The Utility of Futility: the construction of bioethical problems

Nursing Ethics 5 (6):509-517 (1998)
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The aim of this article is to analyse the contemporary ‘futility discourse’ from a constructivist perspective. I will argue that bioethics discourse typically disregards the con text from which controversies emerge and the processes that inform and constrain such discourse. Constructivists have argued that scientific knowledge is expressive of the dominant paradigm within which a scientific community is working. I will outline an analysis of ‘medical futility’ as a construction of biomedical and bioethical communities (and their respective paradigms). I will trace the emergence and utilization of futility in the literature. My analysis of the context (i.e. the historical circumstances, the particular actors involved) within which the futility discourse emerged suggests that medical futility was constructed, in part, as a means of enhancing physician domination of a context wherein medical authority was threatened. The actors in this debate express widely divergent frameworks of ‘the good’, arguing from distinctive representations of moral agency. At times, this controversy has been argued from incommensurate moral horizons wherein the discussants debate incomparable problems. This discussion is related to a study of the ‘practice’ of futility in the clinical context. Further studies on the construction of bioethical problems are a necessary condition for supporting the truth claims of bioethical arguments



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