the Interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Bioethics

Core Courses

Philosophy of Medicine
John Lyne

This seminar examines philosophical issues that arise in conceptualizing the aims and practices of medicine and medical science within broader cultural contexts. It integrates such fundamental concepts as health, illness, disease, pain, and care; examines relevant modes of reasoning and paradigms of knowledge; explores the role of narrativity, argument, and image systems in the internal and external understandings of medicine; and considers ways that medical knowledge and understanding relate to other domains of knowledge and culture. The seminar attempts to understand the tensions that arise when medicine is viewed as both a domain of patient care and a field of research, and when it is seen as implicating both individual and social responsibilities, and as ministering to both body and mind. There are common readings and short writing assignments for each class meeting, as well as a final paper.

Theoretical Foundations of Applied Ethics
Mark Wicclair

This text-based, discussion-oriented course surveys major ethical theories and their relation to applied ethics, especially bioethics and health policy. Students examine ethical theories such as consequentialism, duty-based theories, rights-based theories, contractarianism, virtue ethics, and casuistry. Readings include selections by Mill, Kant, Rawls, Williams, Smart, Jonsen and Toulmin, Pellegrino and Thomasma, and Baier. This course addresses various questions about ethical theory and applied ethics, such as:

What are the major ethical theories?
What are the criteria for assessing competing ethical theories?
What is the relation between ethical theory and applied ethics?

Lisa S. Parker

This seminar serves as a graduate-level introduction to some of the topics, texts, methods, and normative assumptions of the field of bioethics.  In addition to being exposed to these aspects of the field, students are asked to think critically about them.  The course proceeds topically and, in some respects, chronologically.  It begins with an examination of informed consent, which has become a cornerstone doctrine of bioethics, and proceeds by considering other topics in relation to this doctrine and the assumptions and values that ground it.  In one sense, then, this seminar considers the adequacy of informed consent, together with the assumptions and values it reflects, as a foundation for a medical ethics (or for bioethics) and as a normative foundation for medical practice.  Simultaneously, the seminar will invite consideration of the adequacy of bioethics itself.

Clinical Practica

Clinical Practicum I
Elizabeth Chaitin

The first clinical practicum provides a structured environment within which students observe ethical issues as they arise in clinical settings and discuss them with faculty and student peers. Students “round” in specified health care settings—such as medical wards, intensive care units, and out-patient settings—with residents, attending physicians, and other health care professionals.  They also observe ethics consultations, clinical ethics teaching, and ethics committee meetings. Students participate in two seminars that are integral to the practicum: Clinical Ethics and Medical Humanities and Social Science Perspectives on Health Care. Students are encouraged to keep a journal or field notes of their experience and to discuss these with their mentors and seminar colleagues. A clinical ethics case study is required and is designed to introduce students to this familiar case format in bioethics and to encourage students to undertake research on an ethical concern that arises during their particular clinical rotation.

Clinical Practicum II
Center faculty

This second practicum allows students to observe clinical practice in a medical context related to their thesis research and to have an intensive month-long experience in that setting. In recent years, students have chosen case management and social work, ethics committees and consultation, genetic counseling, geriatrics, HIV clinic, hospital legal counsel offices, the institutional review board (IRB), oncology, pain management, psychiatry (both intake or emergency departments and wards), or surgery. With guidance from the program director and their thesis advisor, students design their practicum experience to serve their interests and propose particular aims for their experience. They then meet regularly with Center or clinical faculty to discuss their observations and to relate their experience to relevant literature, course work, and their own research.

Thesis Research

MA Thesis in Bioethics
Lisa S. Parker and other faculty

In the thesis seminar that accompanies their thesis research, students share their ideas, their project outline, and rough drafts of their prospectus for the project. In addition to receiving comments on their ideas and arguments, they receive suggestions about venues in which to publish or present their work, as well as advice about the creative process of writing, including ways of overcoming anxiety and writer’s block, questions about forming a thesis committee, and suggestions about research methods and sources. In recent years, students have written theses on such topics as addiction, AIDS and the duty to warn third parties, conflict of interest and ethics committees, gene-environment interaction and implications for ethical policy, identity politics and public health concerns, organ transplantation, physician-assisted suicide, preventive medicine, sex education, and therapeutic ascriptions of responsibility in psychiatry.

Restricted Electives

Students choose one elective from a list of “restricted elective” courses. Courses placed on this pursue ethical issues related to a particular area in greater depth than the Bioethics core course, or employ a particular disciplinary perspective to explore issues in medicine and research. In recent years, restricted electives have included:

  • Bioethics and Health Law
  • Ethical Issues in Medical Genetics
  • Gender, Ethics, and the Body
  • Historical and Sociological Perspectives in Public Health
  • Medical Anthropology


The remaining credits may be taken in electives approved by the program director. Students work with the program director and their thesis advisor to ensure that their particular needs are met. Students may take a Special Topics in Bioethics or Directed Reading in Bioethics course, or may identify relevant elective courses from various departments and schools of the University, including: 

In addition, through the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, full-time students may take courses at ten consortium-affiliated colleges and universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminar.