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  • The Ideal of Shared Decision Making Between Physicians and Patients
  • Dan W. Brock (bio)


Shared treatment decision making, with its division of labor between physician and patient, is a common ideal in medical ethics for the physician-patient relationship.1 Most simply put, the physician's role is to use his or her training, knowledge, and experience to provide the patient with facts about the diagnosis and about the prognoses without treatment and with alternative treatments. The patient's role in this division of labor is to provide the values—his or her own conception of the good—with which to evaluate these alternatives, and to select the one that is best for himself or herself. As a rough guide to practice, this is a reasonable conception; most of the time it is likely to produce sound treatment decisions. However, as an ideal it is too simplistic, and is subject to several challenges that I will explore in this paper.

Some challenges relate to the physician's role. This facts/values division of labor seems to assume that the physician can and should provide the facts about treatment alternatives in a value-neutral form. But some have questioned whether the sciences on which medicine is based are, or can be, value free. Moreover, the concepts of health and disease, and of the normal and pathological, are held by many to be value laden. And even if it is possible for physicians to provide only value-neutral facts to the patient, should the physicians' role be restricted in this way?

Other challenges that I will present in the paper are to the patient's role [End Page 28] as provider of the values for the evaluation of the different treatment alternatives. One defense of this role is based on the claim that physicians are not in a position to know reliably what is in a patient's best interests (Buchanan, forthcoming). I believe at least as influential—even if often not explicitly stated—is an extreme subjectivism about values that assumes that the patient's own ultimate values, which define his or her own conception of the good, are incorrigible. By incorrigible, I mean they cannot be mistaken. In the standard case in which treatment is pursued for the patient's benefit, this extreme subjectivism is thought to support the patient's values guiding treatment decision making and treatment. I will explore this incorrigibility claim and will argue that on each of the main philosophical conceptions of the good for persons it is indefensible and should not be the basis for shared treatment decision making.

Underlying this view of the physician-patient division of labor are assumptions and beliefs about the nature and relation of facts and values, and science and ethics, that are largely the legacy of a logical positivism that has long since been rejected by most philosophers. It is time that these unstable foundations for our normative ideal of the physician-patient relation were finally removed and replaced with more defensible underpinnings.

Two Models of the Physician-Patient Relationship

Positivists insisted on a relatively sharp distinction between descriptive or empirical claims and science, on the one hand, and evaluative claims and ethics, on the other.2 Descriptive statements and the claims of science were to be true or false according to whether they in fact correctly described and explained the world. By remaining properly descriptive or empirical, science could, at least in principle, be entirely value neutral or value free.

In its more extreme versions, positivism held that ethical judgments lacked cognitive content, but were instead expressions of emotions or attitudes, and as such could be neither true nor false, correct or mistaken. Because no evaluative statements were held to be logically entailed by any descriptive or empirical statements, moral reasoning was thought to be properly understood not as reasoning but as attempts at nonrational persuasion.3 Many drew from this an extreme subjectivism in ethics along the lines of what I have called above the incorrigibility thesis—there is no meaningful sense in which an individual's ultimate values defining his or her own conception of the good life could be mistaken, false, or unfounded.