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A Philosophical Ruse: Is Bioethics Beyond Good and Evil? | Dr. Jose Yulo | November 17, 2006
With regard to honor and dishonor the mean is proper
pride, the excess is known as a sort of empty vanity ... - Aristotle
Materialists and madmen never have doubts. - G. K. Chesterton
The heart of the Socratic method--an educational model
steeped in history yet in quite infrequent use in modern academia--is a
properly built argument. To approach the Gadfly's vaunted symmetry, the
argument requires a grasp of the logical and rational roots from which its
components are derived. Above all however, the conclusions reached need to be
painstakingly maintained through the consistency of a steady, deliberate
adherence to this very logic and reason.
With this in mind, it may well serve the field of modern
bioethics to first examine some of its rational roots in philosophical history.
Then, once this is achieved, the measure of modern bioethics' consistency to
its foundations based on reason may be tallied to estimate and ascertain the
field's current level of health.
For even the most casual observer, bioethics has quickly
climbed the national media ladder. No larger stage for the field's voices
existed in recent times than during the Terri Schiavo case in Florida last
year. During that saga, numerous bioethics experts were queried by the sundry
national, cable, and local news networks about the moral ramifications of
decisions being made by Michael Schiavo--decisions later supported by the
Without rehashing the case's emotional toll, it was
interesting to note the near unanimity within the chorus of bioethics experts
chosen to expound upon their views. Almost as a rule, these sources appeared to
echo two main themes. First, not only should Michael Schiavo, as a family
representative of his wife, come to his decision free from outside governmental
and social influences, he ought to autonomously arrive at these through his interpretation of his wife's wishes. Second, the reality of
abetting the death of a disabled, but otherwise healthy, person need not be
viewed with the attendant criticism such an action entails, since said person
can already be considered "dead." This the experts explained, of course, by
reason of Terri Schiavo's brain being irreparably damaged. Even comedian Al
Franken chimed in to insist the above mentioned brain was now filled with
fluid, assuming that this was technically death.
Distilled further, the bioethics experts arguments may be
reduced to two strains: one based on free, unencumbered interpretation of moral
judgments, and the other hovering around a person's identity being linked to a
certain usefulness of the person. Unlike perceived examinations of the
bioethics ethos as one indelibly marked by utilitarian philosophy, these two observed
strains point to a rather unexpected source of influence. Emancipating relative
interpretation itself speaks of the liberality first coined by an ethically
ailing Athens of the fourth century B.C., a free, democratic society which saw
fit to kill its leading exponent of objective truth in the person of the
philosopher Socrates. Usefulness traces its roots as a perceived virtue to the
Englishmen Bentham and Mill, although it has more of an origin in the thought
of a Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, there is one figure not so
removed from recent history who seamlessly blends the two points of emphasis:
the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
A seemingly obvious contradiction screams out for attention.
Nietzsche was infamous for his derision toward what he saw as the overly
Apollonian predominance within the study of ethical philosophy. Morality--or as
Nietzsche would have it, "slave morality"--involved qualities and values deemed
negative because they denied the turgid surges of an abstract yet omnipresent
"life." Thus, the "herd's" predilection towards such niceties such as
moderation and compassion earned robust condemnation from the German. Rebelling
against his Hellenic intellectual forefathers, Nietzsche decried that group's emphasis
on order and virtue. How then could a celebrated discipline such as modern
bioethics trace some of its philosophical stances from the prophet of the uberman and his will to power? The answers positively
When a bioethics argument supporting morally unburdened
interpretation issues forth, the similarities of this to Nietzsche's "master
morality" are uncanny. Central to this morality, as shown in Beyond Good and
Evil, published in 1886, is man's ability to call
whatever directly and negatively affects his being as the very essence of
negativity: "What is injurious to me is injurious in itself." Not only does man
order reality in this manner, but it is from his judgment, and his judgment
alone, that external entities gain their proper designation. In Nietzsche's
world, man is truly a "creator of values."
Normally, this god-like ability to order nature would not in
itself be exceedingly noteworthy. Countless contemporary philosophical schools
with their origins in the enlightenment purport similar tenets. However, when
applied to end of life decisions, in particular the decisions carried out by
Michael Schiavo and supported by the previously mentioned bioethics experts,
this Nietzschean edict takes on a much more potent charge. It is one thing to
autonomously delineate what may or may not be one's choices should tragedy of
this magnitude take place. It is an altogether separate thing to, without
certainty, appoint one's self the designator and creator of another's values.
Contrastingly, the argument that endorses viewing an
individual's usefulness makes an appearance in Nietzsche's discussion of slave
morality. Slaves, or otherwise members of the great herd, take time to
regularly affirm their dull and unexceptional lives. Therefore, the qualities
they naturally celebrate include patience and diligence, traits belonging to
the class of "most useful qualities, and almost the only means of supporting
the burden of existence."
It can be surmised that once a group member begins to lose
the ability to perform actions
corresponding to these traits, they also lose the capacity of alleviating their
fellows' suffering existences. As noted, the constant chatter around Terri
Schiavo as having a damaged or dead brain seems to only point to one reason for
its ubiquity. A patient in this condition, though with some aid showing signs
of life, can likely no longer perform any patient and diligent actions useful
to others. As Al Franken's logic would conclude, such an existence was no
longer a "life" worth living. The rash neglect shown by this perspective is one
that ignores where an incapacitated patient's existence in and of itself may
bring about patience and diligence from others around the patient. Concern for the patient may lead to an
illumination of true care for another human being, an illumination free from
the darkening effects of self-interest.
With a Nietzschean derivation now discovered in bioethical
philosophy's foundational arguments, we need to discover whether consistency is
found throughout those argument's development.
Ever since his death in 1900, Nietzsche has remained one of
philosophy's most misinterpreted thinkers. Early on, the horrors of Nazism
brought to Europe and the world a reading of his work tainted by racial hatred.
Later, during the development of postmodern schools in thought and aesthetics,
Nietzsche took on the role of liberator, emancipating the individual even more
destructively than Marx from the shackles of bourgeois culture.
Should this same sense of freedom be espoused by bioethics
proponents with regard to end of life decisions, the ramifications are either
confused, or indirectly devious. As Nietzsche himself related, being a creator
of values is a right not belonging to humanity as a whole, but rather to only a select
few: "The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of value; he does not require to be
approved of; he passes the judgment ..." Unlike Aristotle's magnanimous man--he
who is highest in all virtue and who attracts self-effacingly the honor and
praise of others--Nietzsche's noble man, being of the master class, concerns
himself chiefly with his own exercise of power over others. "The noble and
brave who think thus are the furthest removed from the morality which sees
precisely in sympathy, or in acting for the good of others...the characteristic
of the moral..."
Correspondingly, if bioethics experts adhere to the apparent
liberating qualities within Nietzsche's master morality unknowing of its logical outcomes, they are either misguided
or have not patiently and diligently read the extent of the text. If they have
read the extent of the text and are thus knowing of the German's preference for an exclusive,
aristocratic moral verity, it remains to be asked where exactly they as
authorities fit within the spectrum. Nietzsche himself detested the herd, yet
he knew he was himself no uberman.
As we have seen, interpretation takes on a more serious tone once it is done for someone else. If one is indeed cognizant of
Nietzsche's preference for a master class solely interested in its own
indigenous quality of life, while still maintaining the veneer of an
egalitarian, individual emancipation, then lack of patience and diligence has
been replaced by duplicity.
However, what of the tendency within bioethics toward
usefulness as a determiner of one's state of living and existence? Though this
tendency has been shown to have possibly stemmed from Nietzschean slave
morality, it is perplexing to see just what the German meant regarding this
issue. "Slave-morality is essentially the morality of utility." With this said,
Nietzsche lumps together with the useful traits of patience and diligence such
values as: "sympathy, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart...humility and friendliness..."
These values are championed by the majority: "those qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of
sufferers are brought into prominence and flooded with light..."
Here, one could say that there may be some degree of
consistency between the bioethics stances discussed earlier and this latest
Nietzschean paradigm. Those who would believe a disabled person is living a
life that is miserable, or filled with undue suffering, would logically seek to
end such suffering. It is one issue for the person suffering to voice this
intention. It is another issue for a person distinct and separate from a
patient to designate said patient as
suffering and in need of the ultimate alleviation. This second action is
tantamount to an avowed aristocrat, believing himself superior to the masses by
dint of a master morality, using a diametrically opposed slave morality, to
justify ending a member of the herd's life.
It begs the question, why resort to using slave morality if
one is a self-perceived aristocrat? Why, if usefulness is not included in the
package of master morality, is it conveniently included when not directly
pertaining to the person making the decision? The answer is readily available.
A bioethicist cannot say that people are
completely free to interpret someone else's quality of life with primary focus
placed on the latter's usefulness because this would--especially in the public
eye--render them as uncaring and even cold-blooded. They can only make both of
these arguments separately for fear of being discovered should they enunciate
them in an ordered sequence.
Thus, though there is inconsistency with regard to the
bioethics penchant for playing both master and slave, there seems to be more to
the quandary. Having the roots of its modern day stances traced back to the
diabolical paradox that is Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, bioethics experts
need to come clean and state the full breadth and depth of their counsels. It
will not long satisfy an educated population to view the measure of their lives
as being determined by an elusive elite based on the former group existing
simply to satisfy the latter group's Olympian quality of life.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Deadly Architects: An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin
Wiker | Carl E. Olson
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr.
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
A Short Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
Is Religion Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
The Fight for Terri | Various Authors
Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization,
United States history, and public speaking at the Academy
of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education
from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy
of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication
from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical
liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila
in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the
histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of
J. R. R. Tolkien.
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