L. Syd M Johnson
SUNY Upstate Medical University
The phenomenon whereby severely disabled persons self-report a higher than expected level of subjective well-being is called the “disability paradox.” One explanation for the paradox among brain injury survivors is “response shift,” an adjustment of one’s values, expectations, and perspective in the aftermath of a life-altering, disabling injury. The high level of subjective well-being appears paradoxical when viewed from the perspective of the non-disabled, who presume that those with severe disabilities experience a quality of life so poor that it might make their lives not worth living. This presumption has profound consequences, for it may inform end-of-life choices made in advance directives, or influence decisions made by surrogates on behalf of persons who are unable to direct their own medical treatment. Peterson et al propose a cautious, well-considered plan to use fMRI-based brain-computer interfaces to assess the decision making capacity of covertly aware, behaviorally non-responsive individuals who retain high levels of preserved cognition. Their plan, if it succeeds, could eventually restore autonomy and empower some severely disabled persons, allowing them to participate in clinical decision making. Peterson et al discuss possible in-principle objections to their proposal, among them the “argument from psychological health,” and the “changing sets of values” objection. These objections both presume that deviations from a pre-injury norm could indicate diminished decision making capacity. This presumption threatens the autonomy of the patient who is capable of making decisions, but whose post-injury decisions appear to diverge from pre-injury preferences or values. In light of the potential for response shift, and the disability paradox, it should not be inferred that changes in values or preferences are unreflective of the true current preferences of a brain-injured person, nor are they conclusive evidence of diminished capacity. Presuming diminished capacity on the basis of unexpected or unconventional preferences has, in the past, been used to disempower patients whose autonomy and capacity would not have been doubted had they made choices that accorded with the expectations or values of others. We must be cautious, and vigilant, to prevent similarly diminishing the autonomy of covertly aware, behaviorally non-responsive individuals on the basis of empirically and ethically questionable inferences about their decision making capacity.
Keywords decision making  disorders of consciousness  brain injury  disability  bioethics  neuroethics
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DOI 10.1080/21507740.2013.827273
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Known Unknowns: Diagnosis and Prognosis in Disorders of Consciousness.L. Syd M. Johnson - 2017 - American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 8 (3):145-146.

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