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Philosophy

Donald Trump’s Mental Health (again)

14 Apr, 17 | by Iain Brassington

The speculation about Donald Trump’s mental health that was doing the rounds earlier in the year seems to have died down a bit.  That’s to be expected; like it or not, his Presidency is now part of normal life.  But I’ve been lagging in my blogging here, and so it’s only now that I’ve got a moment to mention in passing an op-ed article about Trump in the New Scientist that appeared just after I posted last on the topic.  (February.  I know, I know.)

It’s by Allen Frances, and it takes issue with what he calls “armchair diagnosis” of the president.  He’s right to say that there’s something disquieting about armchair diagnosis: “psychiatric diagnosis is already done far too casually and inaccurately in medical and mental health practice.  Armchair diagnosis further cheapens its currency.”  However, I do wonder whether we ought to pay some attention to whose armchair it is.  Often, it’s an armchair occupied by the genuinely ignorant, or the spiteful.  That’s the internet for you.  Accusing someone of being mentally ill or having a personality disorder on this account may be simply mistaken; or it may be intended as a jibe, the subtext of which is that there’s something shameful about having a mental health problem.  But not every armchair is the same: as Frances’ article admits, a letter with 35 signatories who work within the mental health field appeared in the New York Times.  That letter may be misguided, or ill-motivated.  But it is by people who, presumably, know a thing or two about the topic.  Their armchair is not my armchair.

But there’s something else about the piece that’s just nagging away at me.  I don’t know a heck of a lot about mental health, but (and maybe that’s why) there’s a passage in the article that strikes me as being just strange:

But the main [reason for opposing armchair psychiatry] is the inaccuracy of the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis: Trump may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill.

I wrote the criteria for NPD for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which guides mental health diagnosis in the US and beyond. These require not only that the personality features be present, but also that they cause clinically significant distress and impairment. Trump appears to cause severe distress in others (rather than experiencing it himself) and has been richly rewarded (rather than punished) for his self-promoting and self-absorbed behaviours.

[…] We must avoid the frequent mistake of confusing mental illness with bad behaviour. Most people who lie, cheat and exploit others are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people do not commit dishonourable acts.

There’s a few things that are a bit odd about this. more…

Law Changes and Slippery Slopes

13 Apr, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Apparently, there was a TV programme in Australia the other day in which a there was a discussion of assisted dying.  It got reported in The Guardian, largely on the basis that an 81-year-old audience member kept calling Margaret Somerville “darling” and then got mildly sweary.  I’ve only seen those clips from the programme that are linked in the Graun‘s report, so I’m not going to comment on the tone of the debate in particular.  Rather, I’m interested in one of the responses to the programme, from Xavier Symons, writing in The Conversation.

Symons takes the opportunity to unpick the idea of a slippery slope argument – in this case, the claim that allowing some forms of assisted dying will commit us to allowing… well, that’s open-ended, but it’s sufficient to say that it’d be terrible.  We’d want to avoid terrible things; therefore, the argument goes, we shouldn’t allow any of it.  This is well-worn stuff in the seminar room, but it’s a mode of argument that refuses to die.  Quite correctly, Symons points out that

there is a need for empirical evidence or sound inferential reasoning to support the claim that event B will necessarily (or probably) follow on from event A.  Without this evidence, the argument is invalid. I can’t just claim, for example, that the legalisation of medicinal marijuana leads to the legalisation of ice – I need to show some empirical or logical connection between the two.

So far, so standard.  (I’d say “unsound” rather than “invalid”, because the validity of an argument doesn’t depend on its evidence – or, at least, not in the same way; but that’s a small matter.)  He then makes another move, which is a bit more interesting:

But (and it’s a big but) there is such a thing as a good and valid slippery slope argument.  A good slippery slope argument demonstrates a causal or probable relationship between event A and B, such that event B can legitimately be expected to occur if event A is allowed to occur. […] There are, nevertheless, compelling empirical and logical slippery slope arguments available to defend more modest claims about the “normalisation” of assisted dying.

Is this correct? more…

Professional Codes and Diagnosis at a Distance

6 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

This is the second part of my response to Trish Greenhalgh’s post on the propriety of medics, psychiatrists in particular, offering diagnoses of Donald Trump’s mental health.  In the last post, I concentrated on some of the problems associated with making such a diagnosis (or, on reflection, what might be better called a “quasi-diagnosis”).  In this, I’m going to concentrate on the professional regulation aspect.

Greenhalgh notes that, as a UK medic, she is bound by the GMC’s Duties of a Doctor guidance,

which – to my surprise – does not explicitly cover the question of a doctor’s duty towards a public figure who is not his or her patient.

[…]

My reading of the GMC guidance is that in extreme circumstances, even acknowledging the expectation of how doctors should normally behave, it may occasionally be justified to raise concerns about a public figure (for example, when the individual is relentlessly pursuing a course of action that places many lives at risk). Expressing clinical concern in such circumstances seems to involve a comparable ethical trade-off to the public interest disclosure advice (Duties of a Doctor paragraphs 53-56) that breach of patient confidentiality may be justified in order “to prevent a serious risk of harm to others.”

Well, to be honest, it’s not that much of a surprise to me that the GMC guidelines doesn’t stretch to public figures – but that’s a minor point.

The more interesting thing for me is what the relationship is between the practitioner and the GMC.  Greenhalgh ends her post by saying that she “wrote this blog to promote further debate on the topic and invite the GMC to clarify its position on it”.  But why should the GMC’s position be all that important?

OK: I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here.  Stick with me. more…

Diagnosing Trump

5 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

It doesn’t take too much time on the internet to find people talking with some measure of incredulity about Donald Trump.  Some of this talk takes the tone of horrified fascination; some of it is mocking (and is accompanied by correspondingly mocking images); and some people are wondering aloud about his mental health.  In this last category, there’s a couple of sub-categories: sometimes, people are not really talking in earnest; sometimes, though, they are.  What if the forty-fifth President of the United States of America has some kind of mental illness, or some kind of personality disorder?  What if this affects his ability to make decisions, or increases the chance that he’ll make irrational, impulsive, and potentially dangerous decisions?

This does raise questions about the proper conduct of the medical profession – particularly, the psychiatric profession.  Would it be permissible for a professional to speak publicly about the putative mental health of the current holder of the most important political office in the world?  Or would such action simply be speculation, and unhelpful, and generally infra dig?  More particularly, while the plebs might say all kinds of things about Trump, is there something special about speaking, if not exactly ex cathedra, then at least with the authority of someone who has working knowledge of cathedrae and what it’s like to sit on one?

As far as the American Psychiatric Association is concerned, the answer is fairly clear.  §7.3 of its Code of Ethics, which you can get here, says that

[o]n occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

This rule is nicknamed the “Goldwater Rule”, after Barry Goldwater, the Senator who sued successfully for damages after a magazine polled psychiatrists on the question of whether or not he was fit to be President.  Following the rule would appear to rule out making any statement about whether a President has a mental illness, a personality disorder, or anything else that might appear within the pages of the DSM.

Over on the BMJ‘s blog, Trish Greenhalgh has been wondering about what a doctor may or may not do in cases like this:

I have retweeted cartoons that mock Trump, because I view satire and parody as legitimate weapons in the effort to call our leaders to account.

But as a doctor, should I go further? Should I point out the formal diagnostic criteria for a particular mental illness, cognitive condition, or particular personality disorder and select relevant examples from material available in the public domain to assess whether he appears to meet those criteria?

Her post is long, but it does generate an answer:

I believe that on rare occasions it may be ethically justified to offer clinically-informed speculation, so long as any such statement is clearly flagged as such. […] I believe that there is no absolute bar to a doctor suggesting that in his or her clinical opinion, it would be in the public interest for a particular public figure to undergo “occupational health” checks to assess their fitness to hold a particular office.

Her phrasing is such as to leave no bet unhedged – she’s careful not to say that she’s talking about anyone in particular; but, beneath that, the message is clear: it might be justifiable to depart from the Goldwater Rule to some extent in certain hypothetical circumstances.

My post in response will also be long – in fact, it’s going to spread out over two posts.  I think she’s plausibly correct; but the way she gets there is not persuasive.

more…

Chappell on Midwives and Regulation

2 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Richard Yetter Chappell has drawn my attention to this – a blog post in which he bemoans the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s rules about indemnity insurance, and the effects that they’ll have on independent midwives.  (I’d never heard of independent midwives – but an IM – according to Independent Midwives UK – is “a fully qualified midwife who has chosen to work outside the NHS in a self-employed capacity”.)  In essence, what’s happened is that the NMC has ruled that the indemnity cover used by some IMs – around 80, nationwide, according to some reports – is inadequate; these 80 IMs (out of 41000!) are therefore barred from working.

I’ve got to admit that this seems like a bit of a storm in a teacup to me.  For sure, there may have been infelicities about the way that the NMC handled its decision.  That may well be unfortunate, but it may not be all that much to get excited about.  However, Chappell makes two particularly striking points.  The first is his opening claim, in which he refers to this as “a new low for harmful government over-regulation”.  Well, it’s not really government overregulation, is it?  It’s the NMC.  Governing bodies are not government.  And whether it’s overregulation at all is a moot point: we need more information about what the standard is by which we should assess any regulation.  That leads us to the second striking thing that Chappell says, to which I’ll return in a moment.  Whether it’s harmful is also a moot point.  I mean, it may be true – as he points out – that the decision will have an undesirable impact on the relationship between some women and their chosen midwife.  But that won’t tell us anything about whether the policy is desirable all told.  It’s certainly not enough to warrant calling it “unethical” – and to dub something unethical is not a moral argument.

The second striking thing is this: more…

A Hot Take on a Cold Body

21 Nov, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see Nils’ post about the recent UK cryonics ruling getting shared around quite a bit – so it should.  I thought I’d throw in my own voice, too.

About 18 months ago, Imogen Jones and I wrote a paper musing on some of the ethical and legal dimensions of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige.  One dimension of this was a look at the legal status of the bodies produced as a result of the “magic” trick – in particular, the haziness of whether they were alive or dead; the law doesn’t have any space for a third state.  The paper was something of a jeu d’esprit, written to serve a particular function in a Festschrift for Margot Brazier.  If I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good paper – but it’s also meant to be fun, and is clearly rather less serious than most ethico-legal scholarship (or anything else in the book, for that matter).

coldlazarus5

Not quite “Cold Lazarus”, but close enough…

So it’s a bit of a surprise to see relevantly similar themes popping up in the news.  If we’re freezing people in the hope of curing terminal illness in the future, what’s the status of the bodies in the meantime (especially if the death certificate has been signed)?  There’s a load of questions that we might want to ask before we get too carried away with embracing cryonics.

Right from the start, there’s a question about plausibility.  For the sake of what follows, I’m going to treat “freezing” as including the process of defrosting people successfully as well, unless the context makes it clear that I mean something else.  Now, that said, the (moral) reasons to freeze people rely on the plausibility of the technology.  If the technology is not plausible, we have no reason to make use of it.  It wouldn’t follow from that that using it’d be wrong – but since the default is not to act in that way, it’s positive reasons that we need, rather than negative ones.  Neither could we really rely on the thought that we could cryopreserve someone in the hope that the freezing-and-thawing process becomes more plausible in future, because we’d have no reason to think that we’d chosen the right version of the technology.  We can only cryopreserve a person once: what if we’ve chosen the wrong technique?  How would we choose the best from an indefinitely large number of what we can at best treat as currently-implausible ones?

So how plausible is it to put a body on ice, then revive it many years later?  It’s been pointed out by some that we currently do preserve embryos without apparent ill-effect, with the implication that there’s no reason in principle why more developed humans couldn’t be frozen successfully.  However, whole humans are a wee bit more complex than embryos; it’s not at all clear that we can extrapolate from balls of a few cells to entire humans.  Even the admittedly limited experimental evidence that it’s possible to freeze whole organs won’t show us that, since we’re systems of organs.  One can accept that an organ is a system, too; but all that means is that we’re systems of systems – so we’ve squared the complexity.  And, of course, the timescales being considered here are tiny compared with the kind of timescales envisaged in cryonic fantasies. more…

We’re all Gonna Die… Eventually

6 Oct, 16 | by Iain Brassington

It might just be a product of the turnover of people with whom I have much professional contact, but I’ve not heard as much about human enhancement in the past couple of years as I had in, say, 2010.  In particular, there seems to be less being said about radical life extension.  Remember Aubrey de Grey and his “seven deadly things“?  The idea there was that senescence was attributable to seven basic processes; those basic processes are all perfectly scrutable and comprehensible biological mechanisms.  Therefore, the argument went, if we just put the time and effort into finding a way to slow, halt, or reverse them, we could slow, halt, or reverse aging.  Bingo.  Preventing senescence would also ensure maximum robustness, so accidents and illnesses would be less likely to kill us.  To all intents and purposes, we’d be immortal.  Some enterprising people of an actuarial mindset even had a go at predicting how long an immortal life would be.  Eventually, you’ll be hit by a bus.  But you might have centuries of life to live before that.

Dead easy.

I was always a bit suspicious of that.  The idea that death provides meaning to life is utterly unconvincing; but the idea that more life is always a good thing is unconvincing, too.  What are you going to do with it?  In essence, it’s one thing to feel miffed that one isn’t going to have the time and ability to do all the things that one wants to do: life is a necessary criterion for any good.  But that doesn’t mean that more life is worth having in its own right.  Centuries spent staring at a blank wall isn’t made any better by dint of being alive.

But a letter published this week in Nature suggests that there is an upper end to human lifespan after all.  In essence, the demographic data seem to suggest that there’s an upper limit to survivability.  That being the case, we should stop worrying about making people live longer and longer, and concentrate on what’s going on during the 125 years or so that Dong, Milholland and Vijg think is allotted to us. more…

Further Clarity on Co-operation and Morality

4 Oct, 16 | by miriamwood

Guest Post by David S. Oderberg, University of Reading

Re: Further clarity on co-operation and morality

The 2014 US Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a landmark case on freedom of religion and conscience in the USA. The so-called ‘contraceptive mandate’ of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requires employers to provide health insurance cover for contraception used by their employees. The Green family (Evangelical Christian), owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores, challenged the mandate as they objected to providing cover for at least those methods of contraception that are abortifacient. They were joined by the Hahn family (Mennonite Christian), owners of a furniture company.

The case wound up at the Supreme Court, where the majority, led by Alito J, agreed with the plaintiffs. Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993, the plaintiffs were ‘substantially burdened’ in their exercise of religious freedom. They sincerely believed that by providing insurance cover that violated their religious and moral beliefs, they would be complicit in sinful behaviour. Violation of the RFRA, the court decided, meant the plaintiffs were entitled to an ‘accommodation’ or ‘opt-out’ of the contraceptive mandate.

The case is remarkable for a number of reasons. Conscientious objection is not new to the courts, particularly as regards service in war. Nor is Hobby Lobby unusual for recognising that a legal person such as a corporation can have its freedom of religion violated in virtue of what its owners/executives are required to do by law. After all, the contraceptive mandate already exempted churches and other purely religious bodies. In the present case, however, the plaintiff corporations were not religious in nature: it was their owners/executives who claimed a corporate exemption based on their personal religious and ethical beliefs. The judgment thus radically extends the potential scope for religious freedom litigation under RFRA, something that will occupy the courts for many years to come.

more…

In Praise of Ambivalence: “Young” Feminism, Gender Identity, and Free Speech

13 Jul, 16 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.

Introduction

Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back.

A Fatal Retraction

Given the state of politics these days, Dreger’s remarks could have been triggered by just about anything; but as it happens, she was reflecting on a controversial decision by the editors of Everyday Feminism, a popular online feminist magazine, to pull an essay of hers on sex education. The essay had earlier been published by Pacific Standard with the provocative title, “What If We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?”

The essay wasn’t the problem. In fact, the editors liked the essay: they had reached out to Dreger to ask her permission to republish it, which is how this whole episode began. Instead, the problem was some other, unrelated material that Dreger had published elsewhere—a kind of “guilt by association” with her own work.

This is how the editors explained their decision (key bits in bold):

What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission [to republish] it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention [we] looked into them.

Trans issues means transgender issues. The editor went on:

We … realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.

If you aren’t familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering what she’s written about trans issues that the editors found so troubling—troubling enough to retract an unrelated essay. And if you are familiar with Dreger’s work, you are probably wondering even more. This is because Dreger is widely regarded as being a supporter of trans rights, as well as rights for intersex people, for gender non-conformers generally, and for other marginalized groups, all of which seems broadly consistent with the aims of Everyday Feminism.

Dreger’s support for sexual minorities is not idle. Instead, she has devoted the better part of her professional career to blowing up narrow-minded gender identity norms, against sometimes huge resistance, and to fighting oppressive attitudes about sex and gender within the more traditional corners of science and medicine. Her work on intersex ethics has been especially influential.

So what could be going on behind the curtain?

more…

IAB 2016: Graeme Didn’t Say “None”…

21 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Every two years, I write a little post-mortem of the IAB conference, mentioning particular high and low points.  But since I’ve heard near-blanket praise for this year’s Edinburgh fandango, there won’t be too many of the latter.  And everyone with whom I’ve been in contact since has been highly impressed; we’re all still on a bit of a high.

So what was particularly good?  Well, in general, I thought that the standard of argument in most of the papers was high: it’s nice to see really big ideas being grappled with.  Matthias Risse’s paper on IP, particularly in the context of making drugs available to the least well-off, was the keynote on Thursday morning, and was notable in this regard.  Risse was arguing that the current IP regime owes too much to Locke, and not enough to Grotius.  In other words, he made no bones about an appeal to 17th-century political philosophy.  A simple and undemanding rehearsal of principlism this was not.  I’d perhaps have liked to hear more about rights to the medicines in question, as a complement to the point about IP rights – after all, unless there’s a right to the medicines, many of the arguments about IP may be moot; but I’m sure that is, or at least could be, done elsewhere.

Similarly, Gillian Brock’s paper about the medical brain-drain left a few questions unanswered – the proposal that there be some kind of mandatory service for professionals from low-to-middle-income countries arguably places a burden on some people for the misfortune of not having been born in a wealthy part of the world, and leaves open questions about what the point of eduction is to begin with (national needs or personal flourishing?) – but was very good all the same.  I missed Catherine Belling’s “Going Under and Coming Round”, but everyone to whom I spoke was mightily impressed – Stephen Latham seemed genuinely lost for words about how good it was; and I also missed Alondra Nelson’s keynote on the social life of DNA, which seems also to have been warmly received.

Of the parallel sessions, one that particularly stands out is Tamara Kayali Browne’s paper on sex-selection; there’s a different-but-related paper by her currently available as a preview in the JME.

On the Arts and Bioethics theme, Adura Onashile’s HeLa was a thoughtful take on a familiar story, and generated a really interesting Q&A; Vishal Shah’s Vellum was a strange and wonderful thing.

The Early Career Researcher emphasis seems to have been a great success, too.

So were there any down points?

  • Well, there were fewer parallel sessions than there have been in previous iterations of the conference (or at least, so it felt); and that did give the thing a slightly different dynamic.  However, I can’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was, qualitatively speaking; and the fact that there’s a difference doesn’t mean that things should have been done otherwise.  With a lot of people having been offered posters rather than oral sessions (one of my submissions being among them), I think that it’s simply a different way of going about things, and I suspect that any quibbles will boil down to taste.  I don’t think that there’re real grounds for complaint.
  • I was a little saddened that I didn’t get to play my normal game of spot-the-bizarre-paper-that-somehow-got-accepted-with-hilarious-consequences, because there was no bizarre paper, as far as I could see.  (Hmmm.  Maybe that means that my symposium paper was the bizarre one.  Eeeep.)  So that’s a minor disappointment, I guess.  But being denied the opportunity of a good facepalm in the pub afterwards isn’t all that much of a hardship.
  • At the ceilidh, a frightening number of people seemed to be unable to count to eight.
  • I was in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, and it was gloriously sunny and warm.  During the IAB, it was cold and wet.  The word “dreich” shouldn’t be usable in June, but it was this time.  Yet it’d hardly be fair to complain about the IAB on that basis.  Besides, nasty weather reduces the incentive to skive and go for a walk up Arthur’s Seat.  Besides besides… it would have been a shame to miss any of the conference.  So who cares about the rain?

Which is as much as to say: no down points really.  Well – except for that one paper talking about assisted dying that relied on a picture of a child next to a headstone where an argument should have been.  You know who you are.

That aside, though, it was all preternaturally good stuff.

After the closing ceremony, I asked Graeme Laurie how many virgins he’d had to sacrifice in order to make sure that things went as well as they did.  He did not say “none”.  Make of that what you will.

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