Tag Archives: Death

Pain, Pills & Will

A Pain That I'm Used To

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There are many ways to die, but the public concern tends to focus on whatever is illuminated in the media spotlight. 2012 saw considerable focus on guns and some modest attention on a somewhat unexpected and perhaps ironic killer, namely pain medication. In the United States, about 20,000 people die each year (about one every 19 minutes) due to pain medication. This typically occurs from what is called “stacking”: a person will take multiple pain medications and sometimes add alcohol to the mix resulting in death. While some people might elect to use this as a method of suicide, most of the deaths appear to be accidental—that is, the person had no intention of ending his life.

The number of deaths is so high in part because of the volume of painkillers being consumed in the United States. Americans consume 80% of the world’s painkillers and the consumption jumped 600% from 1997 to 2007. Of course, one rather important matter is the reasons why there is such an excessive consumption of pain pills.

One reason is that doctors have been complicit in the increased use of pain medications. While there have been some efforts to cut back on prescribing pain medication, medical professionals were generally willing to write prescriptions for pain medication even in cases when such medicine was not medically necessary. This is similar to the over-prescribing of antibiotics that has come back to haunt us with drug resistant strains of bacteria. In some cases doctors no doubt simply prescribed the drugs to appease patients. In other cases profit was perhaps a motive. Fortunately, there have been serious efforts to address this matter in the medical community.

A second reason is that pharmaceutical companies did a good job selling their pain medications and encouraged doctors to prescribe them and patients to use them. While the industry had no intention of killing its customers, the pushing of pain medication has had that effect.

Of course, the doctors and pharmaceutical companies do not bear the main blame. While the companies supplied the product and the doctors provided the prescriptions, the patients had to want the drugs and use the drugs in order for this problem to reach the level of an epidemic.

The main causal factor would seem to be that the American attitude towards pain changed and resulted in the above mentioned 600% increase in the consumption of pain killers. In the past, Americans seemed more willing to tolerate pain and less willing to use heavy duty pain medications to treat relatively minor pains. These attitudes changed and now Americans are generally less willing to tolerate pain and more willing to turn to prescription pain killers. I regard this as a moral failing on the part of Americans.

As an athlete, I am no stranger to pain. I have suffered the usual assortment of injuries that go along with being a competitive runner and a martial artist. I also received some advanced education in pain when a fall tore my quadriceps tendon. As might be imagined, I have received numerous prescriptions for pain medication. However, I have used pain medications incredibly sparingly and if I do get a prescription filled, I usually end up properly disposing of the vast majority of the medication. I do admit that I did make use of pain medication when recovering from my tendon tear—the surgery involved a seven inch incision in my leg that cut down until the tendon was exposed. The doctor had to retrieve the tendon, drill holes through my knee cap to re-attach the tendon and then close the incision. As might be imagined, this was a source of considerable pain. However, I only used the pain medicine when I needed to sleep at night—I found that the pain tended to keep me awake at first. Some people did ask me if I had any problem resisting the lure of the pain medication (and a few people, jokingly I hope, asked for my extras). I had no trouble at all. Naturally, given that so many people are abusing pain medication, I did wonder about the differences between myself and my fellows who are hooked on pain medication—sometimes to the point of death.

A key part of the explanation is my system of values. When I was a kid, I was rather weak in regards to pain. I infer this is true of most people. However, my father and others endeavored to teach me that a boy should be tough in the face of pain. When I started running, I learned a lot about pain (I first started running in basketball shoes and got huge, bleeding blisters). My main lesson was that an athlete did not let pain defeat him and certainly did not let down the team just because something hurt. When I started martial arts, I learned a lot more about pain and how to endure it. This training instilled me with the belief that one should endure pain and that to give in to it would be dishonorable and wrong. This also includes the idea that the use of painkillers is undesirable. This was balanced by the accompanying belief, namely that a person should not needlessly injure his body. As might be suspected, I learned to distinguish between mere pain and actual damage occurring to my body.

Of course, the above just explains why I believe what I do—it does not serve to provide a moral argument for enduring pain and resisting the abuse of pain medication. What is wanted are reasons to think that my view is morally commendable and that the alternative is to be condemned. Not surprisingly, I will turn to Aristotle here.

Following Aristotle, one becomes better able to endure pain by habituation. In my case, running and martial arts built my tolerance for pain, allowing me to handle the pain ever more effectively, both mentally and physically. Because of this, when I fell from my roof and tore my quadriceps tendon, I was able to drive myself to the doctor—I had one working leg, which is all I needed. This ability to endure pain also serves me well in lesser situations, such as racing, enduring committee meetings and grading papers.

This, of course, provides a practical reason to learn to endure pain—a person is much more capable of facing problems involving pain when she is properly trained in the matter. Someone who lacks this training and ability will be at a disadvantage when facing situations involving pain and this could prove harmful or even fatal. Naturally, a person who relies on pain medication to deal with pain will not be training themselves to endure. Rather, she will be training herself to give in to pain and become dependent on medication that will become increasingly ineffective. In fact, some people end up becoming even more sensitive to pain because of their pain medication.

From a moral standpoint, a person who does not learn to endure pain properly and instead turns unnecessarily to pain medication is doing harm to himself and this can even lead to an untimely death. Naturally, as Aristotle would argue, there is also an excess when it comes to dealing with pain: a person who forces herself to endure pain beyond her limits or when doing so causes actually damage is not acting wisely or virtuously, but self-destructively. This can be used in a utilitarian argument to establish the wrongness of relying on pain medication unnecessarily as well as the wrongness of enduring pain stupidly. Obviously, it can also be used in the context of virtue theory: a person who turns to medication too quickly is defective in terms of deficiency; one who harms herself by suffering beyond the point of reason is defective in terms of excess.

Currently, Americans are, in general, suffering from a moral deficiency in regards to the matter of pain tolerance and it is killing us at an alarming rate. As might be suspected, there have been attempts to address the matter through laws and regulations regarding pain medication prescriptions. This supplies people with a will surrogate—if a person cannot get pain medication, then she will have to endure the pain. Of course, people are rather adept at getting drugs illegally and hence such laws and regulations are of limited effectiveness.

What is also needed is a change in values. As noted above, Americans are generally less willing to tolerate even minor pains and are generally willing to turn towards powerful pain medication. Since this was not always the case, it seems clear that this could be changed via proper training and values. What people need is, as discussed in an earlier essay, training of the will to endure pain that should be endured and resist the easy fix of medication.

In closing, I am obligated to add that there are cases in which the use of pain medication is legitimate. After all, the body and will are not limitless in their capacities and there are times when pain should be killed rather than endured. Obvious cases include severe injuries and illnesses. The challenge then, is sorting out what pain should be endured and what should not. Since I am a crazy runner, I tend to err on the side of enduring pain—sometimes foolishly so. As such, I would probably not be the best person to address this matter.

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Proving Heaven

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

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I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.

Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.

One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.

While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.

One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.

A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.

The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.

Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him.  Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.

Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.

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Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind: Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death?

There is nothing like a diagnosis of stage four inoperable lung cancer with bone metastases to give one a shock. I have known since I took logic as a young man that “Human beings are mortal. Socrates is a human being. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” However, I was not Socrates, and as far as I was concerned that syllogism was just an example of a valid argument. However, when you put your own name in place of “Socrates” things look very different. Now I am an oldish philosopher (67), and suddenly the real possibility of my own death in the fairly near future has become a reality. Mortality approaches.

I know that philosophers concern themselves mostly with abstract and very general questions in epistemology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, etc.. By and large they do not approach philosophical questions from a personal perspective. Even death can be approached as an intellectual or conceptual problem. However, when Santa gave me my cancer diagnosis for Christmas 2011, abstract philosophy and my personal experience unavoidably came together. I now wonder if I can write in a very personal way about the universal truth that we are all going to die, what this means, and if there is anything of general import that I can express about what is happening in my own case. This breaks some common views of what philosophy is, but I do not have time to care about that now. So I am addressing you from a personal perspective, from my frame of life, and I ask your indulgence.

Let me state my tentative conclusion at the start. I do feel that having studied philosophy seriously for 46 years allowed me to keep my calm when the doctor gave me my diagnosis after a routine CT scan. For a second, I sat there feeling nothing at all. However, the next thought that came to me was gratitude for the life I have lived. Maybe other people do not feel this. Kubler Ross famously discusses five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I seemed to skip the first four. This is not to say that I instantly reached acceptance, but I did come first to gratitude. Now, after six months of living with lung cancer, I am trying to understand what acceptance of death may amount to.

Each of us can only judge and describe the world from our own time frame. If I had been much younger, my response to the diagnosis might have conformed more to Dr. Ross’s formula. The world looks very differently at different stages of life. Nevertheless, how one has looked, thought, and felt about life and death throughout one’s life has to make a difference at the end. In my case, the lens through which I have considered life has always been philosophical. Snatches of philosophical thoughts have lodged in my mind since I was was young. These are like seeds that took root deep in my mind and have matured and grown over the years. Now I feel that they are bearing fruit, helping me to live a new and deeper life. One nugget stands out to complete this first meditation on life and death.

Plato’s famously stated that “Philosophy is a preparation for death.” The Greek word that Plato uses for ‘preparation’ is ‘Melete’ and the root meaning is ‘care’ or ‘attention’. It can also mean ‘meditation,’ ‘practice’ or ‘exercise’. So are philosophers supposed to ‘practice’ dying, or simply to recollect the fact of mortality as they live their lives? What difference will that make?

I confess a great love of Plato and his amazing Socrates. However, I cannot go along with his tentative conclusions. We know what Socrates argues in the Phaedo. The reason that practicing philosophy is a preparation for death is that Socrates believes that the soul and the body are separable, that the soul is immortal, and that a very different after-life awaits those who have lived a good or evil life. Therefore, it behooves us to separate our own soul from our body as much as possible while we live and to detach ourselves from the preoccupations of mundane life.

The reason that I admire Socrates in the Phaedo is that after giving his ‘proofs’ of the immortality of the soul, he has the greatness to admit that his arguments are only the reasons he personally accepts to advance his position. He does not claim that they absolutely prove the soul is immortal. It is a postulate of Socrates’ practical metaphysics. In fact, he says that if he is wrong, and death is total extinction, then he will never know he is wrong, and his folly will be buried with him.

So in what sense can the study of philosophy be a preparation for death if one does not accept metaphysical dualism? I do not accept any such thing, but I still feel that my study of philosophy has helped me prepare for my present state. Does this mean that the study of any topic in philosophy will have this effect? I do not think so. I am not at all sure that one would prepare for death very well by spending 40 years working in the salt-mines of post-Gettier epistemology, nor in picking over all he convoluted arguments in mereology and inductive logic.

To see how the study of philosophy might be of value in preparing to die, we have to go back to the root meaning of ‘philosophy’ as the ‘love of wisdom’. Wisdom is not a topic that comes up very much in contemporary philosophy. It was more to the fore in the ancient world, where wisdom, ethics, and the question of living a good human life were brought together in a philosophical approach to living. For me, loving wisdom has to do with taking up the largest possible perspective in which to live one’s life, going all the way back to the Big Bang, including all of space and time, the natural history of the universe, the geology of the earth, and the total history of animals and human beings on this planet spinning through a gigantic universe. It covers all the natural cycles of life and death and sees everything as part of this comprehensive whole. Somehow, living in this context has helped me see life and death as part of a seamless process. Death shadows life as naturally as the shadow one casts on the ground on a sunny day. There is no point in denying it, and no point in worrying about it. Perhaps acceptance lies in this direction.

Responsibility & Suicide

Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers, committed suicide after his roommate Dharun Ravi and another student,  Molly Wei, allegedly posted a video of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male.

Ravi and Lei have been charged with invasion of privacy and not with Clementi’s death. From a legal standpoint, this is to be expected. After all, establishing a legal causal link between the release of the video and his death would be rather difficult.

My main interest in the matter is not the legal aspect of the case, but rather the moral aspect. That is, the degree to which Ravi and Lei might be morally responsible for Clementi’s death. I am qualifying this because Ravi and Lei have not been convicted and hence they are merely accused of the crime at this point. This is an example of the broader matter of the responsibility a person has for actions that others take based on his own actions. In the specific case at hand, the problem is determining to what degree those involved in the distribution of the video are responsible for Clementi’s death.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X.  This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be an intuitive plausible reason that I am responsible for the person’s death.

If Wei and Ravi did, in fact, post the video in question and Clementi did, in fact, kill himself because of the video being posted, then it seems likely that Cleminiti would be alive today but for the posting. As such, Wei and Ravi would thus seem to be (potentially) responsible for his death and thus morally culpable.

However, there are clearly degrees of culpability. While the video being posted might have been a causal factor in the suicide, the causal link is far weaker than it would have been if, say, the accused had pushed Clementi off the bridge. Also, merely playing a causal role is not enough to ground moral (or legal) accountability. To use an obvious example, the video could not have been made without cameras. However, to hold the maker of the cameras responsible would be absurd. What is needed is, obviously enough, a degree and kind of causal role that grounds moral responsibility

One obvious reason as to why the accused have only a degree of culpability is that suicide is a matter of choice. While this choice was probably influenced by the release of the video, Clementi would not be dead if he had not decided to kill himself(assuming he did so).  This would certainly seem to reduce the moral responsibility of the the two people who allegedly posted the video. In contrast, if the two people had pushed him from the bridge against his will, then he would have no morally significant causal role in his own death and the moral responsibility would be fully upon them.

It might be argued that the two people who allegedly posted the video should have known what was going to happen and hence this makes them more responsible for the death. However, this seems implausible. It is reasonable to expect that a person would be outraged by such a posting or perhaps even horribly embarrassed. As such, they can be accused of invading his privacy and even with acting with an intent to create emotional harm.  However, since suicide is not a likely reaction to such an action, those who posted it cannot be reasonably expected to have believed that Clementi would kill himself.

To use an analogy, while people should not throw snowballs at other people, a person who throws one generally cannot be taken as throwing the snowball with an intent to kill. After all, snowballs generally do not do that. Naturally, the snowball analogy is not a perfect fit-if someone is killed by a thrown snowball, then the causal connection in the death is much stronger than in the case of a video that allegedly contributed to a suicide.

Of course, if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to respond by committing suicide, then the matter changes. To use the snowball analogy, if someone throws a snowball at someone who is likely to die from being hit by one, then they can be reasonably regarded as intending to cause the person’s death-or at least not being overly concerned with that possibility. Of course, this analogy breaks at a certain point-after all, suicide is a chosen behavior and dying when hit with a snowball is not. As such, even if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to kill himself, his death would still be ultimately a matter of his own choice. This factor of choice seems to be rather morally significant in the matter at hand.

Overall, it seems clear that creating and posting such a video was wrong. However, it also seems clear that the moral culpability of the accused is very limited in regards to the suicide. At most, the actions of the accused could be seen as a contributory cause in regards to the motivation to commit suicide.

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Eating the Happy Dead

Meat

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In my previous post I mentioned that reading an  article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”,  got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it. I addressed the first issue in that post and I now turn to the second issue.

Some folks who were (or still claim to be ) vegetarians have returned to eating meat and justify their consumption by making a moral argument. The gist of the argument is that the morality of eating meat rests not on the eating of meat but on how the animal was treated prior to becoming meat. To be more specific, the idea is that if the animal is lovingly raised in an environmentally sustainable way, then the consumption of its dead flesh is morally acceptable. In contrast, eating meat raised in the usual way (such as factory farming) is not acceptable.

There does seem to be some merit to this argument. If it is assumed that the unhappiness and happiness of animals matters, then a stock utilitarian argument can be trotted out. Treating food animals well generates more pleasure for the animals and, in contrast, treating them badly generates more pain. If pain and pleasure are the currency of morality, then treating food animals well would be morally better than treating them badly.

From this it would presumably follow that folks who only eat the animals who were well treated would have the moral high ground over those who eat animals who suffered before becoming meat. This is because the folks who eat the happy dead are not parties to the mistreatment of animals. Except, of course, for the killing and eating part. After all, both the happy cow and the sad cow meat…I mean “meet” the same end: death and consumption.

The fact that the animals, happy or sad, end up as meat might be seen as what is important to the ethics of the situation. This seems reasonable. After all, if someone intends to kill me my main concern is with my possible death and not whether the killer will be nice or not.

But it also seems reasonable to be concerned about what comes before. To use an analogy, imagine two legal systems. While both hand out the same punishments, one system treats suspects horribly: they are locked in fetid cells, poorly fed and treated with cruelty. The other legal system treats suspects reasonable well: they can get out on bail, cells are clean, the food is adequate and cruelty is rare. There seems to be a meaningful distinction between the two and this would also seem to hold in the case of meat.

As such, I do think that the folks who eat the happy dead can claim a slight moral superiority over those who dine on cruel food. But, there is still the obvious concern about whether the consumption of meat itself is acceptable or not.

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Violating Your Own Right to Privacy?

As I was getting ready to teach my Critical Inquiry class, I heard a woman outside the classroom carrying on a wicked fight over her mobile phone. I won’t go into the details, but she was “discussing” the various misdeeds of her (presumably now ex) boyfriend. On another occasion, I was walking to my truck and I had to cross by a screaming couple. Again, I’ll leave out the details but suffice it to say that he seemed rather concerned about the other men sleeping with her. Most recently, I heard about Penelope Trunk tweeting about her miscarriage. These incidents all caused me to think “hey, you have a right to privacy…think about using it.” This got me thinking about whether a person can violate her own right to privacy (assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that there is such a right).

On the face of it, it would seem that a person cannot violate her own right to privacy. A privacy violation would seem to require that someone acquire information that they do not legitimate have a right to know and they do so without the consent of the person. For example, someone stealing another person’s diary and reading about their secret hopes and fears would be a privacy violation. When a person knowingly reveals information about herself (such as by being very loud in public, posting it on a public blog or twittering it), then that person has obviously given consent to herself.

However, I think that a case can be made for the claim that a person can violate her own right to privacy. The first step in doing this is arguing that a person can (in general) violate her own rights.  To do this, I will  draw an analogy to suicide.  One reason to think suicide is wrong is that it violates a person’s right to life. Obviously, suicide harms (kills) a person and it seems reasonable to regard this as generally being wrong. To be fair, people do argue that consent to death somehow makes the action morally acceptable but this seems to clearly be a point that can be argued.  Returning to the main point, if suicide is a violation of a person’s right to life, then a person can violate her own rights.

Now, if the suicide analogy is found to be lacking, consider a second analogy involving the right to liberty. It seems quite reasonable to believe that a person who consents to slavery would be violating his own right to liberty. After all, if Locke is right, no one can rightly consent to being owned by another (although he does allow for slavery as an alternative to death). If this line of reasoning is plausible, the same would seem to hold for the right to privacy.

The second step in making my case is establishing that there are some things that should remain private, even if a person wants to make them public. This is rather challenging-after all, most people probably believe that people should be generally free to reveal their secrets even if doing so would be rather harmful to them. In fact, many reality TV shows and tell-all books rely on this view. However, it seems reasonable to believe that there is a category of things that should remain private and should not be revealed to others, even by the person whose privacy is at stake. To argue for this, I’ll appeal to the arguments for privacy and claim that these same arguments should also apply to the person in question. After all, if certain things should not be revealed by others, it seems reasonable to think that there are at least some things that should not be revealed by anyone. That is, that there are things that should be regarded as inherently private and not shared with the public.

If both of these steps work, then a person could violate her own right to privacy by making public what should be kept private.

I freely admit that my case for this is rather weak and that there are strong intuitions that folks have the right to reveal whatever they wish about themselves (naturally things change when the privacy of other people is involved as well). However,  it is not unreasonable to think that people can thus violate their own right to privacy by revealing  what should not be public. In any case, I look forward to comments that expose the errors in my line of reasoning.

If my previous line of reasoning is faulty, I have  second approach that I believe can produce a similar result. The idea is that while people have a right to privacy, people also have a right to sort of a reverse privacy. To be clearer, I mean that people have a right not to hear about certain things from other people. So, while someone might not violate her own right to privacy by twittering or yelling about private matters in public, such actions could be seen as violating the right of others not to be exposed to such things. My reason for this is that I think it is wrong for people to inflict their private matters onto the public without the consent of the public. When I am getting ready for class or walking to my truck, I think I have the right not to hear about the sexual activities of strangers. That is, I think I have a right to not have other folks private matters forcible entering my life.

Twitter, blogs and such are a quite a different matter. In these cases, people knowingly expose themselves to mediums that are often used to reveal private matters to the public and, of course, people can easily avoid those known to deal in such content.

In the  specific case of Twitter, people need to intentionally expose themselves to tweets. Since Twitter is well known for folks spilling private matters, people have no expectation that they will not be exposed to such things (this can be seen as a twist on the idea that there are situations in which people have no expectation of privacy). This is why I am not participating in Twitter. As I see it, Twitter is an unholy blend of narcissism and voyeurism that I would rather not invite into my life. But I do appreciate the fact that it does sometimes provide me with things to blog about.

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The Case for Death Panels

Rembrandt turns an autopsy into a masterpiece:...
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In the United States, Obama’s call for national health care reform has ignited a firestorm of controversy. One rather interesting result of the furor has been the accusation that Obama plans to create death panels. While the accounts vary, the general idea is that these alleged panels are intended to review cases and decide whether care (and the patient) should be terminated or not. Not surprisingly, this accusation is not true-there is nothing in the actual proposals about such death panels.

As I do every semester, I am teaching an ethics class in which the students have to write an essay on a moral issue. When the students ask what position they should take, I generally suggest that the argue for what they believe (rather than vainly trying to guess my view in the hopes of getting a better grade). But, I also suggest that they consider writing an argument against what they actually believe. Since I am against death panels, I thought I’d try my hand at my own suggestion and make a case for them. When reading, please keep in mind that what follows is not my actual view. Hence, there is no cause to accuse me of Nazi (or even socialist) leanings.

From an intuitive moral standpoint, private citizens are rather restricted in regards to when they can ethically end the life of another person. In general, such killing is restricted to clear cases of self defense. For example, if someone pulls a gun on me while I am out for a run and demands my fancy GPS watch, it would be morally acceptable for me to kill him on the spot. After all, he presents a clear and present threat to my survival (as Locke would say, I have no reason to think that someone who would rob me of my property would not take the next step and try to rob me of my life).

In the case of the death panel matter, it does not seem that this sort of individual right can be used as a justification. After all, a patient who is in need of critical and expensive care is not likely to be a clear and present threat to my survival.

Of course, it could be argued that such a person would be a threat because he is using resources that could save my life. However, killing an innocent person because they happen to have resources that could save my life does not seem to be morally defensible. For example, if am in a ship wreck and at risk of drowning, I have no right to kill another passenger and strip her of her life vest. As such, there seems to be little support for death panels here.

Perhaps, however, the matter changes when the focus is expanded to include society as a whole. After all, actions that would be blatantly immoral for an individual can often be transformed, by the “magic” of the collective, into acceptable actions. For example, what would be murder on the individual level becomes transformed to acceptable killing in the context of war (although, obviously, not everyone buys this).

In many cases, the moral transformation is brought about by an appeal to the general good (essentially an appeal to utilitarian considerations). For example, killing folks in war can be morally justified by appealing to the advantages of the war to “national security” or “national interest.” Not surprisingly, more cynical folks might point out that “national interest” is often the interest of a select few and it might be contended that such actions are no better than those of any organized gang of criminals.

Now, if such things as war can be morally justified, then justifying death panels should be easy enough on the same sort of grounds.

In the case of war, killing folks is most often justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, some folks must be killed (including the inevitable innocent bystanders) in order for the collective good (national security, for example) to be served. Now, let us turn to applying this sort of approach to the death panels.

While the United States and other Western countries have significant medical resources (enough so that certain folks, such as Michael Jackson, can have their own personal doctors) these resources are not unlimited. In fact, it can be contended that the resources are not sufficient to provide adequate health care to everyone.

Now, it is obvious that people who are in need of critical care use far more resources than other folks. It is also obvious that the elderly have more health issues than younger folks. Now, looking at the matter by the numbers, it seems likely that the resources used to maintain a critically ill person or an elderly person could be used to provide health care to a significant number of folks with less serious conditions. Typically, these would often be younger folks as well-folks who also still have years to contribute to the good of the state.

Looked at in terms of the general utility, it would seem to make practical and moral sense to allocate medical resources so that they do the most good for the general populace. As such, it would seem to be acceptable to terminate the care of the critical ill in favor of the less ill. It could also, on similar grounds, be argued that the focus of health care should be on the younger folks rather than the harder to maintain elderly folks. To use a car analogy, it makes more sense to spend less on maintaining a new car than to pour large sums of money in order to keep an old clunker going.

Since the United States is supposed to have a free market economy, the critical ill and the elderly who have the funds to purchase the medical care they need should be allowed to do so. After all, they are paying for the resources they are consuming and hence are not creating an undue burden on the health care system. Naturally, folks who are lacking in such funds would be imposing burdens on the system by consuming beyond what they can afford to pay for. As such, they would be robbing society of valuable resources.

Naturally, it might be pointed out that some critically ill people or elderly folks might have made valuable contributions that justify their being treated at the public expense. There might also be such folks who are making ongoing contributions or who can be expected to make such contributions in the future. For example, a medical student who is badly hurt in a accident may be expensive to treat, but it is likely that she will be able to contribute more than he treatment would cost.

This is, of course, where the death panels come in. These panels would serve to assess the relative worth of each patient and decide who will receive the medical resources and who will not. For those who balk at such an approach, the obvious reply is that this sort of thing is done in the case of triage. In this case, it is a triage of a different sort but would still seem to be justifiable on similar grounds. In this case, the person’s place in the medical queue is based not on her likelihood of survival but based on the value of her survival to the national good.

Of course, some folks might contend that the idea of having folks decide who lives and who dies is a horrific idea. It might also be wondered where people could be found with the adequate experience to make such calls. Fortunately, the United States has plenty of people who have experience in such things. For example, Governors in states that have the death penalty already serve on death panels. As another example, the folks who make decisions about going to war already are on a death panel as well. After all, they have an active role in deciding who will live and who will die. As a final example, folks in insurance companies sometimes make decisions that deny care to people. Since such decisions about life and death are fairly routine, there should be little problem finding people to serve on such panels.

So, death panels seem like a great idea and the United States should hope that Obama makes the rumors a reality. Obviously, philosophers and runners should get an automatic exemption from being reviewed by death panels. This is so obvious that there is no need to even argue.

Dead Man Selling

Billy Mays Dies 1958-2009

For the past month,  I have seen a dead man pitching products on TV.  No, I am not having a Sixth Sense moment. Everyone can see the dead man, not just me.

The dead man is, of course, the famous American pitchman Billy Mays. He is the guy that has sold Americans all sorts of products, such as Oxiclean and Orange Glo. He died recently of heart problems, but his advertisements are still being aired.

Shortly after hearing about his death, I saw one of these ads. Oddly enough, rather than inspiring me to go into a consumer frenzy, the ad gave me a creepy feeling. After all, I knew the man trying to sell me some cell phone attachment was quite dead.

Interestingly, seeing movies that have dead actors in them has never given me that feeling. For example, if I watch an old Bogart film I do not get that creepy feeling. I don’t even get it when the actor died in the course of filming, such as what happened to Brandon Lee during the filming of the Crow.

Obviously, my particular psychological responses are hardly the stuff of philosophical interest. However, I think that the difference in how I feel does point to something that is worthy of philosophical consideration.

In the case of the commercials, while Mays might be playing his pitch man role, it is him selling the product. That is, he is there as himself, an enthusiastic and cheerful fellow who would really like you to buy all the stuff he is pitching.

In the case of the movies, the dead actor was playing a role of a meaningfully different order and this seems to create sort of a psychological buffer. To be a bit more specific, the character the dead actor played has a virtual life of its own (and perhaps even virtual death) and continues to exist as a fictional being.

In contrast, it is just Billy Mays, the dead man, whose recorded image is still pitching products. There is no buffer, no fictional being. Just someone I know is dead. Hence, the creepy feeling.

From a moral standpoint, there seems to be nothing really wrong with the ads remaining on television. After all, he no doubt contracted for a certain run and the fact that he is now dead would not seem to change that contract. Of course, there might seem something vaguely wrong about keeping a man working after his death. Certainly, it is just his recorded image, a digital ghost, that is doing the pitching. But perhaps even digital ghosts deserve to be laid to rest.

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Michael Jackson & Proper Emotions

I was recently asked how Michael Jackson’s death affected me. I had to be honest and report that it really had not impacted my life. I did feel a degree of pity. But, I would feel the same upon learning about the death of anyone who did not deserve to die.

In contrast to my rather limited response, some fans have shown incredible pain at his loss. From their responses, one would think that they had lost a parent, husband or dear friend.  My initial view was that they were overreacting and that their emotional response was simply not warranted or proper. This, naturally enough, started me thinking about whether my view had any actual merit or if I was simply engaged in biased thinking. In order to help settle this, I started by by considering the basis of my own rather limited feelings about his death and why I took his fans to be having improper emotions. In addition to dealing specifically with the matter at hand, this discussion also deals with the broader topic of proper emotions (or emotional responses, if you prefer).

In my own case, I like some of his music and I thought Thriller had a rather kick ass video (especially since it had Vincent Price).  However, I am not related to him I never met him in person, and never even exchanged emails with him. As such, I have no meaningful connection to him that would warrant a powerful emotional response to his untimely death. For me to react in a powerful way to his death would thus be improper, in that my response would far outweigh what I should be feeling. It would, to use an analogy, be like howling in pain because I merely pricked my finger. That sort of overreaction is not, as Aristotle might say, the right degree of emotion to feel for that situation.  This is not to say that his death was on par with the pricking of a finger, just that his role in my life was extremely limited (seeing a few videos and hearing some songs).

From my perspective, the fans who are emotionally devastated by his death are overreacting. After all, most of them had most likely not even met him in person. At most, they might have seen him on stage during a live show.  That hardly constitutes a meaningful connection between two people that would warrant such an extreme response. In my own case, I only form strong attachments to people I actually know and expect the attachment to be reciprocated.  Otherwise, the relationship would seem to be something of an illusion and a fantasy. But, perhaps that is a harsh thing to say.  So, what I feel upon the death of another person depends on the relationship we had. If there was no meaningful relationship, then it would not be  a proper reaction to feel terrible grief upon that person’s death. I should, of course, feel for other people-but my response should be a proper response, a fitting measure of grief for what has been lost to me.

One response to my view that his fans attached great importance to him and he was somehow very significant in their lives. Some people can form such one way emotional bonds to someone who would not know them from Adam or Eve. As such, his loss would hurt them deeply and thus it could be argued that their reactions are quite justified and proper. After all, people do get emotionally attached even to objects (such as cars or jewelry) and the loss of such items greatly upset them. Obviously, the objects cannot love people back. Likewise, one might argue, a person could be quite emotionally attached to the image or idea of a celebrity and thus feel a terrible loss when that person dies.

In reply, it seems unreasonable to get so emotionally attached to objects. They are, after all, objects. Likewise, for a fan to get emotionally attached to a celebrity seems to be unreasonable. It is not that the celebrity is not a person, but that the typical fan is not interacting with the person. Rather, they are merely experiencing the celebrity’s public presentation. In the case of Jackson, his fans saw his videos, listened to his music, watched the TV coverage of his life, and perhaps saw him in stage or caught a glimpse of him in public. What they became attached to was not the person-for they knew not the person. Rather, they became attached to that public presentation. As such, when he died they did not lose him-they never had him. What they lost, to be rather rough about it, is the chance to hear new songs, see new videos, and see live shows. They can still experience almost all that they experienced of him by watching the videos or playing his music.  As such, even though he is dead, their relationship can continue almost unchanged. As such, extreme grief hardly seems warranted.

Of course, an even easier response to my view is to just say that people feel what they do and there is no right or wrong when it comes to emotions. That does have a certain appeal, but is easily countered. For example, if a child is killed in car wreck and an onlooker started laughing about it and making jokes, we would certainly say that it was not right for him to feel that way about the death of a child.

It might be claimed that I am a cold person who is unable to appreciate the loss experienced by Jackson’s devoted fans. Who am I, one might say, to judge their grief and tears as proper or improper? An excellent question, to which I give an obvious reply: if I am not to judge them, then I am not to be judged for judging them.

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Resurrection & Immortality in the Flesh

When I first heard of Ray Kuzweil’s ideas, I assumed he was a science fiction writer. After all, the sort of transhuman future he envisioned is stock sci-fi fare. I was mildly surprised when it turns out that he is quite serious about (and well paid for expressing) his views. I was somewhat more surprised to learn that he has quite a following. Of course, I wasn’t too surprised-I’ve been around a while.

Oversimplifying things, Kuzweil envisions a future in which humans will be immortal and the dead will return to live. While these are common claims in religion, Kuzweil’s view is that technology will make this possible. While some describe his view as a religion, I’d prefer to use a made up word, “techion” to refer to this sort of phenomena. As I see it, a religion involves claims about supernatural entities. Kuzweil’s view is purely non-supernatural, but does have most of the stock elements of religion (the promise of a utopian future, immortality, and the raising of the dead). So, it is sort of a technological religion-hence “techion.” Yes, I like making up words. Try it yourself-it is free, fun and makes you look cool (your actual results might differ).

While the religion-like aspects of his views are interesting, I’ll be looking at the ideas of technological immortality and technological resurrection.

In the abstract, technological immortality is quite simple: just keep repairing and replacing parts.  In theory, this could be kept up until the end of time, thus granting immortality. Even with our current technology we can repair and replace parts. For example, my quadriceps tendon was recently repaired. I have friends with artificial hips and other friends who gotten tissue and organ transplants. It is easy to imagine technology progressing enough to replace or repair everything.

Technological resurrection is a bit trickier. While we can “jump start” people who have died, Kuzweil envisions something more radical. His view is that we might be able to take the DNA of dead people and rebuild them using nanobots. This, he claims, could create a new body that would be  “indistinguishable from the original person.” Of course, having a body that is indistinguishable form the original is hardly the same as having the original person back. It would, rather, be a case of having a twin. To recreate the person, his plan is that information about the original (such as things the person wrote and recollections of people who knew them) would be used to recreate the mind of the original.

Nanobot reconstruction from DNA seems possible. After all, each of our bodies assembled itself using DNA, so we have a natural model for that process. The challenge is, of course, to duplicate it with technology. We also know that the brain accepts external information that shapes the person, so such a “download” would (in theory) be possible. Of course, there is a big difference between the normal experiences that shape us and downloading information in an attempt to recreate a person.

One aspect of both immortality and resurrection that is of philosophical interest is the matter of personal identity. Immortality is only immortality if I keep on going as me. Replacing me with something that is like me does not give me personal immortality. Resurrection is only true resurrection if it is me who has returned from the dead. Recreating my body from my DNA and telling him stories about me does not bring me back to life.

Turning to immortality, the key question is this: would the identity of the person be preserved through the changes? Personal identity does seem to survive through fairly robust changes. For example, I’m confident that at 43 I am the same person as the very young kid who staggered down the aisle of church saying “I’m drunk” after drinking the communion wine. I’m larger now and a bit wiser, but surely still the same person. However, the changes required for technological immortality would be quite radical. After all, eventually the brain tissue will fail and thus will need to be replaced-perhaps by machinery.

This problem is, of course, like the classic ship of Theseus problem: how much of the original can be replaced before it is no longer the same entity? Of course, it is also complicated by the fact that a person is involved and the identity of persons is a bit more complex than that of objects.

Fortunately, there is an easy answer. If whatever it is that makes a person the person she is can keep on going in the increasingly strange flesh, then such immortality is possible. If not, then it would not be immortality, but a strange sort of death and succession. Since I don’t know what it is that makes a person the person she is, I lack a definite answer to this question. I am sure that it is quite a shock that no definite answer has been reached.

Of course, this does not diminish the importance of the concern. Assessing whether we should take the path that Kurzweil desires involves deciding whether this sort of immortality is real immortality or not. That is, determining whether we would go on as the same people or whether we would simply be dying a strange and prolonged death as we are being replaced.

Now, for resurrection. This matter has long been of interest to philosophers. Plato wrote about reincarnation (the difference is that resurrection is supposed to restore the same person and the same body while re-incarnation is supposed to restore the same person with a different body) and Locke explicitly wrote about resurrection. Naturally, philosophers who were also religious thinkers tended to write about this subject.

True resurrection, as noted above, has two key aspects. First, the original body has to be recreated. If you get a different sort of body, then you have been reincarnated (perhaps as a rather miffed squirrel). Second, the original person has to be restored. Locke’s view on this matter is that come judgment day, God will recreate our bodies (hopefully at their prime) and place the right consciousness into each body (for Locke, the person is his or her consciousness).

Recreating the original body seems possible. With DNA, raw material  and those hypothetical nanobots, it would just be a (re) construction project. It would also help to have images of the original body, plus as much other relevant data as possible. So, the first aspect is taken care of.

Getting the original person back in the recreated body is the real challenge. Kurzweil does seem to clearly recognize that the method he envisions will not restore the original person. He seems to be right about this. After all, the method he describes relies on “public” information. That is, it depends on what information the person provided before death and what other people remember of him. This obviously leaves out everything that was not recorded or known by others. As such, it will be a partial reconstruction-a new person who is force fed the scraps of another person’s life. This, obviously enough, raises some serious moral issues.

On the face of it, Kurzweil’s resurrection seems to be moral appalling. That this is so can be illustrated by the following analogy. Imagine that Sally and Ivan have a son, Ted. Ted dies at 18. Sally and Ivan go through all the adoption agencies until they find a baby, Joe,  that looks like Ted did. They rename Joe as Ted and then reconstruct Ted’s life as closely as possible-punishing the former Joe whenever he deviates from Ted’s life and rewarding him for doing what Ted did. Sally and Ivan would be robbing Joe of choice and using him as a means to an end-fulfilling their need to have Ted back. But, they have no right to do this to Joe-he is a person, not a thing to be used to recreate Ted.

The same certainly seems to hold in the situation Kurzweil envisions. To create a human being and force him to be a copy of a dead person is a horrible misuse of a person and a wicked act.

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