Deception, intention and clinical practice

Journal of Medical Ethics 49 (7):510-512 (2023)
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Regarding the appropriateness of deception in clinical practice, two (apparently conflicting) claims are often emphasised. First, that ‘clinicians should not deceive their patients.’ Second, that deception is sometimes ‘in a patient’s best interest.’ Recently, Hardman has worked towards resolving this conflict by exploring ways in which deceptive and non-deceptive practices extend beyond consideration of patients’ beliefs. In short, some practices only seem deceptive because of the (common) assumption that non-deceptive care is solely aimed at fostering true beliefs. Non-deceptive care, however, relates to patients’ non-doxastic attitudes in important ways as well. As such, Hardman suggests that by focusing on belief alone, we sometimes misidentify non-deceptive care as ‘deceptive’. Further, once we consider patients’ beliefs and non-doxastic attitudes, identifying cases of deception becomes more difficult than it may seem. In this essay, I argue that Hardman’s reasoning contains at least three serious flaws. First, his account of deception is underdeveloped, as it does not state whether deception must be intentional. The problem is that if intention is not required, absurd results follow. Alternatively, if intention is required, then identifying cases of deception will be much easier (in principle) than Hardman suggests. Second, Hardman mischaracterises the ‘inverse’ of deceptive care. Doing so leads to the mistaken conclusion that common conceptions of non-deceptive care are unjustifiably narrow. Third, Hardman fails to adequately separate questions about deception from questions about normativity. By addressing these issues, however, we can preserve some of Hardman’s most important insights, although in a much simpler, more principled way.

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Nicholas Colgrove
Augusta University


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