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A Philosophical Ruse: Is Bioethics Beyond Good and Evil? | Dr. Jose Yulo | November 17, 2006

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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 Florida courts.

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 beguile.

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. Jose Yulo
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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