A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: June 2012

“The Route” is taking shape

Our plans for the interactive part of the conference program for HandsOn: Biobanks, in Uppsala 20-21 September 2012, are taking shape. This part of the program is called “the Route.”

During coffee and lunch breaks, participants can walk through an interactive exhibition illustrating the process of informed consent, data and sample sharing, and new legislation.

Within the Route, participants can also meet law scholars, ethicists, biobank researchers and journalists. They can listen to and participate in conversations on a broad range of issues, such as the role or trust in biobank research, handling of incidental findings, patents, and regulatory processes.

Finally, the LifeGene debate will be discussed with representatives from LifeGene, EpiHealth, the Swedish Data Inspection Board, and the Central Ethical Review Board.

Curious? Do you want to partake in the Route?

Registration is open until September 11.

Pär Segerdahl

Absolute limits of a modern world?

A certain form of ethical thinking would like to draw absolute limits to human activity. The limits are often said to be natural: nature is replacing God as ultimate moral authority.

Nature is what we believe we still can believe in, when we no longer believe in God.

God thus moves into the human embryo. As its nature, as its potential to develop into a complete human being, he continues to lay down new holy commandments.

The irony is that this attempt to formulate nature’s commandments relies on the same forms of human activity that one wants to delimit. Without human embryo research, no one would know of the existence of the embryo: no one could speculate about its “moral status” and derive moral commandments from it.

This dependence on modern research activities threatens the attempt to discover absolute moral authority in nature. Modern research has disassociated itself from the old speculative ambition to stabilize scientific knowledge as a system. Our present notion of “the embryo” will be outdated tomorrow.

Anyone attempting to speculate about the nature of the embryo – inevitably relying on the existence of embryo research – will have to acknowledge the possibility that these speculations already are obsolete.

The changeability of the modern world thus haunts and destabilizes the tendency to find absolute moral authority in nature.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

Handling mistaken trust when doctors recruit patients as research participants

Patients seem more willing to participate in biobank research than the general public. A possible explanation is the doctor-patient relationship. Patients’ trust in health care professionals might help doctors to recruit them as research participants, perhaps making the task too easy.

That trust in doctors can induce a willingness to participate in research seems threatening to the notion of well-informed autonomous decision making. Can sentiments of trust be allowed to play such a prominent role in these processes?

Rather than dismissing trust as a naïve and irrational sentiment, a new article distinguishes between adequate and mistaken trust, and argues that being trusted implies a duty to compensate for mistaken trust.

The article in Bioethics is written by Linus Johnsson at CRB, together with Gert Helgesson, Mats G. Hansson and Stefan Eriksson.

The article discusses tree forms of mistaken trust:

  1. Misplaced trust: Trusted doctors may lack relevant knowledge of biobank research (for example, about the protection of privacy).
  2. Irrational trust: Patients may be mistaken about why they trust the doctor (the doctor may actually be a form of father or mother figure for the patient).
  3. Inappropriate trust: Patients may inappropriately expect doctors always to play the role of therapists and fail to see that doctors sometimes play the role of research representatives who ask patients to contribute to the common good.

The idea in the paper, if I understand it, is that instead of dismissing trust because it might easily be mistaken in these ways, we need to acknowledge that being trusted implies a duty to handle the potentiality of mistaken trust.

Trust is not a one-sided sentiment: it creates responsibilities in the person who is trusted. If doctors take these responsibilities seriously, the relationship of trust immediately begins to look… well, more trustworthy and rational.

How can mistaken forms of trust be compensated for?

Misplaced trust in doctors can be compensated for by developing the relevant expertise (or by dispelling the illusion that one has it). Irrational trust can be compensated for by supporting the patient’s reasoning and moral agency. Inappropriate trust can be compensated for by nurturing a culture with normative expectations that doctors play more than one role; a culture where patients can expect to be asked by the doctor if they want to contribute to the common good.

If patients’ trust is seen in conjunction with these corresponding moral responsibilities of doctors, the relationship of trust can be understood as supporting the patients’ own decision making rather than undermining it.

That, at least, is how I understood this subtle philosophical treatment of trust and its role when patients are recruited by doctors as participants in biobank research.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Interview with Kathinka Evers

One of my colleagues here at CRB, Kathinka Evers, recently returned from Barcelona, where she participated in the lecture series, The Origins of the Human Mind:

PS: Why did you participate in this series?

KE: I was invited by the Centre for Contemporary Culture to present the rise of neuroethics and my views on informed materialism.

PS: Why were you invited to talk on these issues?

KE: My last book was recently translated into Spanish (Quando la materia se despierta), and it has attracted interest amongst philosophers and neuroscientists in the Spanish speaking world. In that book, I extend a materialist theory of mind, called “informed materialism,” to neuroethical perspectives, discussing, for example, free will, self-conceptions and personal responsibility.

PS: In a previous blog post I commented upon Roger Scruton’s critical attitude to neuroscientific analyses of subjects that traditionally belong to the social and human sciences. What’s your opinion on his criticism?

KE: Contemporary neuroscience can enrich numerous areas of social science. But the reverse is also true. The brain is largely the result of socio-cultural influences. Understanding the brain also involves understanding its embodiment in a social context. The social and neurobiological perspectives dynamically interact in our development of a deeper understanding of the human mind, of consciousness, and of human identity.

PS: Do you mean that the criticism presupposes a one-sided view of the development of neuroscience?

KE: I suspect that the criticism is not well-informed, scientifically, since it fails to take this neuro-cultural symbiosis into account. But it is not uncommon for philosophers to take a rather defensive position against neuroscientific attempts to enter philosophical domains.

PS: Was this tension noticeable at the meeting in Barcelona?

KE: Not really. Rather, the debate focused on how interdisciplinary collaborations have at last achieved what the theoretical isolationism of the twentieth century – when philosophy of mind was purely a priori and empirical brain science refused to study consciousness – failed to achieve: the human brain is finally beginning to understand itself and its own mind.

Kathinka Evers has developed a course in neuroethics and is currently drafting a new book (in English) on brain and mind.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog