Making psychiatry moral again: the role of psychiatry in patient moral development
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Any claims by psychiatrists1 to be able to improve people morally should be extremely modest. It is helpful to be reminded that psychiatrists have attempted to do this and still do so, nowadays usually unconsciously or implicitly. In fact where therapeutic approach embodies moral positions, as clarified for the psychoanalytic tradition by Edward Harcourt2, it is important for these to be made explicit so that they can be scrutinised.Show More
People coming to see a psychiatrist are often in a personal crisis, whatever its cause (which may include the effects of mental disorder as well as factors in their lives contributing to that disorder). They may as a result may be driven to re-evaluate their lives, their choices and their relationships (there are parallels with the impact of serious physical illness and confrontation with disability and mortality). In fact any serious illness or intimation of mortality may generate the same kind of self-questioning. Such people are clearly faced with moral questions, whether that be regarding specific decisions, balancing their own needs with those of others, making hard choices or making amends. How they address these things will form part of their recovery and shape it. An important difference between physical and mental illness is that people living through the latter are more likely to be lonely, relatively unbefriended, isolated and short of support from family, friends or other social circles, or indeed alienated from them. They a...
McConnell et al. provide a cogent argument that psychiatrists should influence the moral development of their patients in a limited substantive approach.Show More
What interests me, as a practising psychiatrist, is how to achieve this task. The penultimate paragraph of the paper recommends a “pluralist approach where the psychiatrist draws on any moral reasons, arguments or insights that help the patient achieve moral growth”. This recommendation follows a vignette of a woman with autism with “underdeveloped moral conceptions”. It’s worth noting that moral reasoning differs between autistic and neurotypical individuals despite similar moral judgements (Dempsey et al.). I suspect that, for a sustained change in interpersonal function and moral development, the patient would require more than an explanation of social reciprocity by a benevolent and well-meaning psychiatrist.
An earlier vignette describes a man with a possible antisocial personality disorder and unwelcome views about the acceptability of violence. There is an unfortunate paucity of evidence to suggest psychological interventions result in significant change in specific antisocial behaviours (Gibbon et al.). There are experimental therapies that may cultivate moral development in these individuals (Tuck & Glenn), however these are far from accepted in clinical practice.
The article sensibly notes that the needs of people with serious mental disorders should take priority over the flourishing of...