Surgical innovation and ethical dilemmas: Precautions and proximity

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Another example from an earlier era comes from the life work of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who did pioneering work in the surgical treatment of epilepsy. Here, the accumulation of experience from “routine care” led to generalizable knowledge, much like hypotheses are validated in experimental work. In Penfield’s case, his clinical use of electrical stimulation to plan resections of scar tissue causing epilepsy led him to map the human homunculus, a magnificent achievement of profound importance. 5,6

So let us avoid simplistic and confounding demarcations. Instead of dichotomizing innovation and prudence—or surgical research and surgical practice—let us try to start our deliberations with an eye toward a more synthetic approach. Like most things in nature and in biology, ethics too is on a continuum with gradations that can fit into an Aristotelian taxonomy. Let us emulate what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom, these next 2 days so that we achieve constructive outcomes, or what the pragmatists would call instrumental goods. 7

If we are successful in laying out the ethical issues in this clinically pragmatic fashion, we can turn intractable “dilemmas” into problems amenable to resolution through the particularistic invocation of ethical principles as they relate to the surgical context. 8 If we follow this inductive method of moral problem solving, we will avoid sweeping ethical generalizations, or categoricals, that can misrepresent the complexity of innovative research and deprive society of its benefits. 9


So let us start by understanding the presuppositions that led to the expectation that dilemmas will descend upon those who engage in surgical innovation. In my view, this expectation begins with what is called the precautionary principle, a concept with some currency in the realm of environmental ethics. 10

The precautionary principle urges caution and prudence when facing unknowns and is an antecedent sort of utilitarianism. One makes judgments about the advisability of actions based on a prior assessment of foreseeable risks and benefits. If the risks are excessive or exceed benefits, the precautionary principle urges care, caution, and even avoidance of a given course of action.

When the precautionary principle is implicitly invoked in making judgments about research, the objective is to pursue a degree of safety that is comparable to that of established therapy. But interventions that have progressed to being deemed “therapeutic” have of course achieved a requisite degree of both safety and efficacy—that is what makes them therapeutic, as opposed to investigational, interventions. One cannot know before one has conducted a clinical trial, and completed statistical analysis, whether a new surgical advance or device meets these expectations. Because of this lack of knowledge, there is an inherent degree of risk in any novel intervention.

The challenge posed by innovation or novelty creates the possibility of untoward events. It leads to invocation of the precautionary principle, which, echoing the admonitions of the philosopher Hans Jonas, urges us to “give greater weight to the prognosis of doom than to that of bliss.” 11,12

This is not a bad way to go through life, assuming one wants to emulate T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who lamentably “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” 13 Unlike the surgeon, who must make decisions in real time, Eliot’s protagonist could not move forward. Despite his desire to avoid the indecision of Prince Hamlet, alluded to in this paper’s epigraph, Prufrock was paralyzed by doubts and fears, with “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions.” 13

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