Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Random Thoughts on Ethics, Society, Welfare, and Human Functioning

So in lecture today the vast majority of students thought doctors should perform amputations for the wannabes mentioned in my previous post, presumably in large part because they thought that having such amputations is morally permissible. Well in line with narrowly Utilitarian or Consequentialist thinking, they seemed to channel the oft-repeated mantras of our culture: "You can do whatever you want with your own body", "It's okay since it makes them happy", "It doesn't hurt anyone", etc. In discussion section tonight, however, I really pressed them and got to think of lots and lots of reasons against such amputations - reasons to think that they are in fact not morally permissible. At the end, the students were no longer so sure that such amputations were really as morally okay as they had initially thought. It's amazing what happens when you stop simply repeating the tired old lines of the overly-simplistic, feel-good pop morality that passes as public ethics these days and actually think about moral issues and moral reasons.

Some good reasons against that people came up with or that I came up with (some are just reiterations or slightly more nuanced versions of others):

It's being ungrateful for the body and abilities you have.
It's a very radical rejection of God's design of you in favor of your own.
It's a denial of the goodness of the whole of the healthy human body.
The benefits are outweighed by the risks.
It is harmful to the patient and reduces functionality.
It's medically unnecessary and doesn't help anyone else.
The desire for this sort of thing is just crazy or irrational.
It implants, encourages, and inflames other people's desires for similar things.
It leads to more of a burden on society's resources.
And so on.

Some of these are also good reasons against purely cosmetic surgery as well, which I'm okay with. I've always been bothered by cosmetic surgery and have long had a feeling that something just isn't right about it. It's not at all as bad (maybe) as voluntary amputation, but still has the feel of the frivolous, the ungrateful, the pseudo-gnostic denial of the goodness of the human body in its wholeness. It seems like a lot of the intuitions in favor of these sorts of things seems to involve the deep cultural influence of a kind of gnostic or extreme dualism. Gnosticism was an ancient heresy that taught that matter was evil and that spirit was good and thought of these are two completely separate, opposed realms. Unfortunately, the influence of this sort of view has survived to the present day.

Substance dualism is the view that there are two irreducibly distinct kinds of entities - material ones and immaterial ones - and the body is of the former kind whereas the mind or soul is of the latter. An extreme form takes it that I am simply my mind, a purely immaterial, nonphysical, spiritual object, and my body is just an instrument or tool that I happen to make use of for the time being. Both these views - gnosticism and extreme substance dualism - denigrate the body and make it somehow other than me and a mere possession to be used or disposed of as I see fit. Our society, I take it, has been profoundly influenced by such views, despite (or indeed sometimes precisely during) many people's protestations to the contrary.

One sees the influence of these sorts of views in many places. It's almost an orthodoxy, for instance, among many philosophers that human welfare is a purely mental affair - pleasure, desire satisfaction, or some other form of mental happy-crap. The body just doesn't matter - or at least it only does so insofar as it affects the mental stuff (which is the stuff, of course, which really matters). This sort of thing is simply a denial of our nature as physical beings - our design by God as living, material organisms. Plants and animals have welfare too, but it is implausible to say of them that their welfare is a purely psychological affair for them. This should be most obvious with plants since they really have no psychology in the first place. With them, our criteria revolve around the sorts of things they are and their abilities to function as designed - it revolves around a kind of health. I think we ought to say the same thing about human wellfare - my being well-off is a matter of my health, both physical and mental, and has to do with the sort of thing I am (a psychological subject yes, but also a living organism).

And of course relativism, overly cautious PC-tolerance of everybody and everything, the breakdown in moral education, and so on haven't helped matters as far as public ethical thought is concerned either. In the past disabled people were stigmatized, pitied, seen as less than human, etc. People thought their lives had to be less rich or full than "normal" people's and indeed less valuable. Most people probably still think that - consider Million Dollar Baby for instance. It could be the poster child for anti-disabled bias - the main character is an up and coming boxer and then becomes a parapalegic who ends her life with the help of her coach. Her life is portrayed as if it just wasn't worthwhile anymore and not valuable or worth keeping.

In response to this, people have, however, swung completely too far in the opposite direction. Disabled activists often won't even admit that the people they represent are disabled in the first place, that they have a hard time with anything, that there is anything whatsoever of disvalue about their condition, or that their functionality is impaired in any sense whatsoever (some among the deaf community are particularly guilty of this). It seems that we shouldn't go to either of these extremes - neither bigotry on the one hand nor blinded PC-fueled dogmatism on the other. Both of these, again, involve a denial in some way of our nature as living organisms. The bigoted side involves a denial that we can lead meaningful, valuable lives even when we are broken - even a broken body is a body designed by God and can be used for his glory. The PC side, on the other hand, involves a denial that we as humans have particular biological capabilities that are designed for us and which it is better for us to have than not. Both sides should be denied and we should break out of the assumption that both have nurtured that they are the only two options.

All of this is why I think it was wrong in the famous case for the two congenitally deaf lesbians to seek to have a congenitally deaf baby together (among other reasons) via genetic selection processes or genetic engineering - it involves a kind of intentional harm to the person so produced (though arguing that you can harm someone by creating them with deficits is a discussion for another day).

So anyways, that was a screenful. I'll stop now. I promise. Really.

1 comment:

Corrie Haffly said...

Hey, a post that isn't over my head! :-) This was interesting because I just had a conversation with friends about disabilities and congenital defects and how to view them. During the conversation, there was a struggle between viewing such disabilities as "bad" and "evil" (a result of the fall), yet also acknowledging that God can bring a lot of growth/joy/depth to others' lives through that disability. "That makes it seem like God planned that disability on purpose," was one comment made.

I don't have any smart thoughts about this right now; just found it interesting that you were thinking about similar things coincedentally...