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November 2nd, 2006


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01:59 am - Questioning the validity of bioethics and musings on morals
As a somewhat-related side-note to my most recent post, I'm amused to note my more general dismissal and even active contempt for any and all studies of technology and ethics, bioethics... Definitely a field I can see absolutely no use for, since in my own experience it seems to consist of either (largely Christian) religious wingnuts denouncing some perfectly reasonable (assuming the risk of birth defects can be greatly reduce) activity like cloning being used as a form of reproduction as "unnatural" or "ungodly", or "wrong", combined with idiots who worry about the potentially negative social changes (at least from their PoV) that some technological advance might cause. Clearly, new technologies need to be tested to make certain they are safe - batteries that catch on fire and similar items are an obviously bad thing. Similarly, murder and assault remain both wrong and generally bad ideas regardless of what means are use to perform them, so I fail to see what use fields like bioethics serve. For example, debates about assisted suicide, abortion, or organ transplantation all seem (to me at least) obviously guided by the twin principles that every person has the right to control their own body and the dead have no rights, since they cleaarly have no need for any. In any case, am curious if any of you can see value in such fields and what your reasons are for doing so.

I suppose my dismissal of this field come from a combination of both my strong belief in progress, my general neophilia, and possibly most strongly of all, the fact that my own ethics are highly situational, fairly flexible, and exceedingly utilitarian. I always remain baffled at the idea of actually having to consider any ethical or moral issue for more than at most a minute. Considering the purely practical consequences of some choice is naturally a very reasonable activity as long as it is not done to the point of indecision (something I have very little patience with, but I in general have little patience) but every ethical and moral question I've encountered has always seemed immediately obvious to me. Of course, I am also away that my own ethics are far from typical. One fairly standard discussion of morality poses the following pair of questions.
1) "Suppose you are standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from which no escape is possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a train approaching. Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train to a sidetrack. One person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull the lever and save the five people, though one will die?"

2) "Now assume now you are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on the track are at risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into the path of the approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form of a fat man. Is it O.K. to push him to save the five?"
When confronted with this pair of situations, most people say that performing the first action (pulling the level) is moral, while performing the second action (throwing the person off of the bridge) is not, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the two situations.

My own reaction is that ethically and morally, the two situations are functionally identical. That said, if I knew none of the people involved, in the first case, I would pull the level and look away, while in the second case, I would do nothing and look away, solely because I would find performing the second action vastly more unpleasant than the first, which from my own PoV, is a perfectly sufficient reason for my choice. Also, the situation would be very different indeed if anyone I knew and care about was involved, then, pulling a level to divert a train to save a single person I care about to and kill five strangers would be a decision I would make in an instant (in the 2nd case, my actions would be determined solely by the exact specifics of the situation and how unpleasant (and risky) throwing the person off the bridge looked like it would be.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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Comments:


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From:andrewducker
Date:November 2nd, 2006 10:18 am (UTC)
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I can definitely see the point of ethicists in certain areas, like consent. Guidelines need to be drawn for how consent works when people are mentally impaired, for instance, or suffering from mental illnesses.

A doctor is currently subject to disciplinary proceedings in the UK because he progressed transgender treatment for a patient despite the fact that they had a history of becoming obsessed with things for short periods (a few months at a time). Had the doctor followed the guidelines laid down (which give specific waiting periods for how long to wait, and what stages should be followed) the person wouldn't have received unnecessary treatment that (when in their right mind) they don't actually want or need.

Other areas such as animal rights, when life support can be reasonably turned off, how to deal with circumstances where patient will latch onto any chance of hope (even when rationally speaking there is none), and indeed putting in safety guidelines to make sure that people aren't pressured into euthansaia when it's available, etc. all need clear guidelines as to what is acceptable and what isn't, and I don't see that having people who are experts in these areas as being a bad thing.

The actual bad thing, so far as I can tell, is that in the US you've let the religious loonies claim the words "morality" and "ethics" as solely their domain...
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From:alobar
Date:November 2nd, 2006 10:49 am (UTC)
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Ethics is a bizarre and much strangly applied yardstick. See here, for example:
http://www.mlive.com/news/bctimes/index.ssf?/base/news-8/116170304311310.xml&coll=4

Here are a few choice quotes:

"A 44-year-old Saginaw man remains jailed today on charges of bestiality after he was seen engaged in sexual acts with a dead dog"

"District Judge Craig Alston ordered him to remain jailed in lieu of $500,000 bond"

"The official charge of crimes against nature carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. If the person is a repeat offender, the maximum is life in prison."

Half a million dollars bond is something I might expect for a brutal serial killer, but not a fucker of a dead dog. 15 years in prison is more than people get for manslaugher. For having sex with a dead dog??? Seems rather extreme to me. He did not even kill the dog.

As you point out, "the dead have no rights, since they cleaarly have no need for any", so the pooch's rights were not violated. The seems like a nutcase to me, but not nearly dangerous enough to put away for 15 years or keep in jail pending trial unless he can come up with half a million dollar bond.

[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:November 2nd, 2006 11:05 am (UTC)
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In remarkably poor taste certainly, but an utterly bizarre thing to criminalize.
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From:andrewducker
Date:November 2nd, 2006 11:30 am (UTC)
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Agreed. Who, exactly, is harmed by it?
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From:eclective
Date:November 2nd, 2006 11:24 am (UTC)
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When confronted with this pair of situations, most people say that performing the first action (pulling the level) is moral, while performing the second action (throwing the person off of the bridge) is not, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the two situations.

This to me seems to illustrate something I've known for a long time yet rarely seem demonstrated so clearly: a large number of people base their morality on what they would be capable of doing without being squicked, possibly because the wisdom of repugnance argument is just so damned persuasive to us evolved animals, and possibly also because few people like to come to the conclusion that what they would do and what would be morally right to do is wrong. By distinguishing between what you would or could do in practice and what is morally right to do, I think you have the basis for a morality more advanced than most people's I've seen.
From:soreth
Date:November 2nd, 2006 11:24 am (UTC)
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Oh god, the trolley car/train example. If ever there was a scenario that was used too many times, that's the one. However, there is one interesting wrinkle to it...

If you have only ONE person on each track, do you pull the lever or not?
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From:heron61
Date:November 2nd, 2006 07:27 pm (UTC)
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That all depends on if I know and care about either person. If I don't, then I'd let fate decide (ie do nothing).
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From:antayla
Date:November 2nd, 2006 03:33 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I'd say that in the first senario it wouldn't be moral to pull the lever because the five idiots who were walking on the "active" track should have known better, whereas the person walking on the sidetrack wasn't expecting any trains... she had taken precautions not to be on the active track. It doesn't make sense to give up the life of one wiser person for five idiots who created their own situation.

I wouldn't do either :P.
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From:anomali
Date:November 2nd, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC)
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...as if you took the words out of my mouth...
(Deleted comment)
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From:heron61
Date:November 2nd, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC)
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*nods* Indeed. I'm very pleased to be an educated resident of the first world, and thus among the haves, but I am also definitely for efforts to include as many people as possible.
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From:heronblue
Date:November 2nd, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC)
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When I think of "bioethics", I don't immediatly leap to religious issues. I think the field also includes secular speculation. Little red flags went up in my brain when I read about the idea to extend lifespan, and I'm far from religious. My issue, which I think falls under the idea of bioethics, is that any mass increase in lifespan will have to be compensated for with a decrease in birth rate. There isn't enough room for all the people we have now, so if people stopped dying, and people kept getting born, quality of life would go down for everyone. If the birthrate didn't go down corrosponding to the reduced death rate, I would have a moral problem with the idea of extending one's lifespan at the expense of many.
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From:heron61
Date:November 2nd, 2006 08:44 pm (UTC)
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I agree that not everyone in the field is religious, but even those who aren't seem (from my PoV at least) concerned with pointless irrelevancies.

As for longevity and birthrate, while not necessarily fair, we can pretty much guarantee that residents of the first world will be the only people benefiting from longevity technologies and birthrates throughout the first world are at or below replacement, in many cases (Japan and Spain both being good examples) well below replacement [[1]]. Even the US is only growing because of immigration. Increased longevity will help offset birthrates that continue to fall, but I don't see much evidence of problems beyond that. First world nations might need to close their borders to residents of the third world to avoid overpopulation, but that's a PoV, that I can sympathize with, and which is already largely true in all first world nations outside of North America.

[[1]] According to the last data I've seen, both Japan and Spain were at approximately 1.3 child per woman, and replacement is around 2.1, and first world birthrates continue to fall.
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From:zdashamber
Date:November 2nd, 2006 09:20 pm (UTC)
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I'm curious why you're so up on human genetic engineering and down on crop genetic engineering.

Also, dead bodies have some rights stemming from their next of kin, or society. The body belongs to living people, and thus it's their call what happens to it.
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From:heron61
Date:November 2nd, 2006 10:51 pm (UTC)
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I'm fine with genetically engineering food for traits like frost tolerance, higher nutrition, pest resistance and similar wonders, also using genetic engineering to increase flavor is nifty. My objection has nothing to do with the basic idea and far more to do with the idiotic nature of genetic engineering. I consider engineering plants to be able to survive massive doses of herbicides to be massive irresponsible, because doing so allows farmers to effectively turn tracts of land into toxic waste dumps where only the desired plant will grow. Given issues of run-off and aquifer percolation, I'm very much against this and similar projects. In short, I'm all for the technology, but I distrust agribusiness to have the wisdom to avoid doing massively stupid things with this technology.
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From:kalyx
Date:November 3rd, 2006 12:11 am (UTC)
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I dig bioethics. Those courses are probably among my favorites that I've had both as an employee and a grad student. But your idea of bioethics, doesn't exactly cover why bioethics is important.

Basically, the rights of the dead, fetuses, and human cloning are rarely discussed in any bioethic forum/class that I've been to. The issues that are raised have to do with intellectual property, the assumption of free information exchange between scientific groups, publications, who should be included as authors on scientific papers, the proper use of animals in research studies, the ethical use of human subjects, etc.

These are issues that come up all of the time in research so having an occasional ethics class/committee meeting is great to remind us about the best way to procede when problems arise. Now that I work in both clinical research and animal studies, I have to deal with the issues covered under "bioethics" daily. Like it never occurred to me that it would be unethical to include an individual in a study, but exclude his life partner who has the same disease due to "random selection" or other exclusion criteria. And when I ask for a sample from the primate center, I need to consider that these animals must be stressed in order to collect and sample and thus I should attempt to get the samples on days the animal will have to be sedated anyway for other reasons- another issue I hadn't considered now that I work with monkeys.
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From:rjgrady
Date:November 4th, 2006 12:35 am (UTC)
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I am a humanist. I believe our moral basis is our relationship with other human beings, and the primary moral force is our own social nature.

Anything that stretches what a human being is moves into a moral universe which I would not presume to speak on. For instance, if we created a race of obedient clone soldiers, I do think a "universal moral" could be established regarding their rights, although I can imagine what I would wish to do with them and what they might wish for themselves.

To me bioethics is fascinating... as is literature. You can argue about what is good or bad literature, but in the end, you are arguing about viewpoints, not a universal valuation. I feel the same way about ethics. Morality is a deep aesthetic, such as life happiness or truth.


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