Back To CoursePhilosophy 102: Ethics in America
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Sometimes, it's easy to think about ethics, or systems of morality, and imagine philosophers in rooms full of dusty books, asking esoteric questions and rambling on about whether or not we actually exist. Well, really, one of the areas where philosophy and ethics are very often applied is in human healthcare, so maybe we should be imagining a busy hospital instead. This application includes both medicine and psychology, since both are targeted at helping people live healthier lives.
Healthcare comes with a lot of ethical concerns. After all, your decisions have real-world implications and pretty dramatic ones at that. There's a lot more at stake than just a few dusty shelves of old books.
There are, obviously, many ethical issues in medicine and psychology. However, four stand out as areas of frequent debate. Let's start with resource allocation, or basically, what do you do when have more patients than resources? Imagine that you run a hospital that is unexpectedly flooded with people. Do you have enough beds? Do you have enough doctors and medicine? Do you give some patients the best care possible while ignoring others? Or do you treat everyone only a little bit?
In general, healthcare professionals agree on rationing as the most moral response to this scenario, in which resources are distributed fairly to everyone who needs them. A fair distribution, however, does not always mean an equal one. If one patient has a paper cut and another has a concussion, the physician will give more time, attention, and medicine to the patient with the most need.
Another issue that is quickly becoming more of an ethical debate in healthcare is that of behavior control, or using medical technology to manipulate behavior. Imagine a psychologist has three patients: one is mildly depressed, one has severe rage caused by hallucinations, and one is extremely shy. Theoretically, it is possible to alter all of these conditions using medical technology, from drugs to surgeries. But, is it ethical?
One of the major areas for concern here is recognizing that social values determine our ideas of proper behavior, but that doesn't mean certain behaviors are dangerous or somehow bad. For example, homosexuality was once considered to be a psychological condition that could be fixed with medicine. Nowadays, we would find it incredibly unethical to treat homosexuality as a disease or try and use science to change that about a person.
However, that patient who is experiencing rage from hallucinations? Well, in this case medication or surgery to prevent the hallucinations could lead to a higher quality of life, as well as prevent harm to others. So, there's a fine line here, and healthcare professionals try to distinguish between social norms, quality of life expectations, and actual medical conditions.
As our medical technology just keeps improving, another issue that becomes more and more relevant is that of genetics research, or the ability to manipulate genetics for medical purposes. The theories of what is possible range from manipulating the DNA of embryos and removing severe conditions like Downs' Syndrome to selecting the hair and eye color of your future children. Some people are fascinated by this idea and argue that if we can use technology to prevent disease before it even occurs, then we should. Others argue that these technologies involve messing with the basic processes of life itself, which is perhaps something humans are not meant to do.
The most relevant source of this debate comes from stem cell research. Stem cells are those that can change from one sort of cell to another, which means, theoretically, being able to grow bodily tissues and potentially cure degenerative diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's. However, the most effective way to extract stem cells is from human embryos and in the process, the embryo is destroyed. So, what's more ethical, saving the life of an embryo or using technology to potentially cure hundreds? It's actually a really difficult question and one that medical professionals are debating today.
Science and technology have changed the world of healthcare. However, at the end of the day, a lot of ethical debates in healthcare actually come back to one of the oldest questions: Is it okay to test new research on humans? In ethical terms, nearly all healthcare professionals agree that human life is the end-all-be-all, that sacred line that you just never cross.
However, experimenting on humans is necessary. Say you want to use a new medicine, a new surgical procedure, or a new mental health program. If it's never been done before, you really don't know what to expect, so it would be unethical to just start using it on patients. This means you need to test it on actual humans first.
There are a few guidelines here to ensure that human testing is possible, while still being ethical. Of all of these rules, the most important is that the subject must be fully aware of all risks and must give unmistakable, conscious consent. That's the big one - your subjects have to know what you're doing to them and they have to give their permission.
Staying ethical in healthcare can require jumping through a few hoops, but the result is an open and productive medical community that is able to provide the best healthcare possible. How's that for a good philosophy?
In our modern world, one of the areas where ethics, systems of morality, are most frequently applied is in human healthcare. Dealing with human lives and health has a lot of moral implications and there are several common issues.
For one, resource allocation, or deciding when and how to divide resources amongst patients. Most people agree that resources should be fairly distributed, but sometimes that means giving more to those in need. Another common issue is behavior control, using medical technology to alter behavior. Ethical guidelines permit this in some cases of medical conditions.
New technologies have also made the issue of genetics, the use of technology to manipulate DNA, a major source of debate and this issue is ongoing. However, many issues still deal with the basic idea of human experimentation, the use of human test subjects. Human testing is necessary, but must follow strict guidelines of consent.
All of these issues are important ones and really, the ethical rules for each come back to protecting and preserving human life. And that's how ethics go from esoteric debate to practical applications.
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Back To CoursePhilosophy 102: Ethics in America
15 chapters | 95 lessons