Did medicine save the life of ethics?

October 18, 2016

Pär SegerdahlAbout thirty-five years ago, Stephen Toulmin wrote an article on the topic: How medicine saved the life of ethics. I think it is still worth reading.

Toulmin argued roughly as follows:

During the first six decades of the 1900s, ethics wasn’t feeling well at all. One might say that it suffered from moral aphasia: it couldn’t talk sensibly about real ethical problems.

While moral philosophers were preoccupied with formally specifying what distinguishes moral questions and judgements in general, without taking sides on specific ethical issues, ethics debaters outside of academic philosophy were trapped in the opposition between dogmatism and relativism.

Dogmatists referred respectfully to universal principles and authoritative religious systems, while relativists and subjectivists dismissed the absolute claims with reference to anthropological and psychological findings about differences in people’s attitudes.

In short, while philosophers analyzed what characterizes morality in general and left living ethical issues to their fate, dogmatists and relativists fought fruitlessly about whether these issues have absolute answers, based on universal principles, or if the answers are relative to cultural and individual factors.

In this near-death state, medicine came to the rescue. Medical practices gave rise to very definite ethical questions that insisted on answers and guidance. When philosophers in the 1960s began to pay attention to these issues, ethics was rescued from the life-threatening condition in which it found itself.

Toulmin suggests that medical ethics saved the life of ethics through four resuscitation efforts:

By focusing on situations, needs and interests, which are more objectively given than the attitudes, feelings and desires that anthropology and psychology were interested in. Whether a person’s actions threaten another’s health can be discussed in objective terms, as opposed to questions about habits and tastes.

(Here I think of the emergence of empirical ethics, where more objective aspects of ethical problems are explored in various kinds of studies.)

By analyzing concrete cases, instead of striving towards the universal principles to which dogmatists referred. Toulmin compares medical ethics to medical practice. Diseases described only in general terms become abstract and without specific relevance: they acquire practical relevance only for health professionals who learned the art of identifying real-life cases of the diseases. The same applies to ethics, which requires an art of identifying real-life cases of, for example, “disrespect”; otherwise ethical concepts become abstract and without practical significance.

(Here I think, among other things, of the emergence of ethics rounds in the ethics training of healthcare staff.)

By focusing on professional activities, giving rise to definite responsibilities and duties. To understand our duties to each other, we cannot assume an abstract image of humans as individuals. We live in communities and act in forms of life that shape our obligations. Issues in medical ethics are often about obligations shaped by professional roles and contexts.

(Here I think of the previous blog post, about boundaries between public health and healthcare, which sometimes might be transgressed. Practices such as research, healthcare and industry shape different types of obligation and responsibility, which it sometimes can be difficult to keep separate or balance.)

By reintroducing assessments of equity and personal relationships in ethics, assessments of how the circumstances alter the cases. What, in a doctor-patient relationship, is a routine examination, can outside of this context give us reason to speak of an assault. Circumstances alter the cases, and Toulmin compares medical ethics with how courts make assessments of what is just and reasonable between people, given what we know about them.

(Here I think of how medical ethics increasingly is done in dialogue with patients, health professionals and researchers, to better understand the circumstances.)

– Why do I find Toulmin’s article worth reading today?

Among other things, because it provides a broad and realistic description of ethics as a practice and art, in time and in particular contexts, partly comparable to the doctor’s or the lawyer’s practice and art. The article also makes the development of bioethics understandable, such as the emergence of empirical ethics, of ethics rounds, and of the endeavor to work in dialogue with stakeholders and with the professions.

The article also nuances a simplified understanding of how ethical questions are answered. We are inclined to think that empirical studies give us the facts. Then we add general moral principles and derive the ethical conclusions. This could resemble a relapse into dogmatism, where religious principles have been replaced by secular philosophical principles.

Finally, I want to mention that the article sheds light on a problem that we encountered in some empirical studies lately. Colleagues have made ethical education interventions in different healthcare professions. The participants appreciated the practical exercises and found them instructive. But no clear effect of the exercises could be measured by comparing results of knowledge tests before and after the interventions.

Toulmin’s description of how medicine saved the life of ethics may suggest an explanation. The exercises were practical and concerned cases with which the participants were familiar. But the knowledge tests were formulated roughly in those general terms which constituted such a large part of the illness of ethics. The interventions might have been vitalizing, but not the method of measurement.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Physicians’ experiences of do-not-resuscitate orders

September 21, 2016

Pär SegerdahlCritically ill patients sometimes have such a poor prognosis that cardiopulmonary resuscitation for cardiac arrest (CPR) would not help. They are so weak that they would not survive the treatment. If they survive, they do so with even poorer quality of life. The physician can then write a so-called DNR decision, which means that CPR should not be performed.

Mona Pettersson, PhD student at CRB, writes her thesis on these decisions. I have previously written about her first study, in which she interviewed nurses about their experiences of DNR decisions at Swedish hematology and oncology departments.

This summer the Journal of Palliative Care and Medicine published the second study, in which physicians were interviewed about their experiences of these decisions.

In the interview material, Mona Pettersson discerns three roles that physicians perceive they have. They act as decision maker, as patient advocate and mediator for relatives, and as team member. Physicians describe their experiences of these roles, such as the importance of making clear to relatives that it is the physician who makes the decision – so that relatives don’t risk feeling guilty.

The interviews with physicians also contain descriptions of ethical difficulties associated with DNR decisions. Although the physicians emphasize that the decision is made on medical grounds, they also describe ethical challenges and trade-offs. The decisions seem to be especially difficult in hematology wards, where patients can get intensive treatment for a long time, and where even the treatment makes them ill, but almost up to the last moment can be regarded as treatable. Here decisions are made quickly and at a late stage. Physicians’ experiences of the decision not to resuscitate vary from experiencing that they make themselves God, to experiencing it as just one medical decision among others.

In her conclusion, Mona Pettersson emphasizes that the results indicate how DNR decisions are made not only on medical grounds (such as prognosis and prospect of surviving cardiopulmonary resuscitation). They are made also with reference also to ethical values such as autonomy and quality of life after resuscitation.

In her future research, Mona Petterson will examine the ethical skills needed in DNR decisions and how they can be learned and developed.

Pär Segerdahl

Pettersson, M. Hedström, M. and Höglund, A. Physicians’ experiences of do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders in hematology and oncology care – a qualitative study. Journal of Palliative Care and Medicine. 2016. DOI: 10.4172 / 2165-7386.1000275

This post in Swedish

We have a clinical perspective : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Macchiarini and the spirit of fraudulence

February 10, 2016

Pär SegerdahlI assume you heard of Paolo Macchiarini, the “star surgeon” who, with the willpower of a general, simply would win a great battle at the frontline of research – by creating new tracheae using the patients’ own stem cells. That the endeavor had costs in terms of a few soldiers’ or patients’ lives is sad, but some losses must be accepted if one is to win a major battle in the service of cutting-edge experimental research.

It is difficult to avoid such an interpretation of Macchiarini’s mindset, after seeing the Swedish TV-documentaries about him (“Experimenten”/”The Experiments”). You feel the presence of a dominating iron will to carry out a plan and to win. It feeds a warlike spirit in which collegial doubts must be suppressed because they corrupt the morale and slow down the march forward, toward the frontline.

Truth is, as we know, the first casualty of war. Losses must be described as successes, in order not to lose readiness for action in the final battle – which, of course, will be won, don’t for a moment doubt that! The condition of patients who after surgery barely can breathe must thus be described as if the surgery had given them a nearly normal respiratory function. Macchiarini’s misconduct follows the logic of war.

Imagine this rigid winner, waiting impatiently for patients for whom his unproven methods (with some good will) could be interpreted as a last chance to survive. Does he approach the patients as a doctor who wants to offer a last treatment option? Hardly, but the possibility of interpreting the situation in such a way takes him to the frontline: he gets the opportunity to operate on them.

Does he then relate to the patients as a researcher to his participants? Not that either. For the treatment is only improvised in the heat of battle and can hardly even be called experimental; and all failures will be covered up by more scientific fraudulence.

The fact that research ethics developed in the shadow of the Second World War is hardly a coincidence. Something that worries in the Macchiarini case is that research itself – with its competition for funding and more – obviously can be animated by a warlike and strategic spirit of winning, which corrupts individuals as well as institutions…

It goes without saying that suspected research misconduct should not be investigated by the universities themselves; that there is a need for an independent body that handles such matters.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

Following the news - the ethics blog

Ethical questions raised by experiencing another culture

December 16, 2015

Amal MatarWhen I first moved to Sweden, I was pretty excited to explore a new country and experience Swedish culture and life. In many ways I had not expected the extent of the difference between what I was familiar with and Swedish culture. I assumed, naively, that I would be in a familiar setting because I had been to other countries. One of my preconceptions was seeing all Western countries as similar, another was believing that European countries shared the same values and culture. But I was proven wrong.

Being brought up in Cairo, Egypt, I was raised in a comparatively restrictive patriarchal family-oriented environment where gender roles are very specific. Although this is by no means uniform and there are exceptions to the rule as well as big variation among Egyptian urban and rural contexts, the overarching tendencies in terms of law and societal expectations are quite gender specific. For example, modesty is expected from women at all times in terms of dress and behavior, even when they are ill or seeking reproductive health advice.

Another dominant aspect is hierarchy. It exists not only in the academia and other working environments but also at family levels and even between spouses and between siblings. The older expect respect and obedience and should not be challenged even politely.

In contrast, Swedish culture is based on gender equality, where paternal leave is encouraged, and women’s representation is sometimes ensured by affirmative action. In addition, personal autonomy is embedded in the culture and laws are set to emphasize autonomy particularly in healthcare contexts. Hierarchy is not prominent and obedience is not expected. Respect and politeness are appropriate for all ages.

Navigating the healthcare system was a challenge I faced. It is quite structured and systematic, which in a way ensured efficiency, but this was novel to me. In addition, I had difficulty explaining my symptoms to my GP because of language barriers. She spoke neither English nor Arabic. Later, this was resolved because I was transferred to another GP who spoke English fluently.

This made me ponder on the challenges immigrants and refugees coming from the Middle East encounter upon arrival and the conflict they feel between their value system and the Swedish one. Might this be the reason why migrant women use less healthcare services compared to their counterpart? How culturally sensitive does Swedish healthcare need to be to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees? And would healthcare professionals, in order to be culturally sensitive, be expected to rethink and readdress their cultural norms? Is there a line to be drawn between being culturally sensitive and advocating beneficence? Are these two values (cultural sensitivity and beneficence) culturally relative? Which values should take the upper hand?

These are questions that my experience of moving to Sweden raised. I’m not sure how to answer them but I tend to think that there are possibly two scenarios that can ensue. Either the encounter of these two value systems can, over the long run, evolve into a third one. Or each party accepts their counterpart’s value system even when they don’t fully approve.

You can read more about my pondering in a more specific bioethical field, namely, reproductive ethics, by following this link.

Amal Matar

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Culturally sensitive ethics

November 3, 2015

Pär SegerdahlHealth care receives patients from many different cultures and health care professionals are encouraged to be sensitive to patients’ cultural background. But what is a culture? What is it one should be sensitive to?

Last week, CRB organized a workshop on Islamic perspectives on reproductive ethics. A case that was discussed was this: an unmarried Muslim couple (21 years old) seeks advice on contraception. Should health care workers provide counseling, when premarital sex is forbidden in Islam?

The case brought the question of cultural sensitivity into immediate focus for me. To what should one be sensitive: to doctrines, or to human lives? What “is” a culture: the formulated ideas or the way people live (with their ideas)?

The Muslim couple actually sought counseling. Being culturally sensitive can also mean being sensitive to this fact: that this is how people can live (with their ideas).

It is tempting to objectify cultures in terms of doctrines, especially when they are foreign to us. We don’t know the people and their daily lives, so we try to understand them through the texts – as if we read their “source code.” But the texts are living parts of the culture. They have uses, and these practices cannot be inferred from the texts.

Aje Carlbom (social anthropologist at Malmö University) stressed that this temptation to objectify other cultures can arise even in a culture; for example, when people who belong to it move to parts of the world where people live differently. Suddenly they don’t fully understand their own culture, for it lacks its real-life support, its everyday context, and therefore one turns to the texts. One’s own culture is objectified.

I wonder: Are not these tendencies extremely common; are they not in all of us? Are they not in ethics? Isn’t there a will to objectify ethics, to formulate the “ethical source code” that should govern, for example, our biomedical practices?

I think we need culturally sensitive ethics: in the sense of an ethics that responds sensitively to what is actually happening, and that contributes to meaningful contexts. An ethics that does not objectify either cultures or Ethics (capitalized).

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

Dissertation on palliative care of children with cancer

September 21, 2015

Pär SegerdahlApproximately every fifth child who gets cancer in Sweden dies from their disease. In her dissertation work at CRB, Li Jalmsell studied the care of these children at the end of their life from both the child’s and the parents’ and siblings’ perspectives.

One of her findings is that one doesn’t generally recognize that the child’s cancer is beyond cure until very close to death, giving little time to plan palliative care based on personal preferences.

Jalmsell also did surveys with parents and siblings who lost a child/sibling, and interviewed children with cancer. The children themselves emphasize in the interviews that they want honest information, even when it is bad. But they also want the conversations to be hopeful and contain a plan ahead; and they want to be informed simultaneously with the parents (not after the parents).

The psychological suffering of parents and siblings who lost a child/sibling seems to be influenced by different factors. Parents’ suffering after the child’s death is much dependent on how they experienced the child’s suffering near the end of life. The parents’ suffering also tended to increase if the child underwent bone marrow surgery before death, perhaps because of the hope of a cure that such an intense treatment awakens.

Siblings generally felt ill-informed and unprepared for the child’s death. Siblings who didn’t get opportunity to talk about what they could expect tended to feel anxiety long after the child’s death.

Jalmsell also stresses the importance of parents talking about death with their child. Other studies have shown that parents who don’t talk often regret this afterwards; while parents who talk with the child about death don’t regret it. In Jalmsell’s own study the parents say that the initiative to talk about death often came from the child, often through stories. The child understands its situation.

If you want to read Li Jalmsell’s dissertation, you can find it here:

It emphasizes the importance of open communication with the whole family.

The public examination is on Friday, September 25, at 09:00, at the Uppsala Biomedical Centre (BMC), room A1:111a. The examination will be conducted in English. Welcome to listen and ask questions!

Pär Segerdahl


Idling normativity

August 17, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI recently wrote about the tendency of ethical practices to lose their vital functions and degenerate into empty rituals. Why is there such a tendency?

The tendency is not unique to ethics: it is everywhere.

Suddenly, patients and students are to be called “customers” and be treated “as” customers. This can be perceived as an imposed language, as empty rituals that demean all concerned.

Since the edict to treat a variety of relationships “as” customer relationships can be experienced as demeaning, expanding customer normativity has become a problem even where it has its rightful place: in our stores, where we really are customers.

A retail chain – I will not say which – is now instructing their employees to call their customers “guests” and to treat them “as” guests!

The retail chain “solves” the problem of expanding customer normativity by decreeing guest normativity at precisely the place where customer normativity should work authentically.

I don’t know why we so easily go astray in our own forms of normativity, but I have a name for the phenomenon: idling normativity.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

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