Dr. House and the Great American Experiment

DrRich | June 28th, 2010 - 8:54 am


DrRich’s Independence Day Address to his Loyal Readers:

DrRich has always found it fascinating that the television show, “House MD” has remained so popular for so long. After all, Gregory House embodies the polar opposite of what we all say we want in a modern physician. House may be brilliant, but he’s antisocial, arrogant, sloppy and rude. He holds his patients in contempt, and considers them to be mentally deficient, or prevaricators, or both. He will take any action he deems necessary, however illegal or immoral it may be, to make sure his patients get whatever medical interventions he has determined they need, whether they (or anyone else) likes it or not.

And when he does what he does, the individual autonomy of his patients never, ever enters his mind.

Given that House extravagantly violates his patients’ autonomy whenever he can find any excuse to do so, joyfully proclaiming his great contempt for them and their individual rights, then why is his story so popular in America and around the world?

DrRich believes that the answer to this question ought to remind us of the fundamentally precarious nature of individual autonomy within our healthcare system, and within our culture.

Individual Autonomy in Medicine

Maintaining the autonomy of the individual patient has become the primary principle of medical ethics. And medical paternalism, whereby the physician knows best and should rightly make the important medical decisions for his or her patient, is supposed to be a thing of the past.

It has been formally agreed, by medical ethicists all over the world, that patients have a nearly absolute right to determine their own medical destiny. In particular, unless the patient is incapacitated, the doctor (after taking every step necessary to inform the patient of all the available options, and the potential risks and benefits of each one) must defer to the final decision of the patient – even if the doctor strongly disagrees with that decision. Hence, the kind of behavior which is the modus operandi of Dr. House should be universally castigated.

The notion that the patient’s autonomy is and ought to be the predominant principle of medical ethics, of course, is entirely consistent with the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights. This ideal first developed in Europe nearly 500 years ago, but had trouble taking root there, and really only flowered when Europeans first came to America and had the opportunity to put it to work in an isolated location, where rigid social structures were not already in place. The development of this ideal culminated with America’s Declaration of Independence, in which our founders declared individual autonomy (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to be an “inalienable” right granted by the Creator, and thus predating and taking precedence over any government created by mankind. And since that time the primacy of the individual in American culture has, more or less, remained our chief operating principle. Individual autonomy – or to put it in more familiar terms, individual freedom – is the foundational principle of our culture, and it is one that is perpetually worth fighting and dying to defend.

So the idea that the autonomy of the individual ought rightly to predominate when it comes to making medical decisions is simply a natural extension of the prime American ideal. It is obvious, most think, that this ought to be the governing principle of medical ethics.

Dr. House: The Champion of Beneficence

But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There’s another principle of medical ethics that has an even longer history than that of autonomy – the principle of beneficence. Beneficence dictates that the physician must always act to maximize the benefit – and minimize the harm – to the patient. Beneficence recognizes that the physician is the holder of great and special knowledge that is not easily duplicated, and therefore has a special obligation to use that knowledge – always and without exception – to do what he knows is best for the patient. Dr. House is a proponent of the principle of beneficence (though he is most caustic and abrasive about expressing it). DrRich believes House is popular at least partly because the benefits that can accrue to a patient through the principle of beneficence – that is, through medical paternalism – are plain for all to see.

Obviously, as “House MD” nicely illustrates, the principles of beneficence and of individual autonomy will sometimes be in conflict.  When two worthwhile and legitimate ethical principles are found to be in conflict, that is called an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas are often resolved either by consensus or by force. In our culture, this dilemma has been resolved (for now) by consensus. The world community has deemed individual autonomy to predominate over beneficence in making medical decisions.

DrRich’s point here is that Dr. House (the champion of beneficence) is not absolutely wrong. Indeed, he espouses a time-honored precept of medical ethics, which until quite recently was THE precept of medical ethics. There is much to be said for beneficence. Making the “right” medical decision often requires having deep and sophisticated knowledge about the options, knowledge which is often beyond the reach of many patients. And even sophisticated patients who are well and truly medically literate will often become lost when they are ill, distraught and afraid, and their capacity to make difficult decisions is diminished. Perhaps, some (like House) would say, their autonomy ought not be their chief concern at such times. Indeed, one could argue that in a perfect world, where the doctor has nearly perfect knowledge and a nearly perfect appreciation of what is best for the patient, beneficence should take precedence over autonomy.

Why Autonomy Predominates

In this light it is instructive to consider just how and why autonomy came to be declared, by universal consensus, the predominant principle of medical ethics. It happened after World War II, as a direct result of the Nuremberg Tribunal. During that Tribunal the trials against Nazi doctors revealed heinous behavior – generally involving medical “research” on Jewish prisoners – that exceeded all bounds of civilized activity. It became evident that under some circumstances (circumstances which were extreme under the Nazis, but which are by no means unique in human history) individual patients could not rely on the beneficence of society, or the beneficence of the government, or even the beneficence of their own doctors to protect them from abuse at the hands of authority. Thus, the ethical precept which asks patients ultimately to rely on the beneficence of others was starkly revealed to be wholly inadequate; and indeed, invites horrific results. Thus the precept of individual autonomy won out not because it is so inherently superior, but by default.

Subsequently, the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics was drafted and formally adopted worldwide. The Nuremberg Code officially declared individual autonomy to be the predominant precept of medical ethics, and the precept of beneficence, while also important, was declared to be of secondary concern. Where a conflict occurs between these two ethical precepts, the patient’s autonomy is to win out.

Again, this declaration was not a positive statement about how honoring the autonomy of the individual represents the peak of human ethical behavior. Rather, it was fundamentally a negative statement: Under duress (the Nuremberg Code admits) societies (and their agents) often behave very badly, and ultimately only the individual himself can be relied upon to at least attempt to protect his or her own best interests.

House vs. Autonomy and the Great American Experiment

DrRich will take this one step further: when our founders made individual autonomy the organizing principle of a new nation, they were also making a negative statement.

From their observation of human history (and anyone who doubts that our founders were intimately familiar with the great breadth of human history should re-read the Federalist Papers), they found that individuals could not rely on any earthly authority to protect them, their life and limb, or their individual prerogatives. Mankind had tried every variety of authority – kings, clergy, heroes, philosophers and professors – and individuals were eventually trampled under by them all. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, and because everything else had been tried many times and had failed, our founders declared individual liberty to be the bedrock of our new culture.

There is an inherent problem with relying on individual autonomy as the chief ethical principle of medicine, namely, autonomous patients not infrequently make very bad decisions for themselves, and then they – and their loved ones, and sometimes society – have to pay the consequences. The same occurs, of course, when we rely on individual autonomy as the chief operating principle of our civil life. The capacity of individuals to fend for themselves – to succeed in our competitive culture – is not equal, and so the outcomes are decidedly unequal. Autonomous individuals often fail – either because of inherent personal limitations, bad decisions, or bad luck.

So whether we’re talking about medicine or society at large, despite our foundational principles we will always have the temptation to return to a posture of dependence – of relying on the beneficence of some authority, in the hope of achieving more overall security or fairness – at the sacrifice of our individual autonomy.

In DrRich’s estimation the popularity of “House MD” is entirely consistent with this very strong tendency. Indeed, he thinks, the writers are compelled to make Dr. House as unattractive a person as he is, just to temper our enthusiasm for an authority figure who always knows what is best for us and acts on that knowledge, come hell or high water. If a figure such as Dr. House was also a compelling personality and had a gift with words, he would become almost Messianic – far too dangerous a prospect for a television program.

Those of us who defend the principle of individual autonomy – and the economic system of capitalism that flows from it – all too often forget where it came from, and DrRich believes this is why it can be so difficult to defend. We – and our founders – did not adopt it as the peak of all human thought, but for the very practical reason that ceding ultimate authority to any other entity, sooner or later, guarantees tyranny. This was true in 1776, and after observing the numerous experiments in socialism we have seen around the world since that time, is even more true today.

Individual autonomy will always be a very imperfect organizing principle, both for healthcare and for society at large. Making it an acceptable principle takes perpetual hard work, to find ways of smoothing out the stark inequities that will always result, without ceding too much corrupting power to some central authority. This is the Great American Experiment.

Those of us who have the privilege of being Americans today, of all days, find ourselves greatly challenged. But earlier generations of Americans faced challenges that were every bit as difficult. If we continually remind ourselves what’s at stake, and that while our system is not perfect or even perfectable, it remains far better than any other system that has ever been tried, and that we can continue to improve on it without ceding our destiny – medical or civil – to a corruptible central authority, then perhaps we can keep that Great American Experiment going, and eventually hand it off intact to yet another generation, to face yet another generation’s challenges.


Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle!

One Response to “Dr. House and the Great American Experiment”

  1. [...] Rich, nom de bloggeur of The Covert Rationing Blog, celebrates the unending fascination with the medical TV drama House, as well as our “Great [...]

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