Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 227–241 | Cite as

‘Freud Said – or Simon Says? Informed consent and the advancement of psychoanalysis as a science’

Scientific Contribution


Is it ever permissible to publish a patient’s confidences without permission? I investigate this question for the field of psychoanalysis. Whereas most medical fields adopted a 1995 recommendation for consent requirements, psychoanalysis continues to defend the traditional practice of nonconsensual publication. Both the hermeneutic and the scientific branches of the field justify the practice, arguing that it provides data needed to help future patients, and both branches advance generalizations and causal claims. However the hermeneutic branch embraces methods tending to undermine the reliability of such claims, while the scientific branch aims to improve the field’s empirical base – in their words, to advance psychoanalysis as a science. The scientific branch therefore has the stronger claim to the traditional practice, and it their claim that I consider. An immediate concern arises. We seem unable to answer the applied ethical question without first determining which ethical theory is correct; for defenders of the practice appeal variously to therapeutic privilege, principlism, and utilitarianism, while opponents wage autonomy-based arguments. The concern turns out to be unfounded, however, because all of these ethical approaches fail to justify the traditional practice. The more promising defenses fail partly because even the scientific branch of the field lacks empirically sound methods for establishing its causal claims and generalizations, often appealing to authority instead. I conclude that it is currently unethical for analysts to continue publishing their patients’ confidences without permission, and I suggest that the field help future patients by attending to its methodological problems.


autonomy case report confidentiality human subject research informed consent nonconsensual publication psychoanalysis science 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Department, Caldwell HallUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

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