Bioethics and Worldview

I recently came across this 2010 story from CBS News:

“According to a mail-in survey of nearly 4,000 British doctors, those who were atheist or agnostic were almost twice as willing to take actions designed to hasten the end of life. They were also far more likely to offer “continuous deep sedation until death” and discus end of life options with their patients.”

You can find the original JME paper HERE.

This story caused me to ask myself, “How does a person’s worldview influence his stance on bioethical issues like physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and human embryonic stem cell research?” Having discussed and debated these issues with fellow medical students, it always seems like the conversation, when continued long enough, eventually boils down to differences in ideology.

In other words, you’re never going to reason someone into changing his stance on euthanasia if he’s approaching the question from a different ideological starting point than you are.

To highlight how our religious and philosophical beliefs influence our approach to bioethics, consider this article on bioethicist Leon Kass:

“Unlike questions of segregation and, before it, slavery, where evil was clear and the only question was how to deal with it,” Dr. Kass says, “the evils that I saw close to my own area of work were ones that were embedded in very high-minded pursuits: better health, peace of mind and the conquest of nature. Yet they contained within them the seeds of our own degradation.”

The trouble wasn’t so much with science itself, he thought, as with “scientism,” by which he means “a quasi-religious faith that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge worthy of the name; that scientific knowledge gives you an exhaustive account of the way things are; and that science will transcend all the limitations of our human condition, all of our miseries.” Scientism’s primary goal, Dr. Kass says, “is to put the final nail in the rule of revealed religion.”

We can think about many of these bioethical conundrums in light of the question, “Can the end justify the means?”

Is it morally justifiable for a doctor to kill a patient in order to satisfy that patient’s wishes? Is it morally justifiable to dismember a developing human fetus in order to increase “net happiness”? Is it morally justifiable to kill a human embryo in order to discover new ways of treating disease?

According to Dr. Kass, the concept of “human dignity” carries powerful moral ramifications. Bioethical decisions shouldn’t be made strictly on utilitarian grounds; they need to account for the fundamental value of human life, regardless of age, race, gender, or other such attributes. Certain (noble) goals cannot be justified, therefore, if they require that one violate human dignity.

Yet atheist psychologist Steven Pinker offers a drastically different opinion in his 2008 article, “The Stupdity of Dignity“:

“The general feeling [of conservative ethicists] is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it…Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, [“dignity”] adds nothing…”

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In Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous 1973 short story, she describes the utopian city of Omelas – a place of luxury and comfort, without sickness or fear or pain.

“A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

Yet the happiness and good fortune of Omelas must come at a price. Beneath the city, in a dark and filthy cell, a single small child must be kept in perpetual anguish.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas…They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Upon learning this truth, most of the citizens of Omelas are temporarily horrified…but they eventually come to terms with the child’s plight, rationalizing it as a necessary evil for the good of society. A few of the citizens, however, have a very different reaction.

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.”

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9 thoughts on “Bioethics and Worldview

  1. I don’t remember if you said you had read The Brothers Karamazov or not but there’s a section where the author makes the argument, “if God does not exist, everything is permissible”. I think you would love the book, it’s rich with themes of Faith and morality and forgiveness….. Right up your alley!

    • It’s sitting on my bedside table currently, haha. Still finishing up another book before I start on it, but I’m really looking forward to it.

  2. I am a physician and a Christian, and it deeply troubles me how lightly my colleagues take up the issue of life… Whether it is in the context of abortion or end of life…. They have no fear of God.

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