Health

Coronavirus: Dark Clouds, But Some Silver Linings?

By Charles Foster

Cross posted from The Conversation

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, two observations. First: of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second: these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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Pandemic Ethics: the Unilateralist Curse and Covid-19, or Why You Should Stay Home

by Anders Sandberg

In Scientific American Zeynep Tufekci writes:

Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, … , is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind.

We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone.

…you should prepare because your neighbors need you to prepare—especially your elderly neighbors, your neighbors who work at hospitals, your neighbors with chronic illnesses, and your neighbors who may not have the means or the time to prepare because of lack of resources or time.

I think this is well put. As a healthy middle-aged academic my personal risk of dying from Covid-19 seems modest – maybe about 0.4% if I get it, which in turn might be below 10% depending on how widespread the virus becomes. But I could easily spread the disease to people who are far more vulnerable, either directly or indirectly. Even slowing the spread is valuable since it helps avoid overloading the medical system at the peak of the epidemic. Continue reading

The Right Not to Know and the Obligation to Know

By Ben Davies

Most people accept that patients have a strong claim (perhaps with some exceptions) to be told information that is relevant to their health and medical care. Patients have a Right to Know. More controversial is the claim that this control goes the other way, too. Some people claim, and others deny, that patients also have a Right Not to Know.

A number of considerations (harm to the patient; autonomy; privacy) have been marshalled on either side of this debate over the past few decades (e.g. Laurie 2004; Robertson and Savulescu 2001; Herring and Foster 2012; Takala 2019). In this post, I focus on a distinct argument and its apparently unassailable logic. This is the view that a comprehensive Right Not to Know cannot be justified because in many cases a patient’s ignorance will likely lead harm to third parties (Council of Europe 1997; Rhodes 1998; Harris and Keywood 2001).

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Institutional Conscientious Objection

by Roger Crisp

In a recent work-in-progress seminar at the Oxford Uehiro Centre, Xavier Symons, from the University of Notre Dame Australia, gave a fascinating and suggestive presentation based on some collaborative work he has been doing with Reginald Chua OP, from the Catholic Theological College, on institutional conscientious objection. Continue reading

Diet, Changing Desires, and Dementia

Written by Ben Davies

Last week saw the launch of a campaign (run by the group Vegetarian For Life) that seeks to ensure that older people in care who have ethical commitments to a particular diet are not given food that violates those commitments. This is, as the campaign makes clear, a particularly pressing issue for those who have some form of dementia who may not be capable of expressing their commitment.

Those behind the campaign are quite right to note that people’s ethical beliefs should not be ignored simply because they are in care, or have a cognitive impairment (see a Twitter thread where I discuss this with a backer of the campaign). But the idea that one’s dietary ethics must be ‘for life’ got me thinking about a more well-established debate about Advance Directives. (I should stress that what I say here should not be taken to be imputing any particular motivation or philosophical commitments to those behind the campaign itself.)

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The Doctor-Knows-Best NHS Foundation Trust: a Business Proposal for the Health Secretary

By Charles Foster

Informed consent, in practice, is a bad joke. It’s a notion created by lawyers, and like many such notions it bears little relationship to the concerns that real humans have when they’re left to themselves, but it creates many artificial, lucrative, and expensive concerns.

Of course there are a few clinical situations where it is important that the patient reflects deeply and independently on the risks and benefits of the possible options, and there are a few people (I hope never to meet them: they would be icily un-Falstaffian) whose sole ethical lodestone is their own neatly and indelibly drafted life-plan. But those situations and those people are fortunately rare. Continue reading

The Ethics of Social Prescribing: An Overview

Written by Rebecca Brown, Stephanie Tierney, Amadea Turk.

This post was originally published on the NIHR School for Primary Care Research website which can be accessed here

Health problems often co-occur with social and personal factors (e.g. isolation, debt, insecure housing, unemployment, relationship breakdown and bereavement). Such factors can be particularly important in the context of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), where they might contribute causally to disease, or reduce that capacity of patients to self-manage their conditions (leading to worse outcomes). This results in the suffering of individuals and a greater burden being placed on healthcare resources.

A potential point of intervention is at the level of addressing these upstream contributors to poor health. A suggested tool – gaining momentum amongst those involved in health policy – is the use of ‘social prescribing’. Social prescribing focuses on addressing people’s non-medical needs, which it is hoped will subsequently reduce their medical needs. In primary care, social prescribing can take a range of forms. For example, it may involve upskilling existing members of staff (e.g. receptionists) to signpost patients to relevant local assets (e.g. organisations, groups, charities) to address their non-medical needs. It is also becoming common for GPs to refer patients (or people may self-refer) to a link worker (sometimes called a care navigator) who can work with them to identify their broader social and personal needs. Together, they then develop a plan for how those needs could be met through engagement with activities, services or events in the local community. The resources that link workers direct people towards are often run by voluntary organisations and might include, among other things, sports groups, arts and crafts, drama, gardening, cookery, volunteering, housing advice, debt management, and welfare rights.

Supporting people to establish more stable and fulfilling social lives whilst at the same time reducing healthcare costs seems like a win-win. However, it is essential to evaluate the justifications for the introduction of social prescribing schemes, including their effectiveness. This raises a number of complicating factors, including some questions that require not just a consideration of empirical evidence, but a commitment to certain philosophical and ethical positions.

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Criticising Stigma Whilst Reinforcing it: the Case of the Response to CRUK’s Anti-Obesity Campaign

Written by Rebecca Brown

There has been recent concern over CRUK’s (Cancer Research UK) latest campaign, which features the claim ‘obesity is a cause of cancer too’ made to look like cigarette packets. It follows criticism of a previous, related campaign which also publicised links between obesity and cancer. Presumably, CRUK’s aim is to increase awareness of obesity as a risk factor for cancer and, in doing so, encourage people to avoid (contributors to) obesity. It may also be hoped to encourage public support for policies which tackle obesity, pushing the Overton window in a direction which is likely to permit further political action in this domain.

The backlash is mostly focused around the comparison with smoking, and the use of smoking-related imagery to promote the message (there is further criticism of the central causal claim, since it is actually quite difficult to establish that obesity causes cancer). 

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Responsibility Over Time And Across Agents

Rebecca Brown and Julian Savulescu

Cross-posted from the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, available here.

There is a rich literature on the philosophy of responsibility: how agents come to be responsible for certain actions or consequences; what conditions excuse people from responsibility; who counts as an ‘apt candidate’ for responsibility; how responsibility links to blameworthiness; what follows from deciding that someone is blameworthy. These questions can be asked of actions relating to health and the diseases people may suffer as a consequence. A familiar debate surrounds the provision of liver transplants (a scarce commodity) to people who suffer liver failure as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. For instance, if they are responsible for suffering liver failure, that could mean they are less deserving of a transplant than someone who suffers liver failure unrelated to alcohol consumption.

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Abolish Medical Ethics

Written by Charles Foster

In a recent blog post on this site Dom Wilkinson, writing about the case of Vincent Lambert, said this:

If, as is claimed by Vincent’s wife, Vincent would not have wished to remain alive, then the wishes of his parents, of other doctors or of the Pope, are irrelevant. My views or your views on the matter, likewise, are of no consequence. Only Vincent’s wishes matter. And so life support must stop.’

The post was (as everything Dom writes is), completely coherent and beautifully expressed. I say nothing here about my agreement or otherwise with his view – which is comfortably in accord with the zeitgeist, at least in the academy. My purpose is only to point out that if he is right, there is no conceivable justification for a department of medical ethics. Dom is arguing himself out of a job. Continue reading

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