Dangers of Anthropomorphism in Medicine (#poem)

chimpanzee sitting on gray stone in closeup photography during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is most important, he said, to never
Ascribe to your subjects the feelings,
Intentions, and desires of humans.

You must make assiduous reports
Of behavior devoid of motive or
Explanation. The maternal adult screamed

But never wailed in sorrow, for
We cannot assume she is capable
Of sorrow. We cannot assume

Her frantic clamoring expresses
Either desperation or lamentation for
The infant stolen from her hours before.

We cannot assume she feels what
Humans feel or, indeed, is capable
Of thoughts or intentions at all.

But do remember that our work
Is important, as these specimens
Are perfect subjects for the study

Of human medicine. Their biology
And neurology is so similar to human
Biology that we can safely assume

That any treatments developed
For them will have similar effects
On their human counterparts.

What is safe for your subjects
Will be safe and beneficial for
Humans. Any deleterious effects

Must be recorded, of course,
As you have an obligation to humanity.
Your aim is to improve human well-being.

Review: John Gluck’s Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals

The entire medical research enterprise is built on a foundation of intense and immense animal suffering. Most of the effective treatments we have now were previously tested on non-human animals before they were ever used on humans. On the other hand, most non-human animal research does not lead to an effective treatment or even publishable results.

In Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals: A Primate Scientist’s Ethical Journey, John Gluck describes his glacially slow transition from primate researcher to animal welfare advocate. Early in his career, Gluck worked on the infamous monkey social-isolation experiments that provided the earth-shattering news that separating infants from their mothers and rearing them in isolation harms their emotional and intellectual development. Thanks to img_0327this ground-breaking research, mothers have learned not to raise their babies in small wire cages and occasionally perform painful surgeries on them.

In approximately the same amount of time it took for humans to evolve from other species, Gluck began to realize the great harm he was causing to his beloved monkeys. Gluck apprehended the harm he was doing after personally observing the excruciating suffering of the animals he was studying, seeing the shock in the eyes of non-scientists when he described his work and realizing that he could only describe his work to fellow scientists, having a student present him with Peter Singer’s accurate description of his work, having his lab broken into by animal rights activist, and, finally, talking with philosophers about the rights of animals.

The brilliance of his account is that he illustrates why it was so difficult for him to acknowledge the pain he was causing and why it is next to impossible to engage animal researchers in a debate over the welfare of research animals. Typically, animal researchers say they turn to non-human animals when it would be unethical to test on humans. When pressed, they will agree that animals should be used only when their use benefits the pursuit of scientific knowledge, should be given clean living quarters, should be fed appropriately, and should be given medical treatment when needed. Unless, of course, the scientist is studying the effects of food deprivation, lack of medical treatment, and so on.

The research is further justified by the fact that non-human animals have similar biological and neurological structures that ensure that results in non-human animals can be replicated in human animals. The human who doubts the similarity is scoffed at for being scientifically illiterate. Paradoxically, suggesting that non-human animals, similar to humans in other ways, are also similar to humans in terms of suffering or moral importance is accused of anthropomorphism. The argument is either that animals are not capable of suffering in any meaningful way or that their suffering is of no moral significance.

Gluck describes these arguments and explains that he himself held such seemingly contradictory views because they are taught and repeated ad nauseam until they become ingrained beginning with undergraduate study. Anyone who questions these basic beliefs is either met with laughter or denied entry and participation in research programs. People within the system become so closed off from contrary opinions that they are often surprised when descriptions of their work shocks and offends outsiders. The only explanation for the outrage many scientists will consider is that outsiders cannot understand the importance of their work.

One of the more fascinating events that led to Gluck’s change of heart concerned a human patient who was thought to be severely cognitively impaired. Staff in the patient’s room talked about the woman as if she were an object. Gluck was trying to solve a particular problem. At times, staff could feed the woman from a spoon but at other times she could not swallow. It turned out that she could swallow but was refusing to because she did not appreciate the way certain staff treated her. It was the only form of protest she had at her disposal. When Gluck realized how robust the conscious life of this patient was despite the appearance of minimal cognitive activity, he realized also that he could not say with certainty what thoughts, beliefs, or emotions non-human animals might experience.

Gluck eventually decided to get out of animal research and began teaching courses on research ethics that covered a variety of topics but included discussions of animal welfare. (If you care about the suffering of the animals in his lab, you will be disappointed by what happened to them.) Gluck’s educational programs on research ethics were successful in the sense that they attracted students from a myriad of disciplines and engaged both students and faculty in interesting and enlightening debate on the use of both human and non-human animals in research. Looking back, he is proud of his accomplishment to begin these discussions but admits that animal researchers were the one group that never engaged in the discussions.

Ethicists can attempt to change practices from inside or outside of institutions. Outsider ethicists have more freedom to make bold declarations of misconduct, express outrage, and threaten established practices. Insider ethicists have greater access and opportunity to speak directly with the people who have the power to change practices. Both kinds of ethicists are needed. Gluck is an insider whose thoughts and arguments were enhanced and supported by outsider ethicists. He says he was unable to effect a great deal of change inside research labs, but he was able to speak to researchers as an equal to engage in an ethical discussion. Sadly, insider ethicists who raise ethical alarms are often forced outside. It takes a great deal of courage to risk losing a privileged position inside the castle, and it also takes a great deal of courage to storm the castle gates.

If you are looking for a book with a detailed and comprehensive review of philosophical theory related to animals, you will be disappointed in Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals; however, if you are looking for an insider’s perspective on the views and outlook of animal researchers, you will find Gluck’s insights and introspection fascinating, even if depressing. The book shows that it possible for researchers to be moved and gain compassion and understanding of the harm they are doing, but it also shows that such progress is slow and infrequent.

 

 

 

 

Our Bodies, Ourselves and the birth of bioethics

The first works of academic bioethics I read were by notables such as Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Bonnie Steinbock, but that is not where my interest in bioethics actually began. In the 1980s, I ran across the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and I was immediately captivated by the book and the movement it represented, even if I wasn’t part of the particular movement.

The book began as an outgrowth of the feminist movement when 12 women met in 1969 to discuss their experiences with doctors. They began compiling and disseminating their stories and information to empower women to take charge of their own healthcare decisions. Bioethics as a professional field developed in the 1970s, but the authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves were ahead of professional bioethicists by a few years. In 1970, these authors released a booklet titled “Women and Their Bodies.” While professional bioethicists focused on the role of autonomy in healthcare, these women were creating autonomy by giving women information and the courage to take charge of their own healthcare. You can read more about the history here.

At the time these women met, abortion was illegal and most doctors were male. As the authors explained in the preface to the first edition of the book, “we wanted to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and noninformative.” To combat the attitudes they found common in doctors, they presented information on birth control, abortion, menstruation, masturbation, and sexuality in frank and shame-free language. As a outcome of the approach, they said, “Our image of ourselves is on a firmer base, we can be better friends and better lovers, better people, more self-confident, more autonomous, stronger and more whole.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves, the book, continues to be published (now in more than two-dozen languages), and the organization, Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), continues as a nonprofit organization promulgating information on girls’ and women’s health and sexuality. Their efforts now extend globally through the Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative (OBOGI).

These women approached bioethics from the ground up and changed the world.

This is how I feel bioethics should be conducted for the greatest impact. Patients, ideally, should drive the focus of bioethics and inform both ethicists and healthcare providers of what issues are important. The only way for this to happen is for patients to tell their stories of how they experienced healthcare, medicine, illness, and even death.

To that end, I am inviting patients to submit their own stories of illness and medicine to Ethics Beyond Compliance. If you would like to submit a story related to your experience of illness (either as a patient or as a caregiver) or grief, please send it to me. I will have a story coming up in the next few days, but I hope to make it a regular feature of the blog.

See also: O is for Our Bodies, Ourselves

Thought experiment: Financial Conflicts of Interest

Believe it or not, many people see no problem with financial conflicts of interest in health care. People who receive payments say they are only doing the same job they would do otherwise, except with more resources. This, they say, enables them to provide better health care. People who make the payments will claim that they are only trying to ensure that their beneficial products are able to improve the lives of as many consumers as possible. Even patients defend conflicts, saying they don’t mind their doctors making a few extra dollars in order to provide efficient, state-of-the-art service. Patients see these financial ties as a way to ensure groundbreaking treatments reach consumers.

Slippery Slope
A rather beautiful example of a slippery slope.

I’m not a doctor, but there are analogies for me. If we look at financial ties in another industry, it may be easier to see the problem. In education, the stakes are lower, but some parallels to the medical industry remain. I will begin with actual practices and then ask you to imagine further practices that parallel the medical industry.

First, instructors are commonly asked to review books for publishers seeking feedback on manuscripts or new textbooks. This gives the publisher an opportunity to get feedback from potential customers while also enabling instructors to provide input to publishers. Instructors get better books, and publishers are able to improve both their products and their marketing. The instructor is, of course, paid a small honorarium for the time invested in reading and reviewing the book.

Second, once instructors have given feedback, publishers may invite them to be more involved in the production of the textbook. They may be asked to write an instructor’s manual to accompany the text or participate in developing workbooks or online supporting materials for students. (Disclosure: I know that these first two items are practiced because I have reviewed textbooks and written an instructor’s manual for pay.) Instructors, of course, know the most about what instructors need and how students may use various materials. Improving the product benefits publishers, instructors, and students.

Now, imagine that an instructor sees an improvement in students’ success rates and general aptitude. The instructor begins to collect data and may even present at a teaching and learning conference on how these materials have benefited students. A publisher might (I don’t know of this happening in real life) offer to pay the instructor to give the same presentation at additional conferences. On the surface, this does not seem harmful. After all, the students really did improve using these materials, and the presentation was not developed with the aim of getting payouts from the publisher. Certainly, no students will be harmed by these presentations.

Finally, imagine this instructor begins to accept regular invitations from the publisher to present on the benefits of the products and encourages others to adopt the same materials for their classes. The instructor notes that most of her or his students are now earning A’s and B’s when the class averages were usually a B or C before the materials were adopted. To reward the instructor for this amazing success, the publisher begins to pay the instructor $100 for each A awarded and $80 for each B awarded. Soon, this instructor is widely hailed for improving student success and completion rates at a college that struggles with generally high rates of failure and incompletion.

Now, these payments to the instructor come to the attention of the student newspaper, which publishes the amounts paid to the instructor and the increase in high grades in the classes. The public is outraged, but enrollments in the class continue to increase. The instructor counters that no one has shown that even one student who received an A did not deserve an A. Further, the instructor says that the improvements in student success were documented even before the payments began. The publisher responds by saying that the materials it produces are of the highest quality and that it is proud of the success rates of the students using the products. Without the relationship between the publisher and instructor, fewer students would have benefited from these outstanding educational materials and that would be a real tragedy.

Questions to consider: 1. Did students really benefit from the relationship? 2. Were cheaper alternative materials available that were equally beneficial? 3. Is it possible that students received inflated grades, even if proving it so is impossible? 4. What would it take to identify this relationship as a moral problem? 5. Are all financial relationships with industry unethical? 6. If not, when does the relationship become unethical?

I think it is extremely rare for someone to go into a job with criminal intent to capitalize on the system and take home as much money as possible regardless of possible harm. No, everyone begins with the best intentions and becomes blinded to the possible effects of their actions. And, precisely because each person has no malevolent intentions, each person feels insulted by even a hint of judgment and defends her or his practices vehemently. Because good people do X or Y, it is easy to think it is impossible that X or Y is a bad thing, especially when we can show that many people have benefited from these practices.

åIt is easy to be blinded by the fog of good intentions and financial influence, and ethicists are not immune. The job of the ethicist is not to be perfect but to be on guard. The job of the ethicists is to constantly strive to get a clear view through the fog and to help others stay on the paved path running alongside that slippery slope.

 

Do all ethicists have a messiah complex?

Last May, Nathan Emmerich wrote a column warning that bioethicists must not become a “priestly caste.”In the column, he warns that giving bioethicists moral authority over all practices in medicine and healthcare will have an anti-democratic effect and hinder public discourse.

He may have overstated the authority that bioethicists generally have, but it is true that some see their job as handing down judgment on various practices in medicine and research while others, frankly, would be happier to just accept the opinion of “experts” in order to avoid having to take full responsibility for their ethical decisions. The ethical expert has arisen because of rising demand. After making a thorny decision, who would not want to be able to say, “My decision was reviewed and approved by experts in ethics”?

Ethicists will do well to resist a priestly role. If you begin to believe that something is morally correct simply because you believe or say that it is, then you should apply for sainthood, not a position as an ethics consultant. When Euthyphro is asked if he knows he is doing the right thing, he replies, “The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?” Euthyphro considers himself an expert on matters of morality and dismisses any suggestion that his opinions might be challenged. As he attempts to explain himself, his logic breaks down. Ethicists as experts would do well to open themselves to challenges from all corners as Emmerich suggests.

All this is further complicated, though, by Eric Schwitzgebel’s finding that ethicists are no more ethical than non-ethicists. Comparing ethicists and other professors, Schwitzgebel and his colleague, Joshua Rust, found that both ethicists and their colleagues reported that the ethicists were no more ethical than their colleagues. This is not terribly surprising. I may think I am a pretty ethical person but not be willing to say my colleagues in metaphysics are a bunch of thieves and charlatans. By the same token, they may think I am pretty ethical but have enough self-respect not to sell themselves short.

Of further harm to the reputation of ethicists, Schwitzgebel says ethics courses do not appear to have much affect on the ethical behavior of students. He notes that many of us who teach ethics do no claim that it will make our students behave more ethically. This is probably true in most philosophy departments, but ethics courses in law schools and business schools, for example, are designed to prevent unethical behavior down the road.

It isn’t likely that any type of ethics course can cause an unethical person to become more ethical, but courses can have an effect on ethical behavior. Courses in specific disciplines can provide a framework for codes of behavior in a particular field such as law, business, psychotherapy, or medicine. Through such courses, students can become well versed in expected norms as well as actual regulations from laws or professional codes of behavior. In addition, students can learn to examine cases and apply accepted principles of their fields to various situations they may encounter during their careers.

Theoretical courses give students a larger ethical toolbox to examine conflicts that arise in their careers and also in their daily lives. Few ethics professors have had students say that, thanks to the ethics class, they have stopped lying and cheating, but most of us have had students tell us that they now see questions in a new light. Rather than simply relying on instinct or prior teaching, students learn new ways to frame ethical problems and new approaches for identifying possible ethical harm. If nothing else, we give the students who are already ethical a greater vocabulary for articulating their actions and beliefs.

With any luck, ethicists, ethics instructors, and students will all leave the class with a bit of humility. The ethicist who believes his or her own hype as a moral authority has passed into dangerous territory. At best, the ethicist has the tools to examine ethical problems with greater detail and nuance. In the end, people eventually have to act, and a thorough ethical analysis can help guide them.

But ethics courses have a greater importance. Imagine a society where no one ever studied or discussed ethical theory or ethical decisions. It is impossible to imagine such as society, I think, because we do have to make decisions, and that requires thinking about them in detail. Some people would always rely on their “gut feeling,” but others would worry and ponder and ruminate. And they might seek the counsel of others who have spent time worrying and pondering and ruminating. And soon we would see the rise of a priestly caste and a separate group of committed but imperfect thinkers devoted to analyzing ethics in both theory and practice. We would make many mistakes, and many people would be hurt, but at least we would be trying.

At least we are trying.

Patients’ Rights Survey

Patients’ Rights Survey

Please take my patients’ rights survey. I am trying to learn about how patients (and potential patients: everyone) feel about informed consent, financial disclosure, medical research, and end-of-life decisions. There are only 20 questions and it is anonymous.

I will be most appreciative of all responses.

What is Bioethics? Environmental and Economic Justice

Like many people, Peter Singer was the first bioethicist to occupy any space in my consciousness. He first got my attention with his concern for animal welfare and calls for vegetarianism. I suppose he is best known for saying we should not eat animals but that it is sometimes acceptable to kill our babies, which many people find upside down, especially if they haven’t actually read all his arguments, and few of his critics seem to have read his arguments.

But Singer has also spent a great deal of effort offering suggestions on relieving the problems of globalization, wealth inequality, and further destruction of the planet. One can offer reasoned objections to his suggestions, of course, but his choice of topics and concerns helped define what bioethics was for me.

Singer’s concerns fit nicely with the term “bioethics” as originally conceived by Van Rensselaer Potter in 1970. Potter said bioethics should be “a new discipline that combines biological knowledge of human value systems.” Potter saw bioethics as a systematic attempt to ensure the survival of the planet and all the people on it. One of Potter’s goals was to eliminate “needless suffering among humankind as a whole.”

Van Rensselaer Potter

Unfortunately, by the middle of the 1970s, the term “bioethics” had already been co-opted by the medical establishment and applied primarily to medical ethics. Concerns for ensuring the well-being of humankind were replaced by concerns for patients and doctors, with a strong emphasis on patient autonomy. Today’s bioethicists tend to ignore problems that have nothing to do with healthcare or medical research, but millions of people in the world have no access to healthcare and so escape any attention from bioethicists at all, which is itself an injustice.

To be sure, bioethicists are still in the world working for justice and, in some notable cases, the survival of the planet, but those working on themes outside of healthcare or medical research are outsiders at best. (For a couple of examples, see Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge.)

I will continue to argue that this is the wrong approach to bioethics. Potter’s and Singer’s concern for promoting the health of the earth and all its inhabitants is the only reasonable way to think of bioethics, and those who disagree are the ones who should defend their positions.

What are some of the issues we need to address? Just to get us started, we can look at environmental justice, war, climate change, worker’s rights, wealth inequality, access to water, human rights abuses, women’s equality, and children’s welfare. Too broad? The problems that threaten life and health are vast. Medical practice requires an enormous cadre of professional ethicists to develop policy and practice guidelines, of course, but bioethicists following the vision of Potter should be welcome at the table as well.

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.

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.”