Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ethics, religion, and the right to die

One of my failings is that I never seem to be able to see ethical questions in black-and-white.

Life would undoubtedly be easier if I did.  Humans, myself included, appear to me to be impossibly complex, full of competing motives, attitudes, thoughts, and prejudices, with an incomplete access to the facts (and a fallible machine with which to process those facts).  Given all that, a lot of the time I really don't know how to make decisions on ethical matters -- I can too easily see the arguments from both sides.  All of which makes it all the more baffling to me how people can seem so sure of themselves in (for example) politics.

Maybe it's why I'm comfortable in the realm of science.  There, there's a clear decision-making protocol, and rules of logic that govern it.  Things may not always be simple in science, but they sure are a hell of a lot clearer.

I ran into an especially good example of this yesterday, with the story of the seventeen-year-old Sydney, Australia boy who is fighting in court for the right not to be treated for his probably-curable Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The boy is a Jehovah's Witness, and they believe that you are showing a lack of faith in god if you seek medical care when you're ill.  You should, they say, pray for healing.  If you die, then (1) you didn't pray hard enough, or in the right way, or (2) it was god's will that you died.  Either way, they're insulated against criticism of the claim, which strikes me as pretty convenient.

The case was in the courts in April, and was characterized as a situation of neglectful, ultra-religious parents victimizing an ill child by denying him treatment.  Supreme Court Justice Ian Gzell agreed, stating in his ruling that, ''The sanctity of life in the end is a more powerful reason for me to make the orders than is respect for the dignity of the individual.  X is still a child, although a mature child of high intelligence.''  The boy was ordered into Sydney Children's Hospital, where he began chemotherapy.

But the case jumped back into the news when it was reported that the boy himself is threatening to rip the IV needle out of his arm -- after his father wrote a line from the bible on a whiteboard in the boy's hospital room that allegedly supports the contention that it is against god's will to have a blood transfusion.

A spokesperson for Sydney Children's Hospital said the boy had a ''cocooned upbringing'' and his family had ''little exposure to challenges of their beliefs from outsiders''-- implying that he and his family were simply wrong, and therefore incapable of making a responsible decision.  The boy himself expressed horror at the thought that he might be sedated and treated against his will -- likening it to being raped.

So, what's the answer?  I teach seventeen-year-olds, and a good many of them are highly mature, sensitive, and intelligent.  Some are less so.  Even the less mature ones feel strongly that they should be able to make their own decisions.  In the eyes of the law, however, they are still legally their parents' responsibility.

Then we have the religious aspects.  It's easy enough to ridicule the beliefs of these folks from the outside -- but put yourself in their places.  What if you really, truly believed that death was not final, that your soul lived on -- but that you might end up in eternal torment if you sought out medical care?  You are in pain now, but that's temporary.  Hell, on the other hand, lasts forever.  Wouldn't you choose a few months' discomfort over an eternity in agony?

Then there's the aspect of "brainwashing" -- as it's been widely characterized.  I agree to the extent that the Jehovah's Witnesses' view of the world is unsupported by everything I know about science, logic, and nature.  There is, in my opinion, not a shred of evidence for their claims.  Still -- shouldn't we all be allowed to make those decisions for ourselves?  Why should my reliance on science and logic dictate what someone else does?  I sure as hell would resent that if the situation were reversed -- which it sometimes is.

It's not an easy thing to decide, is it?  It would be different if the boy were younger; but even that is an ethical conundrum, because there's no on/off switch for maturity.  Are you capable of making this sort of decision at sixteen?  Fourteen?  Ten?  In most places, you become the master of your own fate at eighteen, but even that is an arbitrary number.  I know some people who are more mature at fifteen than others are at twenty-five.

So I'm left with a question.  We have a boy who is almost certain to die because of his, and his parents', religious beliefs, and a hospital that is desperately trying to stop that from happening.  And all I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision about what is best to do.


  1. Welcome to my world (and/or the reason why I'm about to leave academic philosophy). This isn't a unique case, and it's been well-discussed, particularly across a range of science fiction stories. The only conclusion I've ever been able to draw from it is that some questions, particularly in the ethical sphere, don't have any correct answers at all. Not a comforting thought.

  2. It's always seemed to me that people who use prayer instead of medicine are oddly inconsistent. You never hear about someone who refuses to get treatment for their kid's broken leg, for instance. It's always some internal malady that because it's out of sight, they can pretend is somehow less real. Doesn't God knit their fractured bones if they pray hard enough? I guess a car wreck is an Accident, while cancer is always a Test.