Futility and the varieties of medical judgment

Daniel Sulmasy
Georgetown University
Pellegrino has argued that end-of-life decisions should be based upon the physician's assessment of the effectiveness of the treatment and the patient's assessment of its benefits and burdens. This would seem to imply that conditions for medical futility could be met either if there were a judgment of ineffectiveness, or if the patient were in a state in which he or she were incapable of a subjective judgment of the benefits and burdens of the treatment. I argue that a theory of futility according to Pellegrino would deny that latter but would permit some cases of the former. I call this the circumspect view. I show that Pellegrino would adopt the circumspect view because he would see the medical futility debate in the context of a system of medical ethics based firmly upon a philosophy of medicine. The circumspect view is challenged by those who would deny that one can distinguish objective from subjective medical judgments. I defend the circumspect view on the basis of a previously neglected aspect of the philosophy of medicine -- an examination of varieties of medical judgment. I then offer some practical applications of this theory in clinical practice.
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