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Kennedy Inst Ethics J. 2012 Dec;22(4):345-66.

Between reason and coercion: ethically permissible influence in health care and health policy contexts.

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  • 1Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine, USA.


In bioethics, the predominant categorization of various types of influence has been a tripartite classification of rational persuasion (meaning influence by reason and argument), coercion (meaning influence by irresistible threats-or on a few accounts, offers), and manipulation (meaning everything in between). The standard ethical analysis in bioethics has been that rational persuasion is always permissible, and coercion is almost always impermissible save a few cases such as imminent threat to self or others. However, many forms of influence fall into the broad middle terrain-and this terrain is in desperate need of conceptual refining and ethical analysis in light of recent interest in using principles from behavioral science to influence health decisions and behaviors. This paper aims to address the neglected space between rational persuasion and coercion in bioethics. First, I argue for conceptual revisions that include removing the "manipulation" label and relabeling this space "nonargumentative influence," with two subtypes: "reason-bypassing" and "reason-countering." Second, I argue that bioethicists have made the mistake of relying heavily on the conceptual categories themselves for normative work and instead should assess the ethical permissibility of a particular instance of influence by asking several key ethical questions, which I elucidate, that relate to (1) the impact of the form of influence on autonomy and (2) the relationship between the influencer and the influenced. Finally, I apply my analysis to two examples of nonargumentative influence in health care and health policy: (1) governmental agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) trying to influence the public to be healthier using nonargumentative measures such as vivid images on cigarette packages to make more salient the negative effects of smoking, and (2) a physician framing a surgery in terms of survival rates instead of mortality rates to influence her patient to consent to the surgery.

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