Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sowell's "Conflict of Visions" and medicine

Thomas Sowell's book "Conflict of Visions" is one of the most insightful and intellectually satisfying books I have ever read.It deals with the ways in which people differ in their fundamental view of the world.

Sowell observes that "reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind" and therefore humans need maps, or a sense of how the world works to enable them to make sense of it all; he describes these maps as visions or pre-analytic cognitive constructs.

These visions differ about the basic nature of man. Sowell considers that this visions can be categorized into two broad categories are the "constrained view" also called the Tragic view and the "unconstrained view" also called the Utopian view.

In the Tragic view, man is constrained by his moral limitations and his egocentricity. The social challenge is how to work with those limitations rather than engage in energy wasting and ultimately futile efforts to change human nature.In this view, one deals with trade-offs and not solutions. Benefits to society derive from actions largely unintended but emerging from market actions which derive from the pressures of the incentives for individual gain which include the monetary and the psychic. Much of the meat of the constrained view can be picked from Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations". In a scheme that values trade offs , prudence assumes a high position. Burke said "Nothing is good but in proportion and with reference."

Steven Pinker in his book, 'The Blank slate' expresses the differences between the visions in this way :

In the tragic vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge,wisdom and virtue and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits....in the utopian, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world."

In the Utopian view, social inequalities such poverty,uninsured patients,drug addiction, racial or gender imbalances are seen as resulting from faults in society and therefore warrant that social targets be developed and plans made to rectify the social problems. The tragic Visionist would be concerned with the self interested motive of the people who are tasked with carrying out the programs and also with the unforeseen and unintended consequences that such projects seem to invariably entail.

Uneven distribution of wealth as brought about by a market economy in the unconstrained view is thought of as being unjust and in need of remedy in the name of social justice. The constrained view would argue that the notion of justice does not make sense when applied to an abstraction as society and would speak of justice only in the context of human decisions in a framework of laws.

So what has all of this to do with medicine? I believe the current iteration of Medical Professionalism ( Medical Professionalism in the New Millenium.A Physician Charter.Ann. Int. Med 5 Feb 2002, Vol. 136, pg 243-246) reflects the Utopian View and to a degree I find distressing has become part of the medical education agenda and the writing and speech of academic and organizational physicians. In this new charter, justice is emphasized and the justice proposed in their construct of social justice involves concern about "allocation of medical resources" and physicians considered stewards of society's resources.It talks about "commitment to a just distribution of finite resources" and to be committed to "develop guidelines for cost effective care".

Of course, concern for the individual patient's welfare has not be abolished and the "primacy of the patient welfare " is still said to be fundamental. However, a potentially conflicting principle,the social justice imperative, has been added the physician's obligation list.

I grew up medically with notion of concern for the individual patient being primary-first do no harm and to act always in the interest of the patient. Fiduciary duty was the decision trump card. I wonder at what point the imperative of "just allocation of resources" trumps concern for the welfare of the individual patient. The front line physician battered back and forth in the moment to moment flurry of phone calls, lab tests, patient problems, managed care restraints and hassels will have little time, energy or the tools to somehow factor into his patient decisions concern about "society's resources".

1 comment:

MrB said...

Doc: Excellent analysis of a great book. I'll be linking it as a reference often.

One observation that I've made of the Utopians is that they not only believe they have the Wisdom to implement the programs to "correct" the faults they see, but also the Right and, most importantly, the OBLIGATION to implement them, regardless of the damage they do to individualism.

Say hello to your brother John (Gault) :).