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There’s Argument, and there’s Disputation.

7 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Very well, then: let’s allow that the quality of argument in bioethics – and clinical ethics in particular – is not of high quality.  What should be done about it?

That’s a hard question, though it’s predictable and wholly justifiable that it should be asked.  And, to be honest, I don’t know offhand.  I might have a few germs of ideas, but nothing that I’d be prepared to mention in public.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t look at other ideas, and test them out.  One such idea is mooted in this paper by Merrick et al: in essence, they propose a sort of debating competition.  They begin by explaining – with some plausibility – some of the factors that make it a bit hard to get full-blooded engagement with ethics in the medical curriculum:

As educators, we have observed additional challenges medical students face in their ethics education, which echo others’ experiences. First, because of the prodigious amount of information medical students are presented with during their first two years of training, they typically adopt a strategy of selectively reading assignments, attending large lectures, and participating in small group discussions.  In this context, ethics appears to be deprioritized, because, from the students’ perspective, it is both more demanding and less rewarding than other subjects.  Unlike other subjects, ethics requires students to reflect on their personal moral sensibilities in addition to understanding theory and becoming familiar with key topics and cases.  Yet, also unlike other courses, poor marks in ethics rarely cause academic failure, given the way performance in medical school curricula is typically evaluated.  Thus, ethics is both more demanding—because of the burdens of self-reflection—and less rewarding—because excellence in ethics does not contribute significantly to grades or test scores.

Second, medical students face challenges in how they individually conceptualize the value of ethics in the medical context.  Although many indicate that morality is important to them, they also suggest that it is a subject matter that relates to their personal, as opposed to professional, actions.  Instead, students often conflate the domains of institutional policy and health law (especially risk management and malpractice litigation) with medical ethics.  Although these domains are obviously also of essential concern for future physicians, they remain distinguishable from ethical issues likely to emerge in practice.  Consequently, rigorous and effective ethics education within the medical school context faces the challenge of distinguishing ethics from other aspects of professionalism.

Too often, ethics gets run alongside communication skills training (well, it’s all about getting informed consent, isn’t it?  Eh?  Eh?); and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to prepare multiple choice questions for ethics assessment.  (Standard answer: nope.  It’s got to be an essay of some sort, or it’s not worth doing.)

So what to do?  The paper, as I’ve already said, suggests a quasi-competitive debating competition, in which teams of students are given a problem, and a limited time to make a case in response to that problem.  An opposing team then has a limited amount of time to place a counterargument.  Then they swap roles, so the counterarguing team gets to make the argument, and the previous arguers now become counter-arguers.  Judges can ask questions, and assign a score.  “The basic aim of the MEB curriculum,” the authors say,

is to help students learn how to produce and present an argument for an ethical position in response to a realistic clinical situation.


Every now and again I get asked to help judge debating competitions – sometimes for academic institutions, sometimes for non-University bodies, sometimes for others (*cough* Instituteofideas *cough*).  I used to be happy to help out.  But I’m not so sure now. more…

Writers Whose Expertise is Deplorably Low

4 Jun, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Something popped up on my twitter feed the other day: this document from Oxford’s philosophy department.  (I’m not sure quite what it is.  Brochure?  In-house magazine?  Dunno.  It doesn’t really matter, though.)  In it, there’s a striking passage from Jeff McMahan’s piece on practical ethics:

Even though what is variously referred to as ‘practical ethics’ or ‘applied ethics’ is now universally recognized as a legitimate area of philosophy, it is still regarded by some philosophers as a ghetto within the broader 
area of moral philosophy.  This view is in one way warranted, as there is much work in such sub-domains of practical ethics as bioethics and business ethics that is done by writers whose expertise is in medicine, health policy, business, or some area other than moral philosophy, and whose standards of rigour in moral argument
are deplorably low.  These writers also tend
 to have only a superficial understanding of normative ethics.  Yet reasoning in practical ethics cannot be competently done without sustained engagement with theoretical issues
in normative ethics.  Indeed, Derek Parfit believes that normative and practical ethics are so closely interconnected that it is potentially misleading even to distinguish between them.  In his view, the only significant distinction is between ethics and metaethics, and even that distinction is not sharp.  [emphasis mine]

It’s a common complaint among medical ethicists who come from a philosophical background that non-philosophers are (a) not as good at philosophy, (b) doing medical ethics wrong, (c) taking over.  All right: there’s an element of hyperbole in my description of that complaint, but the general picture is probably recognisable.  And I don’t doubt that there’ll be philosophers grumbling along those lines at the IAB in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be among them.

There’s a lot going on in McMahan’s piece, and his basic claim is, I suppose, open to a claim that, being a philosopher, he would say that, wouldn’t he?  But even if that claim is warranted, it doesn’t follow that it’s false.  And it probably isn’t false.  There is some very low-quality argument throughout bioethics (and, from what I remember from my time teaching it, business ethics) – more particularly, in the medical ethics branch of bioethics, and more particularly still, in the clinical ethics sub-branch.  Obviously, I’m not going to pick out any examples here, but many of us could point to papers that have been simply not very good, because the standard of philosophy was low, without too much difficulty.  Often, these are papers we’ve peer-reviewed, and that haven’t seen the light of day.  But sometimes they do get published, and sometimes they get given at conferences.  I’ve known people who make a point of trying to find the worst papers on offer at a given conference, just for the devilry.

It doesn’t take too much work to come up with the common problems: a tendency to leap to normative conclusions based on the findings of surveys, or empirical or sociological work; value-laden language allowing conclusions to be smuggled into the premises of arguments; appeals to vague and – at best – contentious terms like dignity or professionalism; appeals to nostrums about informed consent; cultural difference used as an ill-fitting mask for special pleading; moral theories being chosen according to whether they generate the desired conclusion; and so on.  Within our field, my guess is that appeals to professional or legal guidelines as the solutions to moral problems is a common fallacy.  Not so long ago, Julian noted that

[t]he moralists appear to be winning.  They slavishly appeal to codes, such as the Declaration of Helsinki.  Such documents are useful and represent the distillation of the views of reasonable people.  Still, they do not represent the final word and in many cases are philosophically naïve.

Bluntly: yes, the WMA or the BMA or the law or whatever might say that you ought to do x; and that gives a reason to to x inasmuch as that one has a reason to obey the law and so on.  But it’s unlikely that it’s a sufficient reason; it remains open to us always to ask what those institutions should say.  Suppose they changed their minds and insisted tomorrow that we should do the opposite of x: would we just shrug and get on with the business of undoing what we did today?

And yet…  The complaint about poor argument is not straightforward, for a couple of reasons. more…

Pro-Lifers’ Arguments Might be their Greatest Gift to Pro-Choicers

19 Dec, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Abortion is always going to be a controversial topic.  For what it’s worth, I hold that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That’s me speaking from my habitual non-consequentialist position.  From a more utilitarian perspective, I’m willing to concede that, given the choice between world A, in which abortions happen, and world B, in which they don’t because noone gets pregnant without wanting it, and everyone is perfectly happy to continue with her pregnancy, A is worse.  But A is nevertheless a whole lot less bad than world C, in which women are compelled to continue with pregnancies they don’t want.  In other words, there’s no need or desire for abortion in super-happy-fluffy world, and super-happy-fluffy world is better than the real world – but we live in the real world, and having abortions available makes the real world better than it could be.

I’d like to think that I’m doughty enough to have my mind changed on this, though.  Should someone have a really good argument for the wrongness of abortion, or the overwhelming badness, I’d like to think that I could be persuaded – that I’d let the argument go wherever it takes me.  I think that that’s just intellectual honesty.  It’s just that I have yet to come across an argument that I find persuasive, and I don’t even know what such an argument would look like.

What I can say is that, while I find even the best pro-life arguments unpersuasive, some are worse than others, though.  There’s a guy who keeps posting to the Bioethics Facebook group with links to lamentably bad arguments.  And, of course, there’s the CMF.

On their blog, Philippa Taylor has been getting herself into a tizzy about the recent ruling that Northern Ireland’s very restrictive laws contravene human rights legislation, and suggests that there is a whole range of reasons why the law should not be changed there.

Let’s have a look… more…

Bad Surgeons and Good Faith

10 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

This is a bit of a strange post, not least because it involves citing sources – a blog post, and a whole blog -that have since been taken down from the net, for reasons that will become clear.  It’s also going to involve a pair of fairly hefty quotations, largely because it’s the absence of a source that motivates this post – which means I can’t simply tell you to follow the links.  It has to do with an apparent case of a surgeon deliberately causing a serious injury to a patient in the name of teaching, and with deceptions, and with apologies for those deceptions.

It’s also a very long post, even by my prolix standards.

OK: so, as quoted by Orac on his Respectful Insolence blog, here’s the case that gets the story going.  It was originally recounted by someone calling themselves “Hope Amantine”, and was cross-posted, which bills itself as “social media’s leading physician voice”, is written by someone called Kevin Pho, and is a part a site called MedPage Today.  This means that Orac’s version is at least third-hand; but I can’t do better than that, for reasons that will become clear.  That’s a pain, but I’m going to have to take things on good faith – which, given what comes later, is perhaps asking for trouble.  Either way, here’s the story:

So here I was, handling the plane (the layer, or space) around the IVC [inferior vena cava] with care to avoid ripping it. It seemed like the intelligent thing to do. My attending asked, “Why are you being so dainty with your dissection there?” I answered that I wanted to avoid ripping the cava because they’re so much harder to fix.

Big mistake.

I take it he interpreted my comment as fear, and decided upon a teaching moment. He took his scissors and incredibly, before my eyes, and with no warning or preparation of any kind, cut a one-inch hole in the cava.

I was stunned. As I tried to process what I just saw, incredulous that he would actually intentionally make a hole in the cava, and as dark blood poured out of the hole, the tide rising steadily in the abdomen, he remarked, “Well, are you just going to stand there or are you going to fix that?”

And so I did. Whatever thoughts I might have had about his behavior, his judgment, and his sanity (and believe you me, there were many), I put my fingers on the hole to stop the flow.  I suctioned out the blood that had already escaped, and irrigated the field, the Amazing One-Handed Surgeon did nothing to help me.  This exercise was clearly a test. I got two sponge sticks to occlude flow above and below the hole which I instructed him to hold in position (which he dutifully did), and then I got my suture and I fixed the hole.  No problem.

All he said was, “Good job.” And we proceeded to complete the case uneventfully.


Though I may not have agreed with his actions on that day, I do understand them. How do you teach someone to take charge when there is a crisis? I am certain that if I was put on the spot and shriveled and sniveled, and couldn’t control the bleeding, he would have taken over. And I would have failed.


So on that day, when the vascular attending cut that hole in the cava, he was preparing me, both for the oral exam, and for life as a surgeon. He wanted to see if I could handle it.

I guess I made the cut.

The excisions are mine – they’re where Orac makes a comment.  However, there’s one more part that’s important – and this is now in Orac’s voice:

The reaction to Dr. Amantine’s post was furious and uniformly negative, both in the comments and in the Twittersphere, and yesterday there was an addendum:

Author’s note 7/8/2015: This is a fictional article. No one was harmed, then or ever, in my care or in my presence. I apologize for any remark that may have been misconstrued.

Orac calls BS on this, and I’m tempted to do likewise; but I’ll put that to one side for now.  I’ll also note that I can’t check the flow of the original post, because it no longer exists.  Indeed, Hope Amantine’s whole blog would seem to have been taken down.  In the meantime, other blogs and pages also picked up the story from KevinMD: PZ Myers noted it on Pharyngula, Janet Stemwedel commented in a piece on Forbes‘ site, and I’m sure there were more.  This is noteworthy, because, as I said, the OP has now gone.  If you want to read it, you’ll have to go to where it was cross-posted or quoted (which makes this whole thing rather like a game of Chinese Whispers).

Indeed, not only has the OP gone: the KevinMD post has also gone.  Where it was, there’s this message: more…

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…

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