A Pragmatic Argument for an Acceptance-Refusal Asymmetry in Competence Requirements

Journal of Medical Ethics 48 (11):799-800 (2022)
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In 2016, this Journal published an article by Rob Lawlor1 on what we might call the acceptance-refusal asymmetry in competence requirements. This is the view that there can be cases in which a patient is sufficiently competent to accept a treatment ( viz., to give consent to it), but not sufficiently competent to refuse it ( viz., to withhold consent to it). Though the main purpose of Lawlor’s paper was to distinguish this asymmetry from various other asymmetries with which it has sometimes been confused,1 Lawlor also presented a brief case in favour of it. Developing an earlier argument of Ian Wilks’,2 3 Lawlor argued that, when the risks associated with refusing a treatment are graver than those associated with accepting it, a higher level of competence may be required to refuse a treatment than to accept it. This claim could have important implications for the law, since determinations of competence often play a central role in determining the lawfulness of refusing or imposing a treatment (eg, in England and Wales under the Mental Capacity Act 2005). Indeed, the acceptance-refusal asymmetry in competence requirements, or something close to it, has played an important role in court judgments.2 However, Lawlor himself suggests that his conclusion will have practical implications only in a narrow range of cases.3 In this issue, Pickering, Giles Newton-Howes and Simon Walker (henceforth ‘the authors’) respond to Lawlor’s piece.4 They deny that competence requirements should depend on the level of risk associated with a decision, and thus that there is any basis for the acceptance-refusal asymmetry in competence requirements. Part of the authors’ argument involves contesting the way in which Lawlor uses cases to support his view. In one case cited by Lawlor—and drawn from Wilks—we are invited to consider a whether …

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Thomas Douglas
University of Oxford


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