A placebo can be understood as a medical intervention that lacks direct specific therapeutic effects on the condition for which it has been prescribed, but which can nonetheless help to ameliorate a patient’s condition. In March 2013, a study by Howick et al. suggested that the vast majority of UK general practitioners (GPs) have prescribed a placebo at some point in their career. This finding was somewhat controversial and received national media coverage in the UK (here and here). Part of the reason for this controversy is that the use of placebos in clinical practice is often deemed to be morally problematic, in so far as it often involves the intentional deception of the patient.
In an open access paper published last month in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, I consider the moral permissibility of the clinical use of deceptive placebos in the light of this study. I argue that deceptive placebo use can be morally permissible, on the grounds that the deception involved in the prescription of deceptive placebos can differ in kind to the sorts of deception that undermine personal autonomy. By appealing to a thought experiment that is analogous to deceptive placebo use, I argue that deception can be morally permissible if it (1) is intended to enable the deceived party to achieve her own goals (and is thus compatible with the patient’s autonomy in a global sense) and (2) if the deceived party will only be able to achieve her goal if she holds the false beliefs that her deceiver leads her to hold.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.