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How to be a good (consequentialist) bioethicist…

6 Jul, 15 | by David Hunter

There has recently been a pattern of papers (and I am not going to identify which ones) which I take as being slightly embarrassing to academic bioethicists because they portray us in a less than flattering light because of the naive mistakes they seem to make, or the outlandish poorly argued claims they make. I have noted a trend for these to have come from relatively new, consequentialist bioethicists and being the helpful sort that I am, the aim of this blog post therefore is to help consequentialist bioethicists from falling into these pitfalls.


On Being a Hypocrite

1 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists.  In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS.  Blimey.  The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”

I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch.  Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living?  I don’t think I do.  I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then.  And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).*  But as for deciding what is right and wrong?  Naaaah.

Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”.  That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time.  I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times.  (Ask me about – say –  genetic privacy while I’m drafting a section of a paper on genetic privacy, and I’m your man.  Ask me while I’m making pastry… not so much.)  If we allow that I’m better at dealing with (a) specific moral question(s) while “on duty”, that won’t mean I’m not susceptible to the same intellectual shortcuts and fallacies as everyone else at least most of the rest of the time.  I’m probably almost as susceptible to them even when I am on duty.  I’d assume that the same applies to others in the profession, too.

The article does make great play of the apparent inconsistencies between what ethicists say and what they/ we do.  So there’s the finding about how many more say that eating meat is morally problematic than actually avoid it, and the chestnut about how ethics books are the ones most frequently stolen from libraries.**  At least there are decent sources cited – peer-reviewed papers like this one that are philosophically informed, to boot.

So: ethicists aren’t reliably better behaved than others.  I don’t think that should surprise us, though.  But, there’s a couple of questions into which we might still want to dig more deeply. more…

Questions to which the Answer is Yes

28 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Over at Practical Ethics, Charles Camosy asks a question: Can bioethics be done without theology?

Yep.  It can.

Well, that was quick and simple.

But – oh, all right: I probably ought to say a bit more.  Now, Camosy’s post is quite long, and that means that if I want to scrutinise it in any detail, I’d have to generate something at least as long.  I’m not sure if I – or any reader – has the patience for that, so what follows is probably not going to be without the odd gap.  All the same, this post has turned out to be something of a monster in its own right – so it might be worth going to make a cup of tea first if you intend to read it.

The tl;dr version is that I think that Camosy’s argument is fallacious in several places.  And though I’m arguing from a position of godlessness, I think that the problems ought to be apparent to those who do have faith as well.  With that caveat issued, here we go… more…

Emmerich on Fitness to Practise

30 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Having asked out loud whether anyone could explain a couple of odd FtP decisions, I got this from Nathan Emmerich, offering sociological pop at an answer… 

Iain wondered if anyone could explain the morality that underlies a couple of recent Fitness to Practise decisions made by the GMC.  Well, more accurately he wondered if anyone could explain the “public perception” or “public confidence” aspect of the GMC’s Fitness to Practice guidelines.  Never one to shirk a challenge, I thought I would give it a go…

The first thing to note is that one has to change, or perhaps expand, the terms of the debate.  As a discipline applied philosophical bioethics tends to focus on “ethics”, “ethical reasoning” and codified rules over what I (and some others) would call “morality”.  For our present purposes the starkest way to express the idea is by appeal to the historical morality of the UK medical profession, which used to be based on the idea of the British gentleman of a certain class and standing (and, obviously, race and gender).

This morality was uncodified – it had no explicit ethics.  Indeed, more than this, it was held to be uncodifiable both in principle and as a matter of morality.  It was thought it would be wrong to codify gentlemanly (medical) morality as to do so would open the way to, first, individuals who merely followed rules rather than being the correct sort of persons or having the right character.  Second, it would lead to people who did not have the right character or standing attempting to second-guess the decisions of medical professionals or gentlemen.  Such a thing was, of course, intolerable.

There is no denying that there was a lot wrong with this ‘moral culture’, and a range of factors has been influential in the modification of medical morality from this historical position to the one we have today.  However, “medical morality” has vanished completely, indeed, it is impossible for it to do so: the medical profession (indeed any profession or cultural group) has some underlying moral ethos.  Some cultures, like modern medicine, may also have explicitly stated ethical codes and guidelines that may be more or less in line with the underlying moral culture.  Nevertheless the moral culture itself is not obviated by these codes.  Indeed it underpins the existence and application of any such formally stated ethics.

The problem here is that no rule contains the principles of for its own application.   more…

Say twenty hail Autonomy’s and reflect on what you have done – bioethicists as having some, but not priestly authority.

17 May, 13 | by David Hunter

Nathan Emmerich, occasional commentator here at the JME blog has recently published an interesting piece in the Guardian which argues against us taking bioethicists as having a particular type of expertise. While I enjoyed and agree with much of what he argues I do have a couple of quibbles – in particular I worry that the emphasis on inclusiveness and democracy could in effect lead to the exclusion of the bioethicist, which I think would be a mistake.

The type of expertise he argues against bioethicists having is basically what I will refer to as authoritative expertise – someone who has authoritative expertise in a particular field ought to be deferred to when there is a disagreement – their opinion is “better” than ours as lay decision makers. So for example when deciding how long an object is, and whether it will fit in the boot of our car, we ought to defer to the chap with the tape measure, since their measured judgement is better than ours.

I use this example for a reason – Emmerich focuses on knowledge based expertise (no doubt because it is easier to explain to the lay public…) but this isn’t the only form of expertise that warrants some deference there is also expertise which is performative (in this case the act of measuring well). I’m inclined to think that if bioethicists deserve any deference it will be due to their performative expertise, rather than their knowledge.

Emmerich suggests however that bioethicists should not be taken as having authoratative expertise because he thinks knowledge about morality is more like knowledge about aesthetics than knowledge about facts. Hence we ought to give no more weight to the bioethicists opinion about an ethical issue, than we do someone heavily steeped in the Art’s worlds opinion about a piece of modern art – they have a “sophisticated” view but that doesn’t tell me what I should think about the piece.

He thinks bioethicists should conceive of themselves as thinking alongside, working with people to work out what to do rather than telling them what to do. He argues that commenting on the biosciences is particularly dangerous for bioethicists because it is different from medical practice in that its practice isn’t inherently involving ethical decisions – hence he claims bioethicists are tempted to make pronouncements and decide about ethical issues in the biosciences rather than work with bioscientists. As an aside I think this is exactly wrong – I doubt the empirical claim is true (ie that bioethicists proclaim and make decisions more about issues in bioscience than medicine) and I think the process of conducting bioscience does involve constant ongoing ethical decision making – it’s just a different sort of decision making, about the responsible conduct of science and dissemination rather than the treatment of patients. Nonetheless lets leave that aside.

So far so good – I don’t think bioethicists ought to be taken as overwhelmingly authoritative – the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had sitting on an ethics committee was when the committee treated me as a moral expert and simply deferred to my opinion in each case – it took awhile to break them of that. But I disagree with Emmerich about why this is the case. This is in part because I object to the metaethics he is assuming – the reason we find the expert in Art uncompelling is that the general opinion is that there is no truth of the matter when it comes to aesthetic judgements. And presumably Emmerich thinks the same about morality.

I broadly take the same view as Hobbes does here:

Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Chapter V.

Of Reason and Science
And, as in arithmetic, unpractised men must, and professors themselves may often, err, and cast up false; so also in any other subject of reasoning the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves, and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art; but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever. And when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge, yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other men’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men as it is in play after trump is turned, to use for trump on every occasion that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies, bewraying their want of right reason, by the claim they lay to it.

The point here is that when there is moral disagreement claiming to have the right judgement – the right reason – is like cheating at cards by claiming whenever it is your turn that the trump suit is whichever suit you have the most of in your hand. In other words the dispute is about which reason is right, hence simply saying “mine” does nothing to resolve this. But this view of morality is a bit more complex – I’m inclined to think there is a truth of the matter, it just isn’t easy to access, nor is it easy to show to others. Hobbes solution to the problem of irresolvable disputes is to establish an absolute sovereign who we both agree to defer to, and then we go with whatever they say. I roughly think that is right, with the conditional (that I suspect Hobbes would agree with) that we try to ensure that our absolute sovereign comes out with an answer that is as close to being right as possible. And given the complexity and the difficulty of divining moral truths that deliberation, debate and argument has a better chance of getting the “right” answer than having someone sit by themselves in a room and ponder it.

I think the bioethicist is in a position to contribute something useful to such deliberation, debate and discussion in two ways, both of which require some expertise – even if it is not totally authorative expertise. The first way is this, the bioethicist I assume will have access to more knowledge both about what has been argued in regards to ethical theory and in regards to moves in applied ethics. Knowing these moves can short-cut some discussion and debate by showing paths that will lead nowhere – the implications and consequences of particular arguments. This I think is as useful an input as that of someone who – trained in an empirical discipline – contributes their knowledge of their discipline and its findings to the debate about a particular issue. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a bioethicist ought I think to have a certain sort of performative expertise. This is an expertise at argument and debate, at critical thinking, questioning assumptions and being aware just how arguments go wrong, in effect this is philosophical expertise.* Is this authoritative? I think at best only partially – largely it gives the bioethicist the authority to suggest that particular lines of pursuit won’t be fruitful. In any case I think philosophical reasoning is inherently democraticising – because of its origins and use in debate and discussion it ought to aim to up skill and inform everyone in the discussion, rather than claim special status – to go back to my man with a measuring tape analogy the good bioethicist tries to provide everyone in the discussion of whether object x will fit in the car boot with a tape measure for themselves.

There is a more general line of argument which can be drawn from Emmerich’s argument against expertise in regards to bioethicists which is an argument against involving “experts” in making bioethical decisions – in effect Emmerich implies that these being decisions by experts, even committees of multiple types of experts is anti-democratic – because it involves having others making moral decisions for “us” when that is actually our responsibility. Now of course a good bioethicist would question the assumption that being anti-democratic is bad, but I’m going instead to suggest that having others decide for you can be, and in this case is, perfectly democratic. Direct democracy is well known to have certain limitations, not the least that the electorate often wants contradictory things for example that given the option people will opt for lower taxes and higher social spending… I suspect that bioethical issues are an area where direct democracy will be unsatisfying – either because of intractable disagreements within the population (think abortion) or because the technical nature of the decision means that predictably decisions will be made that lead to outcomes that few in the population would endorse. In these cases it would seem sensible to agree to establish a group of decision makers (in Hobbesian terms a sovereign) to delegate this decision to. We do this in regards to most political decisions and hence it seems that establishing a public decision making body such as the HFEA can be a perfectly democratic response, as long as it is established in the right way (in this case in a process where it occurs as a result of legislation passed by a duly elected government). Such a body may not have the moral authority of the expertise of knowing the right answer but they are our best bet at getting somewhere close to it, and hence we ought to accept their decision making. Of course Emmerich is right to think that this needs to be a public facing process which should take into consideration public opinion and input from individual members of the public, but these should be taken as no more authoritative than individual expert’s opinions. Otherwise we are in effect allowing the public (or more accurately a tiny unrepresentative vocal bit of the public) claim “right reason”, when this isn’t warranted.

Emmerich identifies a real temptation and danger for bioethicists, it is tempting to act as moral authorities, and broadly speaking illegitimate to do so. But there are dangers in the other direction as well which we need to be wary of as well I’m inclined to think direct democracy worship is no better than the autonomy worship than many current bioethicists practice.

* I am in this piece using a less than inclusive definition of bioethicist – meaning someone who has at least some training in thinking philosophically about ethical issues – this doesn’t have to be formal education of course,and could be self taught,  but the argument I am making depends on bioethicists as having this – those who work simply empirically on issues in bioethics but have no normative engagement (if such a person actually exists) would at least by the standards of this piece not count as a bioethicist. Sorry.

Is the NIMH Turning its Back on DSM-V?

9 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Thanks to Brian Earp for bringing this release from the US’ National Institute of Mental Health to my attention; it concerns the Institute’s decision to move away from DSM as its diagnostic tool.  DSM has been enormously successful – in terms of having established itself at the centre of psychiatry – but it has been enormously controversial, as well; the NIMH moving away from it is very big news indeed.  Whether the new model that they’re going to be working on will be any better, of course, remains to be seen.

The important bit seems to be this:

NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories. Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system.

One or two things about the statement leap out at me. more…

Call for Participants: Concepts of Mental Health

8 Jan, 13 | by Iain Brassington

British Postgraduate Philosophy Association Masterclass 2013
April 12th-13th, University College London

This year’s BPPA masterclass will be on concepts of mental health, and applications are invited from graduate researchers within the field of philosophy and mental health.

A masterclass involves a mixture of seminars, group workshops, presentations by students and experts and critical discussion.  The small number of participants (8-10) means that all will have a chance to speak and discuss their research as well as getting to know others working in similar areas.  It is an excellent way of deepening and broadening understanding of a given area and further developing one’s own research.

This year’s masterclass will be led by experts committed to furthering interdisciplinary research into mental health issues, combining philosophical training with clinical experience.  Professor Bill Fulford is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Warwick and is a Member of the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Oxford.  His previous posts include Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the University of Oxford and Special Adviser for Values-Based Practice in the Department of Health.  Dr Hanna Pickard is a fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Clinical Ethics Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oxford.  She also holds a clinical post as a therapist at the Complex Needs Service with the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.  The experts will be leading group-workshops and seminars and will present on their own research over the course of the masterclass.

The broad focus of the masterclass will be on exploring the varying conceptions of mental health and illness and the assumptions accompanying and lying behind these conceptions.  The aim is to explore the assumptions and often false dichotomies which shape perceptions of mental health, from the perceptions of those in the field of psychiatry to those found amongst other medical professionals and the non-medical public.  Topics we expect to be discussed include, but are not restricted to

  • free will, responsibility and related notions and their applications and misapplications within understanding of mental health problems, in particular in relation to addiction;
  • the effect of neurological research on conceptions of mental health;
  • the distinction between cognitive disorders and personality disorders;
  • the extent to which mental illness can and ought to be understood within the framework of physical illness.

The precise content of the masterclass will be in part determined by the research interests of the participants and there will be opportunities for 6 participants to present their own research.

To apply, send an academic CV (including any relevant clinical or practical experience) with a cover letter stating your area of research, the relevance of your research to the masterclass and what you could contribute to the masterclass (500 words max).  Please also state whether you would like to present on your research (presentations will be brief – about 20 minutes each). Please also attach a reference from your supervisor (if applicable), confirming your interest and that you would make a valuable contribution to the masterclass.

The masterclass will be held at University College London.  Breakfast and lunch will be provided on both days and accommodation for those coming from outside of London.  There may also be some small travel bursaries available.

Deadline for applications: February 15th

Please send applications and any queries to:

Twitter: @BPPAmasterclass


[IB adds: This looks excellent, and anyone working in this field should definitely consider going.  And the rest of us should just pray that it’s videotaped and uploaded to YouTube…]

Passive Euthanasia: A Cri de Cœur

5 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Don’t worry: this isn’t another instance of me yammering on about the right to die or the right to induce death.

I’ve recently received a parcel; it contained a copy of this book by Leanne Bell, which happened to fall open at p 204.  On that page, you’ll find this passage:

Active euthanasia involves a deliberate act intended to kill […].  This is illegal in England and Wales because it satisfies the definition of ‘unlawful killing’ and will therefore either be murder or manslaughter depending on the mens rea (that is, the state of mind) of the doctor at the time.  He is likely to face criminal prosecution, regardless of whether the patient and/or the family requested or consented to it.  By contrast, passive euthanasia involves the withholding or withdrawing of treatment from the patient, i.e. an omission rather than an act, and, in certain circumstances, can be legal. [emphasis mine – IB]

No.  Wrong.  Wrong on two fronts.  Withholding treatment may be an omission, but withdrawing it isn’t.  More importantly, while the active/ passive distinction boils down to one between administration and non-administration, it is simply not true that non-administration is the same as passive euthanasia.

Euthanasia requires the intention to end life based on a motive of beneficence directed at the person who will die.  Neither withdrawing nor withholding treatment indicates the intention to end life.  Only if you’re withdrawing or withholding treatment with the intention that this should end life have you committed passive euthanasia.

There’s a simple test you can run here: When withdrawing or withholding treatment, would it be coherent to hope for the patient’s survival – however miraculous – without further intervention?  It would not be coherent in cases of euthanasia, because you can’t intend that life should end and yet hope that it doesn’t.  It could be coherent otherwise.

Or another version of the same test: If you are considering withholding or withdrawing treatment and the patient does not die, would you see this as contrary to your intention?  If yes, you’re considering passive euthanasia; if no, you aren’t.

Bell is by no means alone in getting PE wrong.  The mistake is all over the place – both in the clinical ethics literature, and in the wider public domain.  I’m not wholly sure where it’s come from, but I suspect it may derive from Rachels having made it in”Active and Passive Euthanasia“, and then a little more explicitly in “Killing and Letting Die“:

Many people believe that “passive euthanasia” – allowing terminal patients to die, rather than pointlessly prolonging their lives – is sometimes permissible; but they also believe that killing patients is always wrong.

I’ve got a lot of time for Rachels, and much of what he says on killing and letting die in these essays is good.  But this is wrong.  Even good essays can have wrinkles in them; and this is a big one.  And if it’s the source of the same mistake being made elsewhere, that’s quite serious. more…

Is Bioethics Really a Bully? Really?

11 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

On his blog in The Independent, John Rentoul has a long-running feature called “Questions to which the Answer is No“.  In it, he examines the kind of screaming rhetorical-question headline much beloved of certain middle-market tabloids: “Is this photographic evidence of Nessie?”, “Does coffee cure cancer?”, “Does coffee cause cancer?”, “Does MMR bring down house prices?“* and so on.

Here’s the first in an intermittent parallel series from me: “Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?“.  For the inaugural post, step forward Dan Sokol, the BMJ”s “ethics man”, who asks in his latest column, “Is Bioethics a Bully?”.  The answer to this is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?.

(A warning before I start: I’m about to go off on one.  Even by my standards, this is big.  You might want to go and make tea.)

The general thesis of the article is this:

Bioethics, in its current form, has bullying tendencies. Ironically, it often adopts a paternalistic attitude towards clinicians, treating them as an ethically deficient species.  Although bioethics should not shy away from pointing out ethical concerns in medical practice, sometimes forcefully, it must not give way to negativism or, worse still, to a zeal to condemn.  Clinicians are easy targets and, without a command of the fancy theories and language of the accusers, possess few means to respond formally.

Is the thesis true? more…

Why philosophical theorising about distributive justice in health care (mostly) doesn’t work

28 Jun, 12 | by David Hunter

I had the pleasure yesterday at the IAB 2012 to see Daniel Wikler run a symposium on population level bioethics – which primarily focused on prioritisation decisions. This was useful for me since it helped me coalesce why I think many if not all attempts to give a philosophical account of distributive justice in health care (and perhaps more generally) are doomed to fail. The methodology that Wikler et al adopted was to give a variety of cases which were in his words designed to isolate one element of tension for example fair chances vs efficiency so that we could evaluate and become more clear about what we value and why.

Now I don’t want to suggest such an approach is worthless – I do think it can help clarify what we think is and isn’t important, clarify concepts and so on. However much of the content of the symposium was similar to a symposium run by Wikler et al at the 2006 IAB in Beijing and for those of us who had attended both there was a sense that things hadn’t moved on much since then. I say that with no disrespect intended to Wikler et al – distributive justice in health is notoriously had and intractable so a lack of much progress is no sign of a lack of quality.

One of the cases they pulled up was interesting because it was iterative in nature – in the first case you have enough money to either vaccinate the 800 people who live in the city or the 200 people who live in the mountains. The majority of the audience chose the obviously efficient option. Then more money becomes available and you can now either vaccinate the remaining 200 in the mountains against that disease or vaccinate the 800 in the city against a new equally nasty disease. In this case Wikler reported that the majority of people they show the case to want to vaccinate those missed out in the first round which is puzzling since it is basically the same decision as in the first case but the opposite option is selected.

I think this case is useful to point out some flaws in this methodology and indeed in many approaches to distributive justice in health care. Taking isolated one off cases is of limited use because they make health care decisions too easy, health care decision making is (as I’ve argued elsewhere) inherently iterative if we spend money now to save X then that is likely to generate more health care needs and hence costs from X in the future. Hence decision making in health care prioritisation is embedded in time, and cannot be easily separated from its downstream impacts. As I’ve argued here: in regards to new technology this is unhelpful as a way to approach impacts. As I’ve argued here in regards to new technology this is unhelpful as a way to approach thinking about distributive justice because it prioritises justice at a particular point in time rather than justice overall. This is thinking about healthcare in the wrong way, it is like trying to understand a 3d scene by looking at a 2d snapshot – you can get an idea of what is happening but certainly not a complete understanding.

So what is the way forward in philosophical thinking about distributive justice in health care? Unfortunately I don’t have much positive to say, it is a matter I think of trying to be sensitive to the complexities of the actuality of health care decision making and muddling through.

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