The Problem of ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ for Surgeons


Many years ago during medical school, I took time out to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. At that time, I took a number of courses that explored various approaches to the philosophical questions of morality and ethics. My ultimate goal, even back then, was to focus on ethical issues in the practice of medicine.

I often found the philosophical discussions from the “giants” in philosophy were not always easy to apply to everyday problems. After completing my graduate studies in philosophy and nearing the end of medical school, I found that I was drawn to surgery. Not surprisingly, many surgical faculty that I interviewed with for my residency saw little application of my philosophy studies to the practice of surgery. Although I felt confident that ethics was central to the practice of surgery, I let pass the general suggestions from many senior surgeons that surgery and philosophical analysis have little in common.

Dr. Peter Angelos
Dr. Peter Angelos

In recent years, however, I have increasingly seen an area of overlap that I believe will be central to the future of surgery. The options for the treatment of critically ill surgical patients across all areas of surgery have increased dramatically. Just in the area of cardiovascular disease, patients with failing hearts have the option of mechanical assist devices. Patients with multiple comorbidities and vascular problems can have numerous endovascular procedures done that years ago would have been unthinkable. Consider a patient with a ventricular assist device on a ventilator who is being dialyzed. Such a patient may be supported for weeks or months beyond what was possible just a few decades ago.

Whereas our surgical forefathers were constantly asking the question, “What can be done for this patient?” those caring for critically ill patients today must repeatedly ask, “What should we do for this patient?” Years ago, the statement, “there is nothing more that we can offer” was much more commonly heard than it is today. The critical question for today – “What should be done?” – is often more challenging and nuanced than “what can be done?” Whenever we ask “what should be done?” we must take into account the values of the patient and weigh the possible outcomes and the inherent risks of the possible interventions with the patient’s goals.

The current necessity to answer “what should be done?” has several striking parallels with the classical philosophical problem of “is” and “ought.” Over the centuries, many philosophers have considered whether we can derive an “ought” from an “is.” In other words, just because one can show that something is the case in the world, it does not automatically follow that it ought to be that way. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher (1711-1776), famously argued that there is a tremendous difference between statements about what is and statements about what ought to be. In particular, Hume argued that we cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Despite the centuries that have passed since Hume’s days, I believe that his analysis has much to teach modern surgery. Just because we can undertake many interventions for our patients, it does not follow that we should undertake all of those interventions. A central aspect of what many of us refer to commonly as “surgical judgment” is deciding among the many possible interventions for a patient, what specific ones ought we offer. Although this entire discussion may seem theoretical (and possibly even arcane) to some surgeons, I firmly believe that one of the greatest challenges to the future of surgery is whether surgeons are willing to address the question of what should be done for every patient.

Excellent surgeons have traditionally been seen as having both technical mastery and sound judgment. In the current era in which surgeons are increasingly pushed to do more cases and maximize RVUs, multiple forces are encouraging surgeons to increasingly become pure technicians. Technicians can answer the question “what can be done?” However, “what should be done for this specific patient?” is a question that only a physician can answer. In the decades to come, we must ensure that surgeons continue to engage in the harder questions of “what should be done?” so that we do not forget that “is” and “ought” are different. The mastery of surgery involves not only the technical expertise that can be applied on behalf of a patient, but also the appreciation and understanding of the patient’s values so that surgeons can make recommendations about what should be done for their patients.

Dr. Angelos is the Linda Kohler Anderson Professor of Surgery and Surgical Ethics; chief, endocrine surgery; and associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.

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