Living wills and substituted judgments: a critical analysis

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In the literature three mechanisms are commonly distinguished to make decisions about the care of incompetent patients: A living will, a substituted judgment by a surrogate (who may or may not hold the "power of attorney"), and a best interest judgment. Almost universally, the third mechanism is deemed the worst possible of the three, to be invoked only when the former two are unavailable. In this article, I argue in favor of best interest judgments. The ever more common aversion of best interest judgments entails a risk that health care providers withdraw from the decision-making process, abandoning patients (or their family members) to these most difficult of decisions about life and death. My approach in this article is primarily negative, that is, I criticize the alleged superiority of the living will and substituted judgment. The latter two mechanisms gain their alleged superiority because they are supposedly morally neutral, whereas the best interest judgment entails a value judgment on behalf of the patient. I argue that on closer inspection living wills and substituted judgments are not morally neutral; indeed, they generally rely on best interest judgments, even if those are not made explicit.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-83
Number of pages15
JournalMedicine Health Care and Philosophy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Decision Making
  • Ethics
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent/legislation & jurisprudence
  • Judgment
  • Living Wills/legislation & jurisprudence
  • Mental Competency/legislation & jurisprudence
  • Patient Advocacy/legislation & jurisprudence
  • Proxy/legislation & jurisprudence
  • United States


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