The philosophical connection between medical ethics and hair loss

Raymond Tallis reveals the
philosophical connection between medical ethics and hair loss.

Photographic evidence shows that in 1980 I had a full head of hair,
while in 1990 I was bald. It follows from this that some time in the
1980s I became bald. However, it seems impossible – or daft – to state
when it was I crossed the boundary – to say, for example, that I became
bald at 8:30 p.m. on 27th August 1987. And yet there must have been a
moment between the two dates when I became bald, otherwise I would not
have arrived at the state of being bald by the time 1990 came. The
fundamental problem is that of mapping a dichotomous distinction – not-bald
versus bald – on to what is essentially a continuous process
of hair loss. (It’s not quite continuous, of course, because my loss was
hair-by-hair; but it would be continuous to the naked eye looking at my
increasingly naked skull. No jokes about ‘fuzzy logic’ at this point,
please.) We are required to find a non-arbitrary way to divide a

This is also what makes the other dilemmas I have discussed
impossible to resolve entirely satisfactorily. The relevant divides in
the examples I have given are: between non-negligent and grossly
negligent medical practice; between perfectly acceptable speech and
totally unacceptable speech; between respecting an individual’s autonomy
and being concerned for their welfare in a way they might not accept;
between a handful of cells that clearly does not have personal interests
and a new-born infant who clearly does; and between a person who is
fully responsible for the crimes they have committed and one who cannot
be held responsible for them. The Sorites problem that pops up in all
these superficially unconnected cases exposes the seeming arbitrariness
of decisions that allocate behaviour, speech, a foetus, or whatever, to
one category or the other.


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