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Thoughts on Thesis: Eric Kim

By Jake Shapiro '22 || Issue 148-17

Eric Kim is a philosophy major. His thesis explores medical ethics from the lens of the doctor as the main moral agent. His thesis advisor is R. John Cooper ’64 Presidential Teaching Professor of Philosophy Jyl Gentzler.


Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is a philosophy thesis dealing with medical ethics — specifically, it focuses on what should be done when parents of a child refuse life-saving treatment on religious grounds. Most of the discussion around this issue has been focused on parental rights to determine treatment and the duties of the state to regulate healthcare — the idea being that the state has an obligation to protect its children from abuse and neglect. At the same time, there is the question of the extent to which the parents have the right to determine or control the future of the children. My thesis wants to look at it from a different point of view — looking not at the parents or the state, but at the doctors, because the doctors themselves are agents who can desire to do certain actions. So the question is: given the doctors’ authority and ethical obligations, what should they, as moral agents, do?


Q: How did you come up with this idea for your thesis?
A: [Harvard Professor of English] Anne Fadiman wrote a book called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” about this really tragic story of a Hmong family who had an infant daughter with a severe case of epilepsy. And because of the differences in beliefs, language and culture between the family and the doctors, tragedy ultimately befell the infant. I won’t give away what happened because people might want to read the book, but that was one of the inspirations for me.


Q: What has been your favorite part of the whole process?
A: My position is rather uncommon and unpopular. Generally, the bioethical consensus is that doctors should report refusal of life-saving treatment to the state, get a court order for child neglect and force the family to accept treatment. My view is that the doctor should remain the patient’s advocate, and part of what that means is siding with the parents, not with the state. I recognize that I have a controversial view, but I do think I have good reasons for maintaining it. When I talk about this, with my advisor and my friends, I sometimes get some pushback — but even as I read papers and talk to others, I’m startled to find how strong my intuitions are about the matter. When I place myself in the shoes of the religious parents, thinking about how they must feel when they express their beliefs to the doctor and the doctor totally disregards them and goes through with treatment anyway, I find myself fixated on how terrible that must feel. When I see the strength of my beliefs and how they influence my philosophical arguments, it’s been really interesting to learn more about myself in that context.


Q: What has been the hardest part?
A: I can’t deny my beliefs. My beliefs on this issue are what I believe is morally right, but I’m faced with what seems like mountains and mountains of literature that disagrees with me, and I have to find some way to argue against all of it. Going against the grain is always tough.


Q: What advice do you have for other thesis writers?
A: Take good notes because I have so many papers that I’ve gone through and I’m starting to lose track.