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Thinking Aloud

What’s the Point of Professional Ethical Codes?

13 Jun, 17 | by Iain Brassington

For a few reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit over the last few months about professionalism and professional codes.  In fact, that’s the topic that’s attracted most of my attention here since… oooh, ages ago.  I find the idea of a code of professional ethics troubling in many ways, but also fascinating.  And one of the fascinating questions has to do with what they’re for.

They can’t be meant as a particularly useful tool for solving deep moral dilemmas: they’re much too blunt for that, often presuppose too much, and tend to bend to suit the law.  To think that because the relevant professional code enjoins x it follows that x is permissible or right smacks of a simple appeal to authority, and this flies in the face of what it is to be a moral agent in the first place.  But what a professional code of ethics may do is to provide a certain kind of Bolamesque legal defence: if your having done φ attracts a claim that it’s negligent or unreasonable or something like that, being able to point out that your professional body endorses φ-ing will help you out.  But professional ethics, and what counts as professional discipline, stretches way beyond that.  For example, instances of workplace bullying can be matters of great professional and ethical import, but it’s not at all obvious that the law should be involved.

There’s a range of reasons why someone’s behaviour might be of professional ethical concern.  Perhaps the most obvious is a concern for public protection.  If someone has been found to have behaved in a way that endangers third parties, then the profession may well want to intervene.  For example: if an HCP knew herself to be a carrier of a transmissible disease but did nothing about it, this would quite plausibly be a matter for professional concern, irrespective of what the law says, or whether anyone had been harmed.  The same would apply if we discovered that a surgeon was unable to function without a large brandy to settle his nerves.  But we’d want to make sure that the professional concern was for the right thing.  It would be inappropriate to sanction someone merely for being a carrier, or for being alcohol dependent.  (Along these lines, it seems defensible to me not to have suspended Martin Royle, a surgeon who falsified prescriptions in order to satisfy his addiction to painkillers.  It’s better to treat an addiction than to punish it.)

A second reason is for the sake of collegiality.  For example, there’s nothing illegal about being  a racist, and there probably shouldn’t be; but it is at the very best distasteful.  Imagine you discover that your colleague is an abiding racist.  It is not hard to see how this knowledge might have implications for your professional interactions – especially (but not only) if you’re a member of one of the groups to which your colleague has a demeaning attitude.  (Indeed, the same might be true if he had used to be a racist, but had changed his attitudes.  I suspect that that’s the sort of thing that might have a fairly long half-life.)  Now imagine that your colleague is a frequent attendee at rallies, held in support of racist policies, that are often associated with threatening behaviour: he doesn’t just dislike some people, but is visibly hostile to them.  That, it seems to me, might be a matter of professional concern, because it will predictably make the working environment much more difficult.  It would be harder to trust this colleague (again, especially but not only if you happen to be a member of one of the groups he hates).  That might be sufficient to raise worries about whether he’s a fit person to do the job in question.  Again, though, there’d have to be a proviso: there is a difference between one’s professional abilities and one’s personal attitudes, and between how one behaves in and out of work.  A surgeon is a surgeon for all that.  So there is a genuine problem here concerning what to do.  But a genuine problem means that there is a cause for concern.

(Indirectly, this second concern might have something to do with public safety, too.  A surgical team in which people are uncomfortable working along side each other may be one in which patient outcomes are affected.  But that would be a further matter, and would not have to collapse into the safety point.  Imagine that the profession is accountancy: it might still be that members of the group would simply be intolerably uncomfortable working alongside their racist colleague, although the audit will still be done perfectly well.  The same will apply in any profession.)

But there’s another factor, which is the status of the profession.  To what extent are professional ethics codes and bodies that judge professionalism in the business of protecting themselves and their high social status?  A couple of recent cases raises that question. more…

No Pain, All Gain: The Case for Farming Organs in Brainless Humans

10 Jun, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Ruth Stirton, University of Sussex (@RuthStirton) and David Lawrence, Newcastle University (@Biojammer)

It is widely acknowledged that there is a nationwide shortage of organs for transplantation purposes.  In 2016, 400 people died whilst on the organ waiting list.  Asking for donors is not working fast enough.  We should explore all avenues to alleviate this problem, which must include considering options that appear distasteful.  As the world gets safer, and fewer young people die in circumstances conducive to the donation of their organs, there is only so much that increased efficiency in collection (through improved procedures and storage) can do to increase the number of human organs available for transplantation. Xenotransplantation – the transplantation of animal organs into humans – gives us the possibility of saving lives that we would certainly lose otherwise.

There are major scientific hurdles in the way of transplanting whole animal organs into humans, including significant potential problems with incompatibility and consequent rejection.  There is, however, useful similarity between human and pig cells, which means that using pigs as the source of organs is the most likely to be viable.  Assuming, for the moment, that we can solve the scientific challenges with doing so, the bigger issue is the question of whether we should engage in xenotransplantation.

A significant challenge to this practice is that it is probably unethical to use an animal in this way for the benefit of humans. more…

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…

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.


Politicians, Delusional Managers and the Future of the NHS: Have NHS Leaders Failed to “Speak Truth unto Power”?

11 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by David Lock QC

[NB: This is a slightly longer version of a post that appeared on the BMJ blog earlier today.]

Politicians, delusional managers and the future of the NHS:  have NHS leaders failed to “speak truth unto power”?

This blog is not a rant – well not too much of a rant.  It is an expression of serious frustration about the way the NHS is run and about the willingness of senior NHS managers to become complicit in dishonesty.  It also needs to acknowledge the brave role of some in the NHS – particularly in NHS Providers – who keep telling it as it is and being decried for doing so.

Everyone at the frontline knows the NHS is running on empty.  The more perceptive know that more money for the NHS alone will not improve services for patients.  But – and this is perhaps the unpopular “but” – NHS senior managers ought to accept their share of the responsibility for the present crisis.  The problem is the failure of NHS managers to “speak truth unto power” to those above them and to our political masters for too many years.  Long before Sir Ivan Rogers used the phrase, a 2015 FCO blog explained the centrality of this concept as part of public service as follows:

The UK Civil Service doesn’t have an official motto – but if it did, it would almost certainly be: “speak truth unto power”. It’s a maxim that’s in the blood of good civil servants, even if they know that it won’t make their lives any easier. The best politicians learn to cherish civil service advice which points out the flaws in their arguments. The worst surround themselves with sycophants who create a micro-climate which wraps a warm embrace around their worst tendencies.

But, this principle appears respected in the breach in the NHS.   The £22bn efficiency challenge came out of nowhere and yet became an article of faith.  Of course, it has not been delivered and was never going to be delivered, but the planning process has continued in a parallel universe where no one has the courage to say “Actually this is nonsense – a public service has never delivered these efficiency savings and the NHS will not do so”.  So the fiction is maintained that this is what the NHS has to do by 2020.  But, of course, we are now in 2017 and so there is precious little time to deliver the undeliverable.

Secondly, the fiction is that the present government is putting an extra £10bn into the NHS, as well as promising an extra £350m per week as a Brexit dividend.  The £10bn claim was never accurate.   No set of “true and fair” NHS accounts could ever include the £10bn claim.  The £350m a week claim was made for votes, not for spending.  And yet who in the NHS has held the government to account for either promise? more…

Professionalism, or Prying?

3 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington

“Professionalism” is a funny thing.  About this time last year, I was struggling to get a new course written for the coming semester; it was on professional ethics for lawyers.  A colleague made a comment along the lines that I must be spending a lot of time looking at the professional codes; I replied that I’d be spending almost none doing that; she looked baffled and wandered off, presumably convinced that I was joking.

I wasn’t joking.  I did look a little at the professional codes, but only as a jumping-off point.  My schtick was more like, “Here’s what the SRA says about client confidentiality; now let’s spend the remaining 98% of this lecture looking at why it might say that, and whether it ought to say something different”.

Yet, as I wrote the lectures, professionalism – not professional codes, but professionalism – did keep cropping up.  After all, if you’re going to talk about lawyers’ ethics, or doctors’ ethics, or engineers’ ethics, the implication has to be that there’s something quite specific that applies to each of those professions, otherwise it just collapses into… well, ethics; and it might be that there is a clear way to define who belongs to the profession, and a clear hierarchy, and that it is proper (or, at least, it may be proper) that there is some sort of pressure exerted by that hierarchy that shapes behaviour in a way that neither the law nor standard social norms do.  There are some things that are regulated by professional ethics that aren’t regulated by bog-standard ethics.  To return to the lawyers’ example, there might be certain things that are acceptable or even required from a lawyer that wouldn’t be in other cases, and other things that are unacceptable that are trivial outside the profession; and the same might apply to medics.  (In passing, I think that that might be one of the fault lines in academic medical ethics: those of us that come from a philosophical background understand “ethics” to mean one thing, and those of us who come from a medical or, in at least some cases, a social science background understand it to mean another.  We normally rub along fine, but sometimes we are talking at cross-purposes.)

A range of problems arises from that, though.  For example, though codes of ethics might attempt to codify what it is that’s demanded by professionals, they’re often rather vague, or presuppose a heck of a lot that’s actually rather important.  That can lead to situations in which it’s impossible to tell what’s required on the ground.  “Maintaining the reputation of the profession” is a concern of some of the professional codes I’ve seen, though quite what that means is anyone’s guess, since it might collapse to “doing whatever keeps the public on side, no matter how senseless”; and while that might maintain esteem in one sense, it does so only by undermining the concept of professional integrity.

A second problem comes from the need to know what things are properly within the “professional” remit, and what professional bodies have any business talking about.  The difficulty here is that “professionalism” implies living a kind of life; being a professional involves being a certain kind of person.  One doesn’t stop being a professional when the end-of-shift klaxon goes.  And yet there’re certain things that do have nothing to do with professional regulation: whether or not to be teetotal is not a professional matter, and a professional body that tried to involve itself in such decisions would be stepping over the line.  Still, where the line should be drawn may not be obvious.

All of this brings me to this blog post over on the BMJ blog, in which Niro Kumar considers doctors and dating apps. 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).


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…

Free Labour and Quiet Doubts

1 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Those of us on the academic side of things will almost certainly recognise the situation: you’re sitting in your school’s Teaching & Learning committee, or a staff/student committee meeting, or something like that, and you hear the complaint from students that they should get more contact time.  Academics should spend more time teaching rather than simply doing their own research.  After all, they’re paying however-many thousand pounds for their education.

And you’ll’ve heard the standard rebuttals – and maybe even trotted them out yourself: that course fees cover not just teaching costs, but libraries, labs, buildings and so on; that university learning isn’t about hours in a classroom; that teaching and research are intertwined; that students benefit from being taught by the people who’re writing the papers they’re reading.  But I wonder if these standard responses miss something important.

Back in April, I was getting companionably smashed with some of my final-year students, and we were talking about what they were going to do when they’d graduated, and about possible careers.  One or two were interested in academia, and so a part of the conversation concerned what life’s like from my side of the fence.  Predictably, pay was one thing that interested them.  I mentioned that I’d made about £80 in total from the books I’ve written, spread over 10 years.
“And what do you get paid for a paper?”
I held back my bitter laughter, and explained how much you get paid for papers, and how much you get for peer-reviewing, and all the rest of it.  The students had had no idea that this stuff was expected of us, but not remunerated.  Why would they?  Indeed, isn’t it insane that we’re not paid?

I think that one gets an insight here into students’ complaints about academics’ priorities being wrong.  If they think that we get paid for publishing papers, then of course they’re going to think that we have an incentive to resist extra contact hours – and everything we tell them about extra contact hours being at best academically unnecessary, and likely as not counterproductive, will sound like so much bad faith.  After all, of course we’d tell them that a course only needs 30 hours of lectures rather than 60 if we could be earning extra money with those spare 30 hours.

What prompts all this is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s from 2012, but it’s started popping up in my social media timelines this morning, and Carl posted it on Fear and Loathing in Bioethics last night.  It makes a proposal: more…

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…

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