Bioethics Blogs

The Importance of Disambiguating Questions about Consent and Refusal

Guest Post: Rob Lawlor

Re: Cake or death? Ending confusions about asymmetries between consent and refusal

Imagine you have an adolescent patient who is in need of life saving treatment. You offer him the treatment, assuming that he would consent, but he refuses. As he is not yet a competent adult, you decide to treat him despite the fact that he wishes to refuse treatment.

Now consider the question: does it make sense to say that there is an asymmetry between consent and refusal?

If you are familiar with the term “asymmetry between consent and refusal”, the chances are that you will believe that you know what the question means and you are likely to have an opinion regarding the answer. And if you are like John Harris, you may also think that the answer is obvious and that any other answer would be “palpable nonsense”. However, if you are not familiar with the term or with the relevant literature, you may be far less confident that you even understand the question.

Despite their lack of familiarity with the question, I believe the latter group may have a better understanding of the issue than the first group. Why? Because these people are wondering, “What does this question mean?” My claim is that we would make more progress if more people took the time to ask this question. The phrase “the asymmetry between consent and refusal” allows us to capture the topic of a particular debate in a fairly succinct way, but I suggest that it obscures the ethical issues, rather than illuminating them.

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.