Does Higgs refute the standard arguments that physicians give for lying to patients?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yes. In his article "On Lying to Patients" Roger Higgs applies Kantian ethics to refute every argument made in favor of the idea that a physician, or a medical professional, can reserve the right to tell a patient the truth.

There are four utilitarian arguments in favor of lying that touch upon the responsibility of a physician to do no harm, to bring a quality of happiness into the patient's life through health, and of non-maleficence. 

Higgs argues each point in the following way:

The argument of uncertainty, stating that doctors can lie to a patient at times when they do not know for certain every detail of their condition, is refuted as a bad argument.  It is simpler to be "on board" with the patient and be frank about not knowing the cause of something, or the proper diagnosis. The patient will likely be more willing to submit to further testing and, together, both doctor and patient can arrive at the final answer. 

The argument of beneficence states that physicians bring a quality of happiness into the lives of patients through health; if they give them bad news they would be tampering with this happiness. This argument is also refuted on the grounds that, as Kant would argue, each individual will eventually do what they feel is best for themselves. Moreover, Riggs cites survey evidence stating that patients want to be told what is wrong with them and that they actually depend on this information to make their personal choices. A physician who withholds information would not allow a patient to be fully informed to make a decision. 

The argument of non-maleficence states that, since telling the truth may hurt a patient, lying about certain details will prevent their patients from getting hurt. This Higgins refutes by saying that it is not the information that hurts, but the way that it is delivered. If a physician has the common sense of offering a plan, a solution, or a willingness to work together with the patient regardless of the news, the patients will appreciate this way more than being lied to. This is particularly true when time is of the essence and something could potentially be done about it. 

Higgs does say that if a truth will bring disaster to a life that is already coming to an end, then there is no need to further aggravate a situation that is already about to finalize. Still, respect should be given to the patient's personal ability to make decisions. This is what doctors should do: respect the patient and not make assumptions.

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