Last week, Steven Farrow was convicted of murdering a grandmother and a vicar. 77 year old Betty Yates was stabbed in the face. He had planned to crucify the vicar but had left behind his hammer an nails, instead covering his dead body in pornographic DVDs, party poppers and condoms. Though Farrow is likely to spend the rest of his life in jail, the family members questioned why he had been free in the first place.
Owen Barfield was lunching in C.S. Lewis’s rooms. Lewis, who was then a philosophy tutor, referred to philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘”It wasn’t a subject to Plato”, said Barfield, “It was a way.”’1
It would be dangerous for a modern professional philosopher to say that her philosophy was her ‘way’. I can well imagine the responses. ‘She’s lost objectivity’. ‘She’s a preacher, not an academic.’ ‘Most of us were disabused in our first week as undergraduates of the childish notion that philosophy was about the meaning of life. She obviously missed that lecture. She was probably at a prayer meeting instead.’
For the scoffers, philosophy is a job. It’s something they do from nine to five. Then, when they leave the faculty, they walk out into the world of angst and bereavement and sick children, and begin, without reference to the day job, to try to puzzle out the meaning of the world and of their own place in it. The job, often, is about exactitude – about ensuring that every step in an examined argument is unimpeachably rigorous. But stop and ask them whether, as a result of the rigour, the argument can now be relied upon to change conduct, and they’ll stop, scratch their heads, and look at you as if you’re simple.
I’m not really accusing them of hypocrisy – of failing to judge themselves by their own standards. For an allegation like that to stick you’d have to show that they knew that the world of the day job was the same as the world outside. The problem is that they don’t perceive the two worlds as having any connection at all. The diagnosis is non-integratedness. It would be unkind to translate it as lack of integrity.
Recently I was reading Charlie Camosy’s book Too expensive to treat? Finitude, Tragedy and the Neonatal ICU2. It’s rather a good book, but its contents aren’t the point for the moment.
Charlie and I don’t always see eye to eye. He’s a Catholic, for a start, with far too much respect for old dead men for my comfort. But the tone of the book struck me. Here was someone doing philosophy because the answers mattered. He’d unfashionably remembered that ‘philosophy’ means the love of wisdom. He approached the issues reverentially but insistently, determined not to let them go until he knew that they had something useful to say to an artificially ventilated child.
No, this doesn’t mean that the book is a Catholic polemic; or that he’s mainly interested in crafting an argument that accords with the ruling Encyclicals; or that he’s trying to ensure his back will be covered when he next slinks into a confessional; or that it’s a set of inevitable inferences from a set of a priori assumptions; or that it’s humourless, earnest, preachy or fanatical. Let alone correct. It’s just a book by all of someone, with the intention of deriving principles that apply to whole, real, humans, rather than to an abstracted portion of a human, or a pastiche of a human. It’s written to appeal to reason, conscience, intuition and hospital accountants, rather than to the Chairmen of grant-giving authorities and tenure committees. It’s the work of someone with a conjoined personal and professional life. That should be unremarkable. It’s actually very unusual.
That it is so unusual is a big problem both for philosophy and philosophers.
[Conflict of interest: Charlie Camosy is a friend. Come to think of it, that's hardly a conflict of interest. He wouldn't stop being a friend if I hadn't written this, won't be more of a friend because I have, and I won't be getting a cut of any book sales this blog might generate.]
1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Geoffrey Bles, 1955
2. Eerdmans, 2010
by Dominic Wilkinson
Here in South Australia last week, a bill has been proposed to clarify the legal status of advance directives. One very small part of that bill involves a modification to an older palliative care act. The modification corrects an ambiguity in wording in the earlier act. The ambiguity is subtle. However, that choice of words has had major consequences for seriously ill children and adults in South Australia and for health practitioners. It is a salutary reminder of how hard it is to enact good laws in the area of end of life, and how easily such laws can make things worse rather than better.
By Brian Earp
This is a rough draft of a lecture delivered on October 1st, 2012, at the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights (Helsinki, Finland). It will appear in a substantially revised form—as a completed paper—at a later date. If you quote or use any part of this post, please include the following citation and notice:
Earp, B. D. (forthcoming, pre-publication draft). Assessing a religious practice from secular-ethical grounds: Competing metaphysics in the circumcision debate, and a note about respect. To appear in G. C. Denniston, F. M. Hodges, & M. F. Milos (Eds.), Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights, published by Springer. * Note, this is not the finished version of this document, and changes may be made before final publication.
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My name is Brian Earp; I am a Research Associate in the philosophy department at the University of Oxford, and I conduct research in practical ethics and medical ethics, among some other topics. As you saw from the program, my topic today is the ethics of infant male circumcision—specifically as it is performed for religious reasons.
In the run-up to the 6th November ballot in Massachussets concerning the prescription of medication to end life, two prominent US physicians, Dr. Ronald Pies and Dr. John Grohol, have been debating the pros and cons of physician assisted suicide (PAS). In his article, Dr Ronald Pies argues against the legalisation of PAS, claiming in the title of his essay that “medical ethics must sometimes trump patient choice”. Although Pies’ acknowledges that respect for autonomy is one of the four cardinal principles in medical ethics, he goes on to claim that “. . . medical ethics must set limits on a patient’s autonomous requests” in the light of another of these cardinal principles, namely the principle of non-maleficence. What are we to make of this claim? Continue reading
In general, if you know someone to be a danger to others you have a duty to do something about it. Exactly what you are obliged to do depends on the person, the situation and you. At the very least you ought to warn others.
In general, and apart from such basic duties as not to interfere with others (more pompously, to respect their autonomy), to keep your promises to them, not to harm them and not to burden them, your strongest duties are those you take on voluntarily, such as those you acquire by taking up a profession.
The professions hold themselves out to us as entitled to special privileges because of their special knowledge. We trust them, we rely on them, we place ourselves in their hands for specific purposes, because when paid for their work they promise to look after our interest before their own. Part of that promise is a special duty to hold members of the profession accountable to professional standards and to exclude persons who fail those standards.
So members of the medical profession have both a very strong duty and a special duty to protect us from dangerous doctors. A book has come out showing that doctors are grossly— indeed, grotesquely —derelict in this duty. Continue reading
It was recently reported that a doctor in Shrewsbury Massachusetts refused to treat a patient named Ida Davidson because she was overweight. Dr. Helen Carter recently decided to stop admitting patients who weighed over 200 pounds to her practice, justifying her decision by citing three incidents in which her co-workers were injured in the course of caring for obese patients. These incidents led Carter to claim that the office in which she carries out her consultations is “unable to accommodate a certain weight”. She also pointed out that the nearby University of Massachusetts has a dedicated obesity centre which is far better equipped and better staffed to deal with obese patents. Continue reading
UPDATED as of 27 May, 2013. See the bottom of the post.
The AAP report on circumcision: Bad science + bad ethics = bad medicine
For the first time in over a decade, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has revised its policy position on infant male circumcision. They now say that the probabilistic health benefits conferred by the procedure just slightly outweigh the known risks and harms. Not enough to come right out and positively recommend circumcision (as some media outlets are erroneously reporting), but just enough to suggest that whenever it is performed—for cultural or religious reasons, or sheer parental preference, as the case may be—it should be covered by government health insurance.
That turns out to be a very fine line to dance on. But fear not: the AAP policy committee comes equipped with tap shoes tightly-laced, and its self-appointed members have shown themselves to be hoofers of the nimblest kind. Their position statement is full of equivocations, hedging, and uncertainty; and the longer report upon which it is based is replete with non-sequiturs, self-contradiction, and blatant cherry-picking of essential evidence.
By Charles Foster
Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.
This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’
It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds - (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.
If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that? Continue reading