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Archive for January, 2010

Happy Birthday to Matt! Happy Birthday to Matt!

with 8 comments

The title of this post is an attempt to do an end run around my older son’s command that I not sing Happy Birthday to him today, because, because–well, he’s not so good on the because, but I’m not supposed to do it.  So I did this instead.

Yesterday would have been my twenty-sixth anniverary, if Bill had lived–and yes, I think we’d still have been married.  I think we would always have been married.  It’s just the way that worked.

But it is the second, now, and I’ll sing at Matt eventually whether he wants me to or not, so let me try to address some more of this, and get back to the Middle Ages again.

First, Robert wants to know where are the hospitals and other charitable institutions founded by “secular humanist” groups–and the problem there is mostly in the nomenclature.

Not everybody who is an atheist is a “secular humanist,” which is a particular branch of ethical ideas with a very specific set of principles, which differ from the humanist proper, and who in turn differ from groups like American Atheists or the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

But if you’re asking where are the organizations founded on secular lines by secular people–I’ve got a ton of them.  In Connecticut, we have exactly one publicly funded hospital.  All the rest of the hospitals in our state are private non-profits (except for one up in Sharon which may be for-profit by now, but I’m not sure about that.)

Anyway, the vast majority of our hospitals were founded not by religious groups (excepting, of course, the four Catholic ones), but by local “philanthropic” groups who tended to be spearheaded by local doctors during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and all of them do a good deal of charity work to this day, even though they are unaffiliated with and claim foundations in no religious group.

Then there are international groups like Doctors Without Borders, and the Free Clinics USA operation–I wish I could be sure I have that name right, because I love these people–that Keith Olbermann has been doing so much to promote on his MSNBC program.  They go around and set up Mobile clinics in various American cities and take on anybody who walks through the door for everything from routine testing to considerably more complicated stuff, and follow that up with referrals to doctors in their networks who will treat for a nominal cost.

(Sometimes, by the way, violating federal law to do it–federal law requires doctors who accept Medicare patients to charge ALL patients at least as much as they charge Medicare for any service.  So if your doctor wants to knock a couple of hundred off your bill, but that makes his charge to you less than he charges Medicare–well, you could all be in big trouble.

I mean, think about that.)

I know of dozens of secular people who start and run soup kitchens, do voluntary outreach work in the inner cities, provide their expertise (as doctors, lawyers, whatever) free of charge to the poor in the US and out of it.

Secular organizations, however, are a different matter. 

One of the problems, I think, is that none of the existing secular organizations was started as the kind of all-encompassing institution that churches are supposed to be.  Nobody asks why the local softball league doesn’t found hospitals, or why the local women’s golf association doesn’t run a homeless shelter.   And nobody says that golfers or softball players must be less charitable or concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens than Christians.

Most of the secular organizations now in existence were started with very narrow goals in mind–to provide a critique of religion, say, or to serve as the center for philosophical work on developing a secular philosophical alternative to religious ethics.  They’re more like the Hoover Institution than the Methodist Church–and the Hoover Institution isn’t out there founding hospitals, either, in spite of the fact that the majority of their fellows identify strongly with traditional religion.

My problem is not that the secular organizations do not do charitable work that is beyond their scope or function, it’s that when they do what they are supposed to be doing–when they try to provide a secular basis for moral reasoning–they increasingly make a bang-up mess of it. 

I’m not entirely certain why.  The Greeks and Romans saw morality as something we discovered, like we discovered Contintents, but not something handed down by gods in a set of edicts, and yet they could not have managed to screw themselves up as badly as these people do.

I’m going to give you an example, taken from the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine, the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.  Then I’m just going to let it ride, and see what you think of it.

I do hope, though, that you’ll keep in mind that this same magazine has seen a couple of recent publications demanding that school children be required to attend secular state schools–no religious schools and no homeschooling allowed–that will forcibly counteract the ‘”religious lies” their parents tell them. 

I presume neither the writers of those nor the editors of the magazine know about Pierce vs Society of Sisters, 1925.

But here’s the quote, from an article entitled “Environmental Philosophy’s Challenge to Humanism:  Revaluing Cosmopolitan Ethics,” by Hugh McDonald.  McDonald is described as “an associate professor at The New York City College of Technology.”  It does not say an associate professor of what.

The quote is long, so bear with it.   I’ll get around to commenting on it tomorrow:

>>>The view of humans as elevated has neither scientific nor moral warrant.  a species that is as dependant upon the environment as any other cannot be privileged.  Our need for myths is one source of “humanism,” the view that we are something more than, in Rorty’s words, “clever animals.”  To be sure, humans differ from other species, just as any species differ in some respects.  Horses differ from elephants; that is precisely what it means to be a distinct species.  Humans are incapable of certain animal capacties, just as animals may be incapable of certain human ones.  So what?  Why are these facts morally relevant.  What is at issue is whether the differences that categorize one species provide moral warrant.  Why is a species difference a unique ethical warrant?  It is speciest to count only humans as morally considerable, to speak nothing of violating the basic premise of ethics:  the golden rule or some variant.  More formally, ethics requires universality or it cannot be rational.  Practical universality must include at least the majority of other species, or humans put themselves in the position of the elite, an ideological stance.  Since ethics must be universal and reciprocal, a species difference cannot provide such a warrant.  It is not universal as distinct and unique to a species; not reciprocal as confined to a species.<<<<

Okay, it goes on from there, but with any luck, you get the drift.  If you want to read the piece, it may be up on the CSH website by now (www.secularhumanism.org).  It’s almost certainly still on the newsstands.

So, I’m going to go sing at my son, and I’ll go from here tomorrow.

Written by janeh

January 2nd, 2010 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Objectivities–And Happy New Year

with 10 comments

Well, my first thought is this–why, and in what way, are “professional principles” “objective” in a sense that other moral and ethical systems are not?

Most compilations of professional principles I know of are very subjective indeed, and all of them rely on a set of unstated axionatic assumptions–about the nature of the human person, or the definition of justice, or the primacy of the need for the free flow of information–that are nowhere questioned, never mind defended, by the people who sign on to them.

In 1974, the APA went from calling homosexuality a “disease” that could be “cured” to calling it a “sexual orientation” that people should be taught to live with and accept–virtually overnight, and on the basis of no new factual information whatsoever.  The change was not in objective facts but in public and professional attitudes, and “professional principles” thereby did a 180 degree turn in no time flat.

If you were a psychiatrist affirming homosexuals in their homosexuality in 1973, you could have been brought up on ethics charges and booted out of the profession.  A year later, the same could happen to you if you were treating homosexuality as the “disease” it had been “objectively” declared to be just two years earlier.

Nor do I understand the idea of a country full of “religious do-nothings.”  It’s precisely because religion does NOT “do nothing” that this conversation is possible at all. 

And there is no way to leave the Catholic Church out of it, because in the US today, it is the Catholic Church and its practices that is and will be at issue.

Far from doing nothing, Catholics–operating on Catholic principles, including versions o professional codes that were adapted to Catholic moral teaching–built a vast network of hospitals from one end of the country to the other.   Catholic Charities is the single largest dispenser of social services in the nation, and the Catholic parochial school system is the second largest school system in the world. 

Many communities would have had no medical care, no aid to the homeless, no  orphanages, until well into the 20th century, if Catholics hadn’t emptied their pockets and given their time and resources to creating charitable institutions in those areas. 

County and municipal governments could have done those things–but very often, they didn’t.  In fact, very often, they simply weren’t interested.  The do-nothings here do not seem to be those with religious principles.

So let’s get to what started me on all this.

I am not a moral relativist.  I do think it is possible to establish an objective basis for morality.  Aristotle thought so, and so did Thomas Aquinas–who did not rely on “subjective” anything, never mind mere appeal to scripture or Church tradition, to justify the moral code he advocated;  the Summa Theologica contains  page after page of attempts to establish these things on an entirely objective, rational and logical basis.

My problem, at the moment, is that I don’t much like the actual moral codes being thrown up by various secular writers and organizations.  Richard Rorty was truly appalling in his approach to morality, not so much be the specific things he was in favor of or opposed to, as the basis on which he tried to found them.

This is what I call the Peter Singer problem.  Singer is most infamous for declaring that there is no logical reason to say that a third trimester abortion is any different than infanticide, and since that is the case, parents should be allowed to decided, within the first twenty-eight days of life, that their newborn infant will “negatively impact the quality of life” of the rest of the family members, and have it put to death.

Singer’s reason for why this should be considered morally okay is his belief that an infant in those twenty-eight days doesn’t have the characteristics of being human that require us to consider him as a subject and not an object–he has no sense of the future, he doesn’t have real emotions yet, he isn’t cognitively self-aware, etc.

In case you think that this must be a crank on the margins, Singer holds an endowed chair in bioethics at Princetown University, is extensively published by major New York houses, and has a regular column on bioethics in Free Inquiry, the flagship magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.

And his reasons for thinking it’s okay to kill the baby are not much different from the reasons put forward for some abortions (the child might be born handicapped!) and for a fair amount of the “death with dignity” stuff.  They aren’t really human any more anyway, because they’re not like us in all these ways, and besides, if the family (or the sick person) was being rational, he wouldn’t want to live like that anyway.

I’ve seen two people through terminal cancer, and I’m here to tell you that this attitude–if he was being rational, he’d WANT to die–is endemic, already, throughout the medical system in the US. 

Bill’s last few weeks were like a war, a war against one doctor after another who insisted that it was only Bill’s emotions talking when he said he wanted to be kept alive no matter what, that the pain and debility was worth it as long as he had another day and then another with his children. 

Every time, in every case I deal with, that I refuse to authorize a do not resuscitate order because I was told by the patient himself (or herself) that he wanted to be resusciated, that he wanted to go on fighting as long as possible–every time, I was told I was being “selfish” and that I  didn’t understand that the patient had only said those things because he was afraid.  If he’d been thinking rationally, he’d have done it their way.

I know, too, that the news from Holland is not good–something like one out of every six doctors and nurses say they have quietly “put the patient out of his pain” EVEN WHEN that patient had rejected euthanasia when asked.

It’s against the law, of course, for them to do that, but they do it anyway, and it doesn’t get investigated or prosecuted, because it’s nearly impossible to police. 

So, here’s what I want–at the end of my life, I want to make sure that I can choose to use a hospital that flatly, unequivocably and without exception rejects “assisted suicide,” euthanasia passive or active, or anything like it.

No compromises.  No exceptions.

That is the only real protection I have that some doctor or nurse, acting on “professional principles,” won’t decide to “help” me out by “facilitating” the “rational” choice. 

Sorry, no, I’m not okay with “it will be your choice.”  A hospital that assumes it’s all right to put a patient out of his misery, sort of like a dog, sees human beings differently than one that fights for live at every stage, no matter how hopeless. 

I am not, mind you, asking to be kept alive on “machines.”  I AM asking that I be given food and water without ceasing as long as the rest of my body is functioning.  If my heart is beating and my lungs are working all on their own–as Terry Schiavo’s were–then I do not want my doctors “helping” me by starving me to death.

I’m not happy with the idea of any hospital having the “put them out of their misery” ethic, but I’m willing to compromise to the extent of allowing such a one down the street, as long as I’m not in it and do not have to deal with it.

But it seems to me that “professional principles” in medicine are headed right in the “put them out of their misery” direction.

And if there’s something I need from religious people right now, it’s to fight tooth and nail against the casual assumption that “professional principles” are “objective” where their religious ones are just “private” and “personal” and should not be allowed to effect the practice of medicine or anything else.

Written by janeh

January 1st, 2010 at 11:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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