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Topic: Philosophy
July 22, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

I recall being a PhD candidate in philosophy in the 1970’s, I often pondered the subject matter of my graduate courses in ethics. I would ask myself, what does any of this have to do with ethics? What are we doing?

As our courses went from Kant to Mill to G.E. Moore to the Emotivists and others, I couldn’t help but have a sense of unreality about the content of what I was learning.

How can we use reason to find a basis for knowing right action? What are the ways we can define right action based on a normative moral theory?

What is the meaning of good? Right? And obligation? Can these terms be defined within a theoretical, substantive moral framework or are they just expressions of feelings and emotions without any cognitive content? If they are more than the latter, what do they mean?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

April 11, 2014 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

In my last blog I alluded to the effect of an assumed point of view, particularly a set of ideological set of assumptions around which a community is organized, has on the way we interpret data about how we perceive risks and benefits and make decisions about a range of issues.  I was applying this perspective to public health perspectives such as the risks of gun ownership and forgoing vaccinations. In this blog, I will sketch out a theoretical approach for how humans process and understand information a bit more and conclude with some questions for my next blog about how to understand the obligations of those who are in the best positions to understand public health data, such as the better educated and healthcare workers.

We often assume that most people are capable of coming to objective and fair beliefs and reasonable decisions about various empirical topics, e.g. the effects of climate change, if only we have access to valid, scientific information.  Thus, we often further assume that the goal of having more enlightened people to make more enlightened decisions about public health issues, or for that matter political issues and most other issues of public interest, is simply a matter of bringing to bear more complete and clear knowledge for people to understand. This is the assumption that Dan Kahan (a law and psychology professor from Yale Law School) and his research team calls the “More Information Hypothesis”. However recent research shows that this hypothesis is simply not true—in fact the more information people on opposite sides of an issue get, the more divided and intractable the conflict becomes. The simple fact of making more information accessible clearly does not resolve most public issues that are connected to well-established ideological and philosophical perspectives.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

March 3, 2014 | Posted By Marleen Eijkholt, PhD

If someone asked me: What is my philosophy of clinical ethics? I would initially be dumbstruck for an answer. In response, I would probably try to define an answer from my background in bioethics and philosophy. I would pick frameworks in philosophy that represent my approach. For example, I would be inclined to refer to pragmatism and casuistry, as frameworks that determine my clinical ethics approach. My last blogpost about Marlise Munoz, the brain dead woman in Texas is a good example of this. My philosophy as a clinical ethicist is based on the facts of the case, a subsequent calculation of rights and wrongs. The outcome of this sum guides my ethics advice about what is practically possible, conform short-handed pragmatism. In responding to a case, I start with the specifics of a case and formulate answers that may be acceptable by multiple stakeholders, instead of relying on general theoretical outcomes, as a short-handed casuist. Finally, I reason along the lines of several relevant principles, such as autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and dignity, and seek to apply these principles to the specifics of a case.

However, given that the background of clinical ethicists lies over a broad spectrum, I doubt that this answer would be satisfactory.  If I hadn’t had a background in bioethics, what would I have answered to this question? Does the fact that I am an ethicist in the clinic mean that I have to frame my answers along philosophical and ethical theories? Would a social worker, an accountant or an attorney equally have a philosophy in their work? Asking myself this latter question, I think that those professions do have a professional philosophy, but that they would be less likely to phrase it in philosophical language. Instead, probably they would describe their philosophy in more layman’s terms and would narrate about their approach in the different cases they see. So how do I approach my cases as a clinical ethicist?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

May 1, 2013 | Posted By Paul Burcher, MD, PhD

When Beauchamp and Childress wrote their first edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Immanuel Kant figured prominently in their discussion of the principle of autonomy.  Now he warrants barely a mention in the same, much revised chapter of the sixth edition.  Why the substantial de-emphasizing of Kant’s philosophy, when he wrote such important ethical treatises in which the human ability to make free and autonomous choice is so central?  Isn’t his philosophy the basis for our biomedical principle of autonomy?  The surprising answer is no, it cannot be. One reason is that Kant’s philosophical use of the principle of autonomy is actually quite different than the biomedical principle.  The other answer is that Kant’s principle does not provide a philosophical justification for the protection of patient’s rights.  I will explain both of these perhaps surprising claims.  But I do believe there is still a role for Kantian autonomy in the discipline of bioethics:  it remains a valid criterion (or yardstick) for when physicians should accede to patient requests for treatment.

Autonomous choice for Kant is ethical choice.  When we choose a course of action because it is consistent with the Categorical Imperative, we are choosing autonomously because we are freely choosing to obey an ethical law rather than being a slave to our passions and desires—we are not being pushed along by the world, we are initiating a new action for reasons that are somewhat “otherworldly” because they are neither empirical nor material, the ethical law is a priori and therefore “above the fray”.  But patients choose a course of action in healthcare for many reasons, and most of these reasons are amoral, and some may even violate Kant’s Categorical Imperative, such as refusing treatment for a non-terminal condition.  Kant saw any “suicide” as a violation of the second statement of the Categorical Imperative because human life must never be treated as a means to an end, and suicide abandons life for some reason (intractable pain, depression, despair), thereby treating it as a means, not an end in itself.  The point of this is that most decisions in a healthcare setting do not qualify as autonomous under Kant’s framework, because they are not ethical decisions in a strict sense.  They are done for personal reasons, which need not conform to moral law.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

April 11, 2013 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Much of the history of philosophy, including the history of philosophical ethics, can be summarized as the quest for a basis in an objective, rational truth. My sense is that many ethicists, both philosophers and non-philosophers, today have not let go of this quest entirely. The purpose of this short blog to is sketch briefly the philosophical landscape of our tradition and what I think is the proper response to it in terms of how we should view ethics.

Early Greek philosophers, such as Thales, Democritus, Parmenides and Heraclitus were seeking an understanding of the natural phenomena independent from traditional mythology. Their goal was to find an explanation that accounted for both diversity and change in nature, but also the unity and continuity. A basic question became, what is the ultimate source or the most basic element of the universe that helps us understand the universe, as well as what we know and how we should live? Plato, through his dialogues using Socrates as his mouthpiece, postulated that ultimate Truth or Good is to be found in the Forms, which were in a separate, higher realm from everyday human experience. For Plato, what we come to know in the realm of earthly experience is always an approximation of their ultimate counterparts in the Forms. Of course a special realm of truth requires a special understanding, which not surprisingly he believed was accessible only to the Philosopher King, whose understanding was oriented to such a level.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

February 14, 2013 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Medical educators over the past six decades have designed educational objectives and curricula as though it was the educational process itself that determines students’ values and their behavior as professionals, without considering the influence of the structural environment on medical trainees. From the 1950’s on, asSamuel Bloom observed in 1988, there are examples, continuing to present day, of medical schools devising curricula with the goal “…to repair what were believed to be the dehumanizing effects of scientific specialization, but with the retention of the best of science.” To achieve these goals educators drew from the social sciences and humanities, and by the 1970s, from the growing interest in medical humanism and specifically from the field of medical ethics, which now is mostly referred to as bioethics. Bloom claims these subjects, like science, have been split off from the context of how they impact medical practice and taught mostly as an intellectual activity, thus creating a dualism between theory and practice. The curriculum has been assumed on its own to be an instrument of behavioral change that follows from knowledge. The essential process of social organization is sadly lost from view and deemphasized. How can we account for this rift?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

October 10, 2012 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

The modern era in the West marks the beginning of a new way of understanding the purpose of a social system and how people fit in to it. The transition to the modern world was from a medieval world that was perceived to have inherent ends and truths, based on Aristotelian metaphysics and Catholic moral theology, that provided authoritative answers to fundamental questions about the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, human nature and morality. In Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, the radical political turmoil, stemming from the Protestant Reformation, and a growing sense of the rights of humans were leading philosophers like Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704) and Rousseau (1712-1778) to articulate a fundamentally new type of social and political system. Instead of the divine rights of kings to assert complete rule over subjects, which created an obligation for subjects to obey those divine rights, there emerged the concept that the social and political order should be structured so as to protect and preserve the natural rights of human beings qua citizens. This new understanding of how to understand society and individuals—later called social contract theory—provided the conceptual underpinnings of the eventual emergence of democratic systems: The idea that the social system should be structured in a manner so as to allow individual citizens to be free to live according to their life goals and values within the limits of respecting those same rights of others. This meant that individual citizens should agree to give up some of their rights, e.g. to steal and kill, for the larger benefit of living safely and in a manner of one’s own choice. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit ourwebsite.

July 12, 2012 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

Those of us who work in clinical ethics focus most of our intellectual energy on addressing ethical dilemmas in individual cases. Clinical ethics allows little time for armchair reflection. The urgent cases presented to us require fairly quick decisions. That is, if we are to be helpful, we have to find thoughtful ways to analyze ethical questions and reach prudent recommendations. But even for clinical ethicists, it is worthwhile from time to time to take a step back and consider the historical philosophical context in which we work and the challenges it poses for ethical reflection and judgments.

Clinical ethics has been criticized by some not having an adequate basis on which to give substantive answers to pressing ethical questions in medicine. I want to show how this concern is not only, not a problem, but is a sign of progress. First a little background about the state of contemporary western ethics as expressed in one of the most important critiques of philosophical ethics and morality in the past 100 years.

In his 1981 work entitled After Virtue, Alasdair McIntyre claims the actual moral world in which we live is in “a state of grave disorder”. The concepts and terms we use in contemporary ethical discourse, he believes, are nothing more than fragments of prior conceptual schemes that have largely lost their moral import. Even worse, we use ethical discourse in talking about obligation, rights and duties without fully realizing the lost moral orders in which these words once had their original meaning. This is a concerning charge for clinical ethicists since much of our daily work involves using just these kinds of terms. Do we have a clear grasp of what our moral terms mean and how they are being used?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

June 27, 2012 | Posted By Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” — Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

“The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed … ” — Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

Although this may be more apparent than real, it seems as if the lying and the lies are increasing in frequency on the national level. Politics has long been characterized as a blood sport, but the escalation of vicious contentiousness since 2008 is unusual and extreme. Factual truth has been cast aside, casually thrown to the wind as if one were systematically ripping the petals off a roadside wildflower and tossing them into the air as so much refuse. The losers are the public, of course, the citizens who depend on the government for sound fiscal policies, welfare for those unable to care for themselves, and protection in the form of national defense.

None of this is a surprise. As Arendt states in her essay “Truth and Politics”, modern ideologies “ openly proclaim them to be political weapons and consider the whole question of truth and truthfulness irrelevant”. Further, “it may be in the nature of the political realm to deny or pervert truth of every kind”. As the nature of truth as such is limiting (in other words, it is what it is) , politicians will naturally bend the truth to fit their purposes. As citizens, we need to be on our guard and strive to identify factual truth or the lack thereof in political pronouncements. But such activity requires substantial effort. Thinking is required, as is the concomitant ability to simultaneously hold two contrasting concepts or points of view in mind. A broad education is required, as is a good facility with language. Sadly for us, most of these requirements and capabilities are now in short supply.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

June 11, 2012 | Posted By Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

Does a person have a disease or disorder? Or is the person unwell with an illness? Are the concepts of disease and illness distinct? If we have been lulled to sleep by 100 years of Cartesian diktats from the medical establishment, we may miss the point. But if our thinking is super-sharp, we may be able to detect a critical difference.

A prominent legacy of Cartesian dualism, the mind/body problem, causes a split between the “I” that I know myself to be and the physical body that the “I” inhabits. “I” am a passenger in my body. My body carries “me” around, but we are two separate entities. Thus, my body is something separate from “me” and things can happen to it, e.g., my body can become diseased.

The practice of modern medicine is based on this seemingly real separation. But if that’s all there is, much is being missed. Investigation of the illness vs. disease antinomy offers a profound opportunity for improved medical care of people as patients.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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