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Knowing Better

More Isn't Better.

by Barnabas
September 25, 2002

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"Death is not an acceptable side effect." --Kate Trunk, whose 23-year-old son Marcus died after an unintentional acetaminophen overdose. [as reported by Lauran Neergaard, AP Medical Writer, September 20]
It is impossible to disagree with Kate Trunk. If a loved one dies in an innocent attempt to feel better, the family is bound to be angry and feel cheated. Indeed, in any given case, an overdose may be unintentional—for example, because of a false memory of how much was taken earlier, and when. So I am definitely not saying to anyone who has lost loved ones in this way, “It was their own fault.” Fault is always a case-by-case matter, which means that it is never necessarily either the victim’s fault or the provider’s fault.

But ethical confusion may be the reason why, according to the AP story , overdose of acetaminophen [Tylenol, etc.] is a common medical problem. Manufacturers have certainly been clear for some time about appropriate dosages, "see your doctor,” and so on. In response, users exercise the good old American trait of Knowing Better, with its corollary assumption that More is Better.

Unless it is a food supplement, medication is invasive. The digestive system is designed to process edible food and must work harder when we ingest stuff, including medicine, that is not food. If we ingest so much non-food (or even more food than our system can handle) that our system breaks down, we are poisoned. If the breakdown is massive (e.g. “liver failure”) we die. More is definitely not better.

If you Know Better than the people who know more than you do, you may intentionally overdose. Death is not intentional, but the overdose is. You chose to ignore or disbelieve either your doctor’s orders or the guidelines on the package. You don’t intend to poison or kill yourself, of course—but you intentionally overdose because you ignore or disbelieve the guidelines on the package.

We are ethically obligated to follow the directions of those who know more than we do, especially about matters of life and death. The list is long: not only medications, but dangerous indulgences like refusal to wear seatbelts, helmets, hardhats, and to curtail tobacco and alcohol, are on it. They are ethical obligations because others are involved in their consequences; we are not the only victims of our willful carelessness Our impairment or death matters to other people, no matter whose fault it is.

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