We developed a survey instrument to evaluate knowledge of ethical issues among orthopaedic surgeons and to assess their ability to handle ethical dilemmas. The twenty-six-item survey evaluates seven areas of medical practice: confidentiality, informed consent, truth-telling, the physician-patient relationship, economic aspects of care, end-of-life decision-making, and the approach to an incompetent colleague. It was administered to 117 attending orthopaedic surgeons and residents in two orthopaedic surgery training programs. One hundred and two orthopaedic surgeons (87 per cent) completed the survey. Overall, they correctly answered a mean of nineteen (73 per cent) of the twenty-six questions. The respondents appropriately handled questions involving economic aspects, truth-telling, confidentiality, and an incompetent colleague. However, there was poorer understanding of proper ethical conduct with regard to informed consent (58 per cent of the responses were correct), the physician-patient relationship (72 per cent of the responses were correct), and end-of-life decision-making (78 per cent of the responses were correct). No significant differences were found, with the numbers available, in overall performance according to site, attending compared with resident status, age, gender, or whether the physician had had training in ethics. Economic, social, and professional forces have increased the medical ethical issues facing orthopaedic surgeons. Medical ethics now must be taught in training programs in orthopaedic surgery. Our survey of two orthopaedic surgery training programs demonstrated that orthopaedic surgeons approach most medical ethical problems appropriately. However, improvement is needed in selected areas.