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Turning Over New Leaf

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Philosophically Speaking

socrates


When people talk about morality, they often compare apples and oranges. Most people claim to be moral, but what does that really mean? That is a lot like saying something is good or bad. It is much like saying something is beautiful. I often tell my wife I am perfect, but it really is possible that some misguided person out there doesn’t see it that way. So how can we interact in a civil society when even reasonable citizens might question my level of perfection?

Yesterday, I came upon a disturbing story of a little girl with a rare disease known as hydranencephaly. She was born without a brain, and was celebrating her sixth birthday. While there are a zillion stories out there that tend to upset us, what disturbed me was the manner in which the doctors artificially keeping her alive  were gleefully celebrating her life. It struck me that perhaps those joyful physicians were born without hearts.

I have no answers here. However, I have studied philosophical approaches to morality in the Eastern and Western worlds, and I draw my own conclusions. Nevertheless, in the Western world, there is a non-religious, measureable understanding of morality.

Broadly speaking, philosophical thought can be divided into three parts: Metaphysics, the study of reality, Epistemology, the study of knowledge, and Ethics, the study of morality. According to Socrates who introduced these concrete concepts to the Western world, ethics or morality simply means how we ought to treat others, and how we ought to be treated by others. The implementation of these concepts has been left to succeeding generations.

Philosophers very broadly divide human moral thinking into two areas: Consequentialism and Non-consequentialism. Recognizing the difference helps us to understand how other people think about morality.

Consequentialists base whether or not their decisions are moral on the perceived consequences of their actions. For example, a consequentialist might pick up a brick to hurl at someone, realize that person might be seriously injured, and decide the act would be immoral. Non-consequentialists base their moral decisions on rules that guide them through life. For example, religions tend to be non-consequentialist. Religious people might look to the Ten Commandments when they determine the morality of throwing a brick at someone. Either way, we would hope that in our society people could reach a moral accord from either direction.

Now, back to the troubling story. The celebration of the life of that poor child was distressing to me because reporters, doctors, and others seemed to rejoice in the process of keeping her alive by artificial means. Apparently, many Americans join in the celebration, much as they do when a victim of an accident lies brain dead. I know there have been rare cases when a person awakens after twenty years in a coma. It is not the science I am discussing here, but the morality.

At the same time, we have an ongoing abortion debate in the USA about late-term abortions, where the fetus is viable. Many Americans view the issue from a non-consequentialist legal or religious perspective. Many others consider it strictly a women’s rights issue. I don’t have all the answers. But I do see a great philosophical inconsistency.

Suppose you were driving a car near a playground and children were running across a roadway with a 10 MPH speed limit. Suppose further an announcement came across the radio waves declaring that all speed limits in the country have been abolished. Would you continue to maintain your speed, whatever that might be? It seems to me that in a civilized nation purporting to be moral, the philosophy of the driver would not matter. Moral citizens should reach the same conclusions.

12 comments:

  1. I was also troubled at the tone of the reporting of that story. I did not compare it as you do with the medical procedure we call late term abortion. Interesting philosophical inconsistency indeed.

    No one has all the answers, I am troubled by people who do not even ask the questions.

    Excellent post.

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    1. joeh: You have made me very happy. At least I'm not alone.

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  2. The thing that is troubling you, I think, is that the ethics of so many no longer jive with your own. You are now in the minority. The way you were raised is not how people are raising their kids and it is showing in every possible way... right down to the celebration of six years of life in a girl with no brain and no chance for ANY quality of life. She truly is a glorified science experiment. A person and a science experiment. Your moral compass takes issue with that and so does mine.

    We could bring up an entire host of issues facing society and be saddened by the ethical differences from where you are to where the majority stands. However, I think you say it all when you raise the question of the dropping of the speed limit. Would most people continue to travel at a safe speed in a school zone because the lives of children were at stake? I think the answer is "No." If they would, we wouldn't have police vehicles stationed in the zones to enforce the limit. Would people drive 25-35 mph on residential streets because there are people and children out walking about and could be hurt? I again say, "No." If there were no speed limit, many people would go much faster. Ethics went off the rails a long time ago.

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    1. Robin: That is EXACTLY how I feel. It is troubling to think that the next generation must live with ethics that will never advance society.

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  3. Oh my, I missed that poor child's story. I am in complete agreement with you JJ, and it's just another piece of the disconnect puzzle for our youngsters today. How ironic, just this afternoon, I was dwelling on morals, and not just in the broad sense but the very close to home sense. As for the speed limit, especially around children? Well, just yesterday, as I had a grandchild on each hand waiting for the light to change, (giving them all the instructions about looking and waiting for the red hand to change to white) and we had the right to walk, luckily we did the turn and look thing first, as Mr. Older Man in his Buick had to turn first (too quickly) before we could walk! Clearly that man was all about himself!

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    1. Karen: Exactly! There is no single answer, but we ought to care about how we treat others. Sometimes, I feel doctors and scientists never bother to look at the human beings through their experiments.

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  4. You have covered a lot here and given so many angles. I have to admit that my first reaction might not be what you would expect. I first leaned toward the idea that at least this little girl was not thrown away in the trash like so many 'imperfect' human beings are in today's society. And I have had the experience of marveling at how one person can affect others, even if that person has severe disabilities. I think I just lean so heavily to not disposing of human beings. (There is a reason behind that and a story bubbling deep inside me that I'm not sure I'm ready to share.) However, I don't really like to play God in any form and I can see what you are saying here about the artificial means of keeping this girl alive as she is not truly 'living'.
    I too am so often shocked at how people come to their own conclusions of what is OK or not OK to do based on what they 'feel' like, instead of what is truly right or moral. It's as if so many are living on their own time clock without regard to reality and are happy with whatever works for them- anyone else be damned. It's sad that this attitude is pervasive today and I try my hardest not to dwell on it.

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    1. Jasmine: I completely understand. There are so many angles. I agree with joeh above: I am troubled by people who do not even ask the questions.

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  5. One of the things I have noticed about our society, whether moral or immoral, is that we tend to have tunnel vision. For people fighting over the issue of abortion, regardless of which side, they narrow their vision until all they see are the specifics of their view. Any arguments that require them to broaden their view they ignore or discard. Doctors are often the same. Their job is to keep people alive. Keeping a girl alive who rightfully should not be able to live is a big win for a person whose job is to keep people alive. The fact that her life likely has no quality or joy at all is beyond the scope of their jobs, so they ignore or discard that detail. This tunnel vision has created enormous problems in our country as our law makers and our law enforcement have steadily increased their power, while shrinking our civil rights, because it makes their jobs easier. The fact that the very act of trampling the Bill of Rights is a violation of their purpose, and therefore negates whatever they have achieved while violating our rights, they ignore. And we all suffer because of it. It's epidemic in our nation right now, this tunnel vision problem. It leads to short-term thinking and planning, and that leads to long-term disaster.

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    1. Memphis Steve: The old saying is, "A fish rots from the head." Trampling the Bill of Rights will definitely lead to long-term disaster. I think one of the problems is that those who put the current regime into office, including voters and partisans, are too embarrassed to admit their mistakes and change the nation's course. America needs a new moral base.

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  6. Interesting post. I think one reason that religious folk can't reach an accord is that there are many subtle varieties of religious thought which all come under the banner of "Christianity" or "Islam" etc. I feel the doctors and others at the hospital were probably caught up in their work, looking after the girl. Most doctors don't and can't judge the worthwhileness of a patient's life, and just as well, really.

    Perhaps they were also doing it for her parents' benefit. You can't tell how parents will react to that kind of situation.

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  7. Good morning, JJ. What a terribly sad story... I can't even imagine being in that position.

    :o(

    ~shoes~

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