Glenn Beck is shocked by bioethics blog about an article saying killing isn’t really wrong.

By now, commentary on Glenn Beck seems superfluous—his views are so patently divorced from reality, but this topic could use some discussion anyway. In this clip, he responds to a blog titled “Is it morally wrong to take a life? Not really, say bioethicists” by Michael Cook. Beck seems unaware that his comments are actually about an article titled “What Makes Killing Wrong?” by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Cook, of course, is just commenting on the original article. Although the full article by Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller is available online, Beck obviously did not take the time to read it. Or, if he read it, he certainly does not want his listeners to.

Here’s the problem: Hospital Ethics Committees (or other hospital entities) must develop extremely precise procedures for organ harvesting. They do this because they do not believe it is ethical to kill patients for their organs, nor do they want others to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they kill patients for their organs. Sometimes, when someone is dying from an extreme and irreversible injury (such as a gunshot wound to the head), doctors will begin to remove organs only to have a monitor show a heartbeat or two. This event can be disconcerting.

I can see three alternatives here: 1. Turn off the monitors and declare the patient dead (changing the definition of death, if necessary). 2. Wait till there is no chance the heart may beat again and risk losing organs that could save another life. 3. Declare that the patient is alive but that killing the patient is acceptable.

Most ethicists have tended to suggest some variation of the first two options, but Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller think it is more honest to accept the third. If the heart may still beat, they argue that the patient is not dead but that it is morally permissible to kill that patient. The authors also make it more challenging by imagining a patient in this state for an extended time (on a ventilator or other artificial life support).

Unfortunately, their term for a patient in this state is “universally and totally disabled,” meaning that the patient cannot suffer, feel, think, or have any other function associated with being a living human being. Beck seizes on the term “disabled” and suggests they want to kill all the disabled people in the world. Is Beck being dishonest or did he just miss the point? Does it matter to you?

The final issue for Beck is that the authors said mere life is not sacred or we would not be able to pull weeds without violating the sanctity of life. So, Beck and his followers are incensed that they authors compared human life to weeds. But, of course, they did not.

No, Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller went on to distinguish between the sanctity of “life” and of “human life.” They follow the weed comment with this explanation:

 “Of course, what people mean when they say ‘Don’t kill’ is ‘Don’t kill humans’ (or maybe ‘Don’t kill sentient animals’). But why then are humans (or sentient animals) singled out for moral protection? The natural answer is that humans (and sentient animals) have greater abilities than plants, and those abilities give human lives more value. Humans can think and make decisions as well as feel (an ability that they share with sentient animals). But if these abilities are what make it immoral to kill humans (but not weeds), then what really matters is the loss of ability when humans (but not weeds) are killed. And then the view that human life is sacred does not conflict with—and might even depend on—the view that what makes life sacred (if it is) is ability, so the basic moral rule is not ‘Don’t kill’ but is instead ‘Don’t disable’.”

To be sure, the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics is provocative, and articles in ethics journals should be provocative. Many bioethicists, doctors, and lay people will disagree that killing is ever acceptable. Discussion of this issue is needed and welcome. Distortions, flag waving, and hysteria are not.

Pitch for a sequel to W;T

Some friends and I were saying we wish Margaret Edson, author of “W;t,” would write another play. Jokes about possible sequels ensued, so I imagined the following:

After witnessing and participating in the disrespectful and undignified death of Vivian Bearing, a feared and respected scholar of John Donne, Jason Posner begins to question whether biological reductionism is any more reasonable than attempts at metaphysical reductionism that John Donne paradoxically sought and repudiated. As Posner grapples with the contradiction between his desire to prolong life through medical research and his denial of the significance of suffering, he develops a yearning to create meaning out of the intersection of biological necessity, emotional fervor, and human connection.

As Posner completes his required clinical experience in the hospital and moves into the lab full time, he finds himself plagued by questions about the patients whose tissue and cells he is observing and manipulating. He begins to question the motivation of nurses, social workers, chaplains, and therapists in the hospital.

As his curiosity grows, isolated from human contact, he begins to read not only Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” but patient narratives as well as caregiver narratives. He begins to realize the importance of suffering to meaning humans make of their condition.

Through the turmoil of his own imagination, he has one other realization: He realizes he will die.

Can justice be utilitarian?

I have always been fond of Utilitarianism and, quite frankly, impressed by the arguments of all the major Utilitarian writers. Criticisms of Utilitarianism also make sense, but they don’t seem consistent with the views of major Utilitarians. I suppose I most commonly hear Utilitarianism dismissed as a cruel philosophy that would accept sacrificing individuals so long as a larger number of people drew some advantage from the sacrifice.

This argument affects me strongly as I feel a society that is unjust to only one person is an unjust and unacceptable society. Yet, I still find myself in great admiration for Bentham, Mill, Hare, Singer, and others. What I admire about these Utilitarians is that they never ignored the plight of people (or even non-human animals) who were marginalized by society. It is precisely this inclusiveness of Utilitarianism that attracts me.

For example, in one of my bioethics classes, we had a discussion of how to respond to a pandemic. Some of my colleagues said that doctors must deal with the person in front of them with full attention. To toss this person aside, they said, would just be Utilitarian. They pronounced “Utilitarian” as if they were saying, “pure evil.” Utilitarianism seems heartless to them. Doctors making calculations as to what actions would benefit the most people. I object, however, and say that it seems more heartless to ignore the 10 people dying in the street than it does to step away from one hopeless case in the hospital. I am biased, but I happen to think the person in the hospital is likely to be more privileged than the people who are in the street, and I feel we should give priority to the poor and dispossessed.

I also noted that everyone, doctors and non-doctors, was obligated to help as many people as possible. In this way, no one should be left to die alone with no one showing concern for him or her. Utilitarians such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger make powerful arguments for devoting more attention to those dying of starvation in the world. They do not advocate, as you might expect from the criticisms leveled against them, ignoring the suffering of the poor so long as it benefits the rich. Rather, they suggest that everyone has an obligation to try to relieve the suffering of everyone else, with no one being left out of the mix. I realize things don’t happen this way, but ethicists attempt to describe how things ought to happen, not how things are likely to happen.

So, all this leaves my question about justice open. I want to say that everyone will be happier if we all live in a state that is perfectly just.* For this reason, we cannot ignore injustice inflicted on any one person. When I make this assertion, I’m taking the line that we should all follow a rule, and some will say that so-called “Rule Utilitarianism” is just another form of deontology. I think the two may be compatible. It may that I have misunderstood Utilitarianism. If that is the case, I think most Utilitarians have also misunderstood it.

*Yes, I know, we are not likely to agree on what is meant by “perfectly just.”

Is it possible to reduce “futile care”?

Ken Murray, MD, recently wrote an excellent essay on how doctors die. To make a short story of it, doctors reject invasive, expensive, and ineffective treatment at the end of life that may prolong life for a short time but often with great suffering. It isn’t hard to understand why doctors reject such treatment seeing how it causes much suffering and provides so little benefit. It is a little harder to understand why so many non-doctor patients receive so much of this so-called “futile care.”

Murray offers some explanations of why patients receive so much expensive care that benefits no one. For one, doctors feel they are less likely to be sued for negligence if they “try everything” and never suggest withholding any treatment. Although the financial cost of such care is often astronomical, most patients and families of patients feel it is inappropriate to suggest that someone’s life is not worth the cost of care.

Clearly, if patients and their families understood the risks associated with invasive care as well as doctors, they would make the same decisions as doctors (unless, of course, we believe doctors are inherently more rational than everyone else in the world, and a handful of doctors may in fact believe just that). The problem is that patients do not understand the drawbacks as well as doctors (and other healthcare providers), and it is extremely difficult for a doctor to suggest turning down treatment without being occasionally accused of insensitivity or cruelty.

But I think this is an overly simplistic view. Many changes in medical practice in the past few decades have led us to some of these difficulties in communication. One problem is the way both doctors and patients view autonomy and informed consent. Both medical ethicists and the courts have declared that patients must make their own decisions regarding what treatments should be sought or declined. Many see the role of doctors as one of providing a list of treatment options, explaining the risks and benefits of treatment, and stepping back to let the patient decide on which treatment is appropriate. For better or worse, we have rejected the authority of the doctor to make medical decisions for us. This has been an important and generally positive development. For example, few if any feminist ethicists would suggest we should return to an era of medical paternalism.

However, patients go to doctors because the doctor is a medical authority. While patients rightly want the doctor to present treatment options, they do not necessarily want the doctor to withhold any opinion regarding which options are most suitable. Patients do not want to take orders from doctors anymore, but they do really want some suggestions, and they want to know why their doctors favor one suggestion over another. This happens routinely in day-to-day interactions, but it is more difficult in an emergency where someone is near death and decisions must be made quickly.

When a doctor says, “There is only one treatment available that may prolong your father’s life,” loving children are likely to reply, “Please do whatever you can to save our father.” Caregiver panic is one of the most common reason people end up dying in hospitals with unwanted treatment instead of in a quiet setting surrounded only by loved ones. I knew someone a few years ago who experienced this first hand. She was caring for her father, and she knew he was dying and wanted to die at home. However, when he began struggling for breath and appeared to be suffering, she called an ambulance. It would be counterintuitive for the staff on the ambulance or in the emergency room to assume she did not want her father rescued. She did want him rescued to the extent that she wanted him relieved, but she was not thinking clearly when she called for help. Of course the doctors assumed she wanted everything possible done to save her father.

Even when panic is not the driving force behind decisions, families may not understand that their loved one will die shortly in any case. Nor do they understand that further treatment may cause great pain for the few short days or weeks remaining. Communicating this reality is a skill that some doctors have, but many find it difficult for obvious reasons.

And one final note: I have heard doctors sometimes say, “The best I can offer you is an experimental drug that was just released,” or something to that effect. The word best is confusing to patients. Of course the patient will want the best treatment available, but they often fail to realize that even the best treatment available will lead to an undesirable outcome. Also, they do not understand that “best” means the medicine has the best chance of doing what it is designed to do. It does not mean it is the best option for care overall. I don’t want to say this is a common occurrence, but it is one I have observed.