Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2020)

Jennifer Hawkins
Duke University
Louis C. Charland
PhD: University of Western Ontario
Decision-Making Capacity First published Tue Jan 15, 2008; substantive revision Fri Aug 14, 2020 In many Western jurisdictions the law presumes that adult persons, and sometimes children that meet certain criteria, are capable of making their own medical decisions; for example, consenting to a particular medical treatment, or consenting to participate in a research trial. But what exactly does it mean to say that a subject has or lacks the requisite capacity to decide? This question has to do with what is commonly called “decisional capacity”, a central concept in health care law and ethics, and increasingly an independent topic of philosophical inquiry. Decisional capacity can be defined as the ability of subjects to make their own medical decisions. Somewhat similar questions of capacity arise in other contexts, such as capacity to stand trial in a court of law and the ability to make decisions that relate to personal care and finances. However, the history behind the more general legal notions of capacity to stand trial and capacity to manage one’s life is different and operates somewhat differently in law (Roth, Meisel, & Litz 1977; Zapf & Roesch 2005). For the purposes of this discussion the notion of decisional capacity will be limited to medical contexts only; most notably, those where decisions to consent or to refuse treatment or participation in clinical research are concerned.
Keywords Decision-Making Capacity   Decisional Capacity   Informed Consent   Mental Competence   Mental Capacity
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