What in Medicine Is Permissible but Not Edifying?

Kevin T. Powell, MD, PhD


December 20, 2022

Morality is often talked about in binary terms, black and white, right or wrong. That is how children 4-8 years old first conceive of it. Moral development progresses alongside motor, language, and social skills, but pediatricians typically do not screen for it or chart it. In adolescence, the ability for abstract thought develops and, once susceptibility to peer pressure lessens, nuances begin to shade the binary model. Honor codes become possible by the college years; scandals at colleges and military academies demonstrate that some 18- to 22-year-old young adults still lack that maturity. Lawrence Kohlberg, PhD, in the 1950s proposed a six-stage model of moral development and indicated that some people never achieve the upper stages.

Kevin T. Powell, MD, PhD

Recently, neuroimaging research has demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex is still developing up to 25 years of age. Those data have ramifications for obtaining truly informed consent for medical procedures. Arbitrarily, driver’s licenses are issued at 16 years of age, the right to vote comes at age 18, and the purchase of alcohol allowed at age 21. Consent for medical care varies by state and by procedure. Treatment for general medical care, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health problems often have different age requirements. In some states, a 14-year-old can give consent for treatment of depression or pregnancy but cannot get a tattoo.

The rules for firearms are also complex and vary by state. Perhaps more important is the determination of medical, psychological, moral, and criminal conditions for which guns should be removed from someone’s access. Some states have created formalized red flag laws to accomplish this. Other states have informal procedures used by police and social workers rather than involving medical personnel. Recent gun-related tragedies at a St. Louis high school near me and at a Colorado Springs bar demonstrate deficiencies in the red flag approach, with multiple fatal consequences.

Some moral issues do not neatly fit the binary approach. There are many concerns that are better described by a paradigm that “all things are permissible but not everything is edifying.” Take as a model of this the consumption of alcohol. The risks of an occasional single drink are very small for most people. For some, one drink leads to binges of alcoholism. Others drink and drive. Over the centuries, various groups in various localities have counseled temperance. Some personally avoid alcohol to avoid leading others astray.

The United States from 1920 to 1933 carried out the national social experiment Prohibition that outlawed intoxicating beverages. Ultimately, the organized crime of black market alcohol production, distribution, and consumption was found to be worse than the disease. Alcohol use was again legalized. That is understandable. Still, I doubt Carrie Nation ever thought that the sponsorship of most major sporting events would rely heavily on beer and liquor companies. Legalization and promotion are two distinct acts.

A federal prohibition of marijuana since the 1950s similarly produced crime from drug dealing. It also induced many otherwise law-abiding citizens to be scofflaws. (I think the 55 mph national speed limit under President Nixon created greater numbers of scofflaws.) In my state recreational marijuana became legal as I write this column. But is that good? Wise? Edifying?

State lotteries were created partly to reduce the negative effects of the numbers games funding organized crime. That rationale is understandable, but why are states promoting the games with commercials and billion dollar payouts?

I find the “permissible but not edifying” paradigm helpful in many areas of medical ethics. The ethical concerns typically then fall into one of four categories: Slippery slope, bright lines, overuse, and conscientiously opting out. All are subspecies of the theme of going too far.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act was enacted 25 years ago. Nine other states now allow some form of medically assisted death. Most states prohibit it. As is now the case for abortion, medical care is typically legislated at the state level to reflect local values. Canada goes beyond assisted suicide and in the vast majority of cases employs active euthanasia with a physician pushing lethal drugs intravenously. That action is forbidden in the United States. Currently, euthanasia is involved in 10,000 deaths per year in Canada. A terminal illness is no longer needed; that requirement was ruled unconstitutional. By March 2023, intractable mental health problems will be eligible for the euthanasia cure in Canada. I have long considered myself a navigator of ethical slippery slopes because that is where the suffering people are. Canada has gone too far down this particular slope for my skill set.

Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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