Saving a life but losing the patient

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 34 (6):479-498 (2013)

Mark Edward Greene
University of Delaware
Gregor Samsa awakes to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. The creature’s inchoate flailing leads Gregor’s sister to conclude that Gregor is no more, having been replaced by a brute beast lacking any vestige of human understanding. Sadly, real cases of brain injury and disease can lead to psychological metamorphoses so profound that we cannot easily think that the survivor is the person we knew. I argue that there can be cases in which statements like, “It’s just not Gregor anymore,” are not merely figures of speech. With this in mind, I consider three possible results of saving a biological life: (1) ordinary cases where saving the life will save the person, with strong duties to save the life; (2) cases where the intervention needed to save the life will replace the person, with strong duties not to save the life; (3) cases in which it is indeterminate whether the person will be saved or replaced. How should we think about indeterminate cases? Impersonal ethical considerations miss the point, while standard person-affecting considerations are inapplicable. I suggest turning attention away from survival towards a richer focus on what I call “personal concern.” I show how considerations of personal concern, unlike those of self-interest, need not be tied to survival and how this allows personal concern to provide a basis for ethically substantive discussion of cases where saving a life might result in losing the patient
Keywords Identity  Survival  Replacement  Indeterminacy  Life-saving  Brain injury  Persons  Personal concern  Metamorphosis
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DOI 10.1007/s11017-013-9273-1
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