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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

In light of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s passing away earlier this month, dozens of pundits and bloggers have weighed in on the right to die and euthanasia. Ross Douthat argues that a right to die would mean that physician-assisted suicide can’t reasonably be limited to only the infirmed or the terminally ill. It must apply as well to “a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child.” I agree.

Ezra Klein points to a 1997 Atlantic article by Ezekiel Emanuel demonstrating that mental illness, rather than unbearable physical pain, more commonly motivates patients to seek euthanasia.

Most of the patients interested in physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia will not be suffering horrific pain. As noted, depression, hopelessness, and psychological distress are the primary factors motivating the great majority. Should their wishes be granted? Our usual approach to people who try to end their lives for reasons of depression and psychological distress is psychiatric intervention—not giving them a syringe and life-ending drugs.

Perhaps. But if we acknowledge a person’s right to die, as Kevorkian advocated, then how can we attempt to define what qualifies as “horrific pain”?
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That was the topic of a debate between philosophers William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan (via Andrew Moon). It’s an important question that goes to the heart of both religion and morality. But, as R. Aharon Lichtenstein remarked in a related context, “this particular query is a studded minefield, every key term an ill-defined booby trap.” The Craig-Kagan debate, particularly Kagan’s closing argument, helped me put my finger on a key point I didn’t fully appreciate before.
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Last year, I wrote about the tension between divine providence and natural causation. How can we reconcile the idea that God exercises providence over our day-to-day lives with the idea that events in the world seem to be caused by other prior events? I suggested that God acts in the world from an entirely different perspective and compared God’s relationship with humanity to an author’s relationship with his fictional characters.

I offered the example of Oedipus. When he learned that he had killed his father and married his mother, he gouged his eyes out. Why? From the perspective of the story, Oedipus realized what he did and the humiliation was overwhelming. From the author’s perspective, Sophocles sought to make a profound observation about the complexity of familial relationships and he used this story to convey it. But there’s clearly no contradiction. If you confuse these two explanations or believe that one of them is sufficient, you miss the point. The audience is expected to understand both the plot and the moral. Similarly, I argued, the fact that God causes events to occur in the world does not render this-worldly causation redundant or somehow less real.
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Exercise and Ethics

A New York Times article about the passing of fitness guru Jack LaLanne discusses and not-so-subtly dismisses “the modern fitness ethos” for which LaLanne’s gym and television show helped lay the groundwork. After briefly noting how he released “[a]n army of spandex missionaries”, author Frank Bruni gets to “the most interesting (some might say insidious) part” of LaLanne’s legacy:

That sense of failure you feel when you haven’t exercised in days? That conviction that if you could pull off better push-ups, you’d be a better person through and through? These, too, are his doing, at least in part. What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

Much of the article simply mocks anyone who take physical exercise seriously. For example, it characterizes the mantra of gym-goers as, “You must run! Or at least pump your fists up and down as you walk fast, preferably on an incline! Don’t forgo hammer curls!” Quoting a personal trainer to the effect that exercise contributes to “a healthy mind and soul and spirit,” Bruni quips, “And if you don’t succeed? To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.”
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Last week, I discussed Ronald Dworkin’s reframing of the debate regarding the appropriate role of religion in public life. Dworkin argues that advocates on the Right and Left have fundamentally different notions of the relationship between church and state, which accounts for the shrillness of the public debate on the issue. The Right believes that we are a religious nation that tolerates nonbelief. The Left believes that we are a secular nation that tolerates religion. Dworkin suggests that by thinking in terms of these competing models, we can formulate our arguments in ways that actually address our underlying disagreements and thus, have a more productive debate.

I think Dworkin’s general approach to political debate is a good one. It’s far more productive to focus on core disagreements than to argue about discrete policy preferences. In this case, however, Dworkin sets up a false dichotomy. His tolerant secular society is not the neutral state he imagines it to be and it excludes, whether explicitly or implicitly, individuals of faith.
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In Is Democracy Possible Here?, Ronald Dworkin laments the lack of productive argument in today’s political discourse. By “argument”, he means “the old-fashioned sense in which people who share some common ground in very basic political principles debate about which concrete policies better reflect these shared principles.” Nevertheless, Dworkin suggests that by reframing our ideological differences, we could “actually find shared principles of sufficient substances to make a national political debate possible and profitable.”

Consider Dworkin’s characterization of the debate regarding the appropriate role of religion in public life. (more…)

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Noted Atheist Sam Harris has a new book, The End of Faith. The New York Times review describes it as a “blistering take-no-prisoners attack on the irrationality of religions.” According to the review, the book “aims to meet head-on a claim he has often encountered when speaking out against religion: that the scientific worldview he favors has nothing to say on moral questions.” In doing so, Harris simply assumes a utilitarian morality and cloaks it in the legitimacy of science.
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