Is “the good doctor” candid?

You can ask questions so that they are easy or so that they are hard. This one seems hard to me. [1]

The doctor—the titular doctor in the new ABC series, The Good Doctor—is a very youngdoctor 4 man. Also autistic. Also extremely bright. When you hear him diagnosing a medical condition, you think of Sherlock Holmes.

I have seen one episode so far (twice) and I can tell you with complete confidence that the show is going to be about Dr. Sean Murphy saying inappropriate things and everybody else coping with the destruction he causes. If you picture a tornado (Dr. Murphy) and a horde of relief agencies (the hospital staff) moving in where he has passed, you will have the essential dynamic of the show. [2]

In the first episode, we see Dr. Murphy joining the surgical staff of St. Bonaventure hospital in San Jose. There is a lot of resistance to hiring an autistic surgeon, but Dr. Murphy has a champion, the president of the hospital, Dr. Aaron Glassman. [3] And because Dr. Murphy is always right about the medical things and always wrong about the social things, this is a pot that is just going to keep boiling.

Is Dr. Murphy candid? Here’s an example to work with.

“Why were you rude to me when we first met, then nicer to me the second time we met and now you want to be my friend? Which time was it that you were pretending?”

To begin with, we, as viewers, see all three of the occasions Dr. Murphy is referring to. In the first, he was an odd-talking person who had administered first aid to the patient at the airport. He is urging the medical staff at the hospital to take an action, an echocardiogram (echo), for which no clear diagnostic need exists. And he tries to force his way into the hospital. It is a that point that Dr. Clare Brown (Antonia Thomas) gets firm with him. That is “You were mean to me.”

doctor 5The second occasion was set up when she comes back outside—where Dr. Murphy is still waiting in the rain—to ask him why he kept recommending an echocardiogram. He gives a plausible reason, but while they are talking, the call comes that the echo revealed nothing at all. Dr. Murphy rejects that reading of the echo and when, through Dr. Brown’s auspices, he is shown the screen, he sees something no one else had seen—why the patient is still in danger. That’s the second occasion, and Dr. Murphy characterizes it as “nicer to me.”

The trauma is over; Dr. Murphy has been proven right on all counts. Dr. Brown comes to the cafeteria to congratulate him. That is “Now you want to be my friend.”

So now you know what the circumstances were that Dr. Murphy characterized so badly. The first thing to notice is that he has understood all these events to be personal. They were “about” the relationship of this beautiful woman, Dr. Brown, to him. We know they were not. Dr. Brown was protecting the hospital in the first case, defying her colleagues to consult Dr. Murphy in the second, and generously congratulating him in the third. None of those was personal in the sense Murphy thinks, and it makes me wary of the character of Dr. Murphy that he thinks they were. Then again, he is autistic.

The second thing to note is that Dr. Murphy thinks that some of those actions by Dr. Brown were insincere. When you look at it through the “it’s personal” presuppositions of the autistic doctor, there is one true interpersonal orientation between people. Or between these two people, at least. But the three interactions were different—we are leaving aside the fact that all three situations were different—so Dr. Brown “really meant” what she said in one of those interactions as “was pretending” the others.

Society is not possible under those circumstances.

doctor 2That brings us to the final two questions. The first is, what can Dr. Murphy do to keep from destroying a very good hospital staff? We pretend with each other. We represent ourselves as more interested than we actually are or as less offended than we actually are. We are expected to do that. We are very nearly required to do that, given the penalties that are meted out for failing. [4]

Dr. Murphy simply doesn’t know how to pretend. Some autistic adults learn how to do it after a manner. By some accounts I have read, they don’t learn empathy, but they learn what kind of responses are required from them. These responses are “a performance” of empathy.  To a required expression of sorrow, they learn to return a required expression of thanks. They do not observe, as they might once have, that the person expressing the sorrow is not, in fact, truly sorry but is “only pretending.”

There is reason to think that Dr. Murphy could learn to do that. I’m quite sure he won’t, however, because the show is set on the contrast between his extraordinary medical skills and his abysmal people skills. If he were to get better at his people skills—even in the paint by numbers way I described—the tension of the two threads of the narrative would suffer. Besides, the surrounding cast is responsible to cope with his behavior as it is and it needs to be incumbent upon them to change rather than it being incumbent upon Dr. Murphy to change.

So there are some things a real autistic doctor could do, but I think Dr. Murphy will not be allowed to do those.

The second question is, “What is candor?” If we are going to think about whether the doctor 3doctor is candid, we are going to have to think about what candor is. The Merriam-Webster podcast which featured this word in 2012 gave an illustration like this: “when the job applicant admitted to some indiscretions in his past, the interviewer thanked him for his candor.” Since the root, the Latin adjective candidus, means “white” or “pure,” I think we can see in this interview, the idea that putting your best foot forward is a violation of candor. The “shaping” of your presentation of yourself is a “blot,” let’s say on what would otherwise be a pure unshaped presentation of yourself.

So I think the direct answer is that “the good doctor,” Dr Shaun Murphy is always candid. He cannot choose to be candid because he cannot choose to represent himself in whatever way the situation demands. Nor can he understand—as was illustrated in his conversation with Dr. Brown—that other people routinely “violate” candor for the sake of their colleagues and the welfare of their organizations.

So I think the best short answer is, “Yes. He is candid. But he can’t help it.”

I’m actually OK with Dr. Murphy’s candor. But as I was watching Episode 1, I kept having the feeling that there were people who were celebrating this disability as a goal we should all strive for. “If only,” this line of thinking goes, “we were only candid with each other.” I want to reject that in the strongest terms, even as an ideal.

It may well be that we should approach candor more closely than we sometimes do. I think it is crucially important that we refuse to mislead others unless it is truly necessary. But I really value being brave, as bravery is imagined in the expression “Discretion is the better part of valor.” [5]

I always like valor. Candor, I like sometimes.

[1] When I started running, in the 1960s, it was common to run without socks and that is what I did. I liked the feel of the leather on my foot. Ah, the Nike Cortez. But when I began to use an orthotic, I had to wear a sock on that foot at least, so it wouldn’t blister the sole of my foot.. It was a small town, and people would stop me and ask why I had one sock on and one sock off. I would say that “one sock on” is a matter of simple observation. But the question of how many socks I was not wearing is a deep and vexing philosophical problem. It was a college town so I got away with it for quite a while.
[2] That is not the view of David Shore, who has been called “the creative force behind the show.” Shore says that there is “an honest, unabashed emotionality to this show that is…refreshing.”
[3] Played by Richard Schiff in a style that is nearly identical with his Toby Zeigler of The West Wing. I’ve seen him play other kinds of characters, but I’d have to say he is really really good at this particular one.
[4] Jim Carey approaches this same question in his movie Liar, Liar, in which he falls under a curse of some sort as is doomed to “tell the truth” for 24 hours. To the makers of this film, “telling the truth” means refusing to play the normal parts we play and which make society possible. A woman who has just had sex with Jim Carey’s character asks him, “Wasn’t that just great?!” His response—which is called “honesty” in the movie, is “I’ve had better.” Really? That’s being honest?
[5] Professor Paul Brians on his Washington State University website gives this helpful caution: “In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I when Prince Hal finds the cowardly Falstaff pretending to be dead on the battlefield, the prince assumes he has been killed. After the prince leaves the stage, Falstaff rationalizes “The better part of Valour, is Discretion; in the which better part, I haue saued my life” (spelling and punctuation from the First Folio, Act 5, Scene 3, lines 3085–3086). Falstaff is saying that the best part of courage is caution, which we are to take as a joke. Truly courageous people may be cautious, but caution is not the most important characteristic of courage.”


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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