Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 143–154 | Cite as

On deciding to have a lobotomy: either lobotomies were justified or decisions under risk should not always seek to maximise expected utility

  • Rachel CooperEmail author
Scientific Contribution


In the 1940s and 1950s thousands of lobotomies were performed on people with mental disorders. These operations were known to be dangerous, but thought to offer great hope. Nowadays, the lobotomies of the 1940s and 1950s are widely condemned. The consensus is that the practitioners who employed them were, at best, misguided enthusiasts, or, at worst, evil. In this paper I employ standard decision theory to understand and assess shifts in the evaluation of lobotomy. Textbooks of medical decision making generally recommend that decisions under risk are made so as to maximise expected utility (MEU) I show that using this procedure suggests that the 1940s and 1950s practice of psychosurgery was justifiable. In making sense of this finding we have a choice: Either we can accept that psychosurgery was justified, in which case condemnation of the lobotomists is misplaced. Or, we can conclude that the use of formal decision procedures, such as MEU, is problematic.


Decision theory Lobotomy Psychosurgery Risk Uncertainty 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lancaster UniversityLancasterUK

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