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Brian Cox
  • Brian Cox
  • Cardiff By The Sea, CA
  • United States


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Should medical ethics be taught in medical school?

Over the course of the summer, I am embarking on a fairly comprehensive examination of medical ethics curriculum in the medical schools of the UK, Ireland, Canada, and America. I will be conducting focus groups and distributing surveys to understand how medical students view their competency in dealing with ethical issues, especially those encountered at the end-of-life.

I hope to use this information to make specific curriculum amendments that will allow future doctors to confidently manage terminally ill patients.

However, I need your help.

In order to make my study even more robust, I wish to garner as many perspectives as possible. Please contribute your opinions, your experiences, your attitudes and beliefs. Tell me how doctors deal with end-of-life issues: how they have managed your family and friends.

*The first comment gives a little background on the current state of medical ethics in the UK. It is an excerpt from my proposal earlier this year.


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    Jun 25 2012: I'm not sure if this is relevant to what is being asked, but I find myself questioning whether ethics can or should be taught anyways. It seems to me ethical values and such vary place to place, time to time and so the only way ethics really exist, much like norms, is by us acting as if they do and creating/empowering them.
    What if we were to get everyone on the same page and a problem in our way of thinking manifests itself? There will be no one to offer a different solution...
    • Jun 25 2012: There is truth in what you wrote but, even if values are changing, it is very important to find solutions to these kind of questions. I have not say an answer but a solution. Actually, we cannot stay here, timorous, saying that it is impossibe to solve these problems. There is a need to be "efficient".
      By efficient i do not want to say that we have to applicate a random solution and force people to deal with it. I just want to say that, in order to find a solution, the first step would be to largely talk about these problems. By the meantime it would be the occasion to break some taboos.
      As a consequence I totally agree with this enterprise which will be the occasion to talk about these problems but i am more sceptic about the idea of teaching "Medical ethics" because it is controversial by nature. So i cannot imagine lessons about that but rather debates for example.

      Thanks for read me.
    • Jul 11 2012: Hi, Alec. Your starting point with this explanation assumes that there are no such thing as moral absolutes, but that needn't be the case, even though, as you note, it certainly seems that way because of a lack of agreement. However, consider this example I pose to my own students as a possible explanation in favor of moral absolutes. I'm not claiming it's true; rather, I just use this as a tool to counter the "it's all relative" mindset students always have when they enter the class each semester. Let's use the analogy of xrays. There was a time when we knew nothing of the existence of xrays. It was only after we developed certain technologies that we knew of their existence, but we wouldn't make the claim that when we created the technology we, at the same time, somehow invented xrays. Rather, they were always there and we simply knew nothing of their existence. Similarly, couldn't one argue (as did people like Socrates and Plato) that moral absolutes are merely one more thing we haven't yet discovered about the universe? There's no logical contradiction there, regardless of how implausible that explanation "seems" to us. Our initial reaction is to state "That makes no sense. How could values exist in the abstract sense?" What might this tell us. Does it follow that simply because human being operate based on common-sense, therefore, so does the universe? Common-sense is a by-product based on our expectations about how things work, which doesn't in any way influence the truth about how things do work. It may turn out that we're right, and ethics/morals are always relative to a given frame of reference. However, claiming as much may also turn out to one day be proven otherwise. Or maybe (worst-case scenario) moral absolutes exist but are forever beyond our ability to discover them. Something's existence in no way is hinged upon our ability or inability to discover it.
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        Jul 11 2012: Speaking of Plato, you bring up my next point. It seems it doesn't matter, really, if there are moral absolutes or not, because they ( seem to be) unreachable. Much like the form of a human being can never be manifested into any one human being-there is mo synthesis for tall and short, black and white, black hair, blonde hair.. etc. All of which would have to coexist in a single human at the same time for it to truly represent all instances. In other words, a concept is a concept for a reason.
        It seems the idea of moral axioms, from this standpoint, is merely an idea. Whilst I'm not putting it down, I do think that it's more a "form" as Plato would call it that has many manifestations which we bring to the world, just as the form of a human being has many manifestations, some of which include you and I.
        On a side note- a part of me thinks that all axioms are simply supposed. Base 8 or 5, or 20, is just as good a base as 10, but we almost absolutely use base 10 today. Why? Just because that's what we've decided.
        • Jul 11 2012: You're taking Plato's theory of the forms out of context a bit. Forms don't have to manifest in a single being to validate their existence. In fact, you'd never find that, because they ARE abstractions. Take a look at how Socrates words his objections in the dialogs. When there's a call for definition, which happens at the outset of nearly every dialog, such as "What is justice?" in the Crito or again in the Republic, the secondary character begins by listing examples of things we consider just. Socrates then redirects by stating he's not interested in the examples. What he's asking is, if we were to make an exhaustive list of every last example of just things, what would be the common criteria among all of them that made us include them on this list? In other words, what is justice in the abstract sense? You'd never find the Forms manifested in material objects, because that's the distinction between universals (the Forms themselves) and particulars (specific objects that populate the universe). There's also a difference between moral absolutes and a "moral axiom." Be careful with your language here. An axiom is a self-evident truth and just because something may be absolute (i.e. universal) in no way implies that it's also self-evident. Yes, what you note about mathematics is true, but that's because mathematical truths, themselves, are definitional truths. As such, what's important is the relationships between the values and the symbols. Where you start is irrelevant as long as the same relationships hold. When you say "merely an idea," what is that meant to imply? Don't ideas exist? Ideas are, at the very least, brain energy and energy certainly exists. Existence isn't a generic term, meaning things don't simply exist in one manner of speaking. There are two basic ways things can exist, as either an object or as a concept. But concepts exist nonetheless. They aren't, in some way, "less real," because what does that mean?
        • Jul 11 2012: Additionally, asking for a synthesis between opposites is another error based on the assumption that existence is a generic term. It's what Gilbert Ryle referred to as a category-mistake. There's nothing to synthesize between tall and short, because these things only exist as matters of description. You don't have to find an average between short and tall (because you can't). What has actual existence is human beings (the object). Short and tall are just descriptions we give to the objects, similar to how there's no such object as a "crowd." "Crowd" is just a term we use to describe a collection of individuals, but the only actually existing objects are individual human beings. So, "crowd" is concpetual...which takes us back to the previously mentioned distinction about the fundamental categories of existence: 1) objects and 2) concepts.

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