Why bring up the past tragedy again?

- Rongxia Chen, Ph.D.,
The Department of Philosophy,
East China Normal University, 200062, P. R. China

Email: rongxia@public7.sta.net.cn

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 107.
In spite of its academic nature, it made a great impact on my mind as well as heart to read Dr. Jing-Bao Nie's article Challenges of Japanese Doctors' human experimentation in China for East-Asian and Chinese bioethics published in EJAIB, Vol 11(1), Jan. 2001. Living in an age of peace and material prosperities, we have forgotten the tragedy that occurred half a century ago and even become indifferent to the atrocities. Why bring up the past tragedy again now? It seems to me that the most important reason for doing so is not only to make Japanese apologize and compensate. The Nazi doctors' medical killing brought about the Nuremberg Code. In Nie's paper I can feel a strong expectation, that is, to recognize the evil part of human nature and defend the fundamental bioethical principles. The significance of our bringing up the past tragedy again lies in this expectation.

Like Nie and many other Chinese, I am very fond of Japanese culture. I especially enjoy the fine descriptions of love, the love between two sexes in particular, in Japanese literature. I am often perplexed on how such a gentle and cultivated people became a mad killer in war. The Japanese scholar Takashi Tsuchiya offered the following four explanations on why Japanese doctors participated in the medical atrocities in World War II: 1) the belief that everything is justifiable for the purpose of winning the war; 2) the deep and widespread prejudice of Japanese against Chinese and other Asian peoples as well as the fear of communism; 3) the idea of not wasting those arrested suspected spies or resisters who would be executed, usually without trial, anyway; 4) the loss of common sense of humanity among researchers when the experimentation was performed secretly. Moreover, he mentioned the Japanese own moral perspective that the will of authority and superior's must precede to the will of individuals and inferiors in a society with hierarchical structure. It must be stressed here that Tsuchiya strongly condemns the atrocities.

For me, behind these reasons there exists an even deeper explanation for my perplexity. The explanation, as Nie has pointed out, is that enemies are not treated as fellow human beings in war. Actually, we have been indoctrinated with this idea in our education since childhood. This idea, not treating some other human beings as human beings, constitutes a significant cause of the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution in China. I am no longer perplexed about the double nature of the Japanese people. The cruel fighters who lost humanity in war could be good fathers, good husbands and good lovers at home. It is war that deprives people's humanity. In war the evil side of human nature is completely exposed to the open air. I agree with Nie that Japanese doctors' human experimentation in China in World War II is a type of collective violence. Collective violence does not occur in wartime only, but other times also. It certainly occurred in the Cultural Revolution in China. When we explore that tragedy from the angle of human nature and discuss the fundamental ethical principles to prevent the tragedy from happening again, we must deal with the different basic orientations of Eastern and Western ethics and moralities.

The Japanese scholar has explained the tragedy by the East-Asian values of respecting for authority and searching for harmony. Yet, the principle of informed consent derived from the Nuremberg Code following the Second World War stresses the sanctity of individual rights. We are forced to admit that the Western value of emphasizing individuals seems to be superior than the Eastern value of emphasizing the authority and collective. Though acknowledging the significance and positive aspects of Western individualistic moral worldview, Nie stresses that one should not discard the East-Asian ethical resources. In other words, both Western values such as the principle of "informed consent" and East-Asian values such as "cheng" (sincerity and truthfulness) are basic elements of building up bioethics. For him, an important question in studying Japanese doctors' atrocities is "to analyse and elaborate from East-Asian moral perspective how the experimentation is ethically wrong and what kind of ethical lessons can be learnt."

As a Chinese scholar, I can understand Nie's attitude toward this issue. It need not be stressed that there are many wonderful ethical thoughts in Confucianism. However, I have to point out that the principle of "informed consent" can only be based on the axiom in Western ethics_respecting individual rights as inalienable. In the West, this thought goes back to the old tradition of natural law and to even older Stoicism. In contrast, natural rights and equality of individuals have never been the major concern in Confucianism. In my opinion, without addressing other related issues and just from the angle of thought origins, it is this lack of individual rights in the East-Asian ethical traditions that has resulted in the historical facts that Chinese and Japanese have not learnt the lessons from the tragedy and that they have not reached a consensus with regards to the dignity of individuals.

Because they usually do not understand the profound messages and meanings of the principle "informed consent," a number of Chinese doctors and scientists consider it reasonable and inevitable that they do not have to follow the requirements of "informed consent" in medicine experiments since common Chinese people have a low level of education. Some doctors even think that they are bound by professional ethics and will always act in the best interests of patients. In other words, even without the principle of informed consent, a doctor still never harms his or her patients. For doctors, a patient is a child, a baby to some degree. It is thus natural that the decision regarding health care should be made by parents, i.e. physicians. I can smell the Confucian ethical traditions here. Menzi (Mencius) once said that people can be governed but should not be allowed to know. Haven't we often regarded governmental officers as parents in China for a long time? It is true that in China there are wonderful doctors like Norman Bethune and excellent officers like Hairui. However, we still must respect individual rights first of all. It is a highest axiom in ethic. Human nature may fall and in collective violence personal conscience is so fragile as a piece of glass that is not able to bear even a light attack. In order to prevent the tragedy from happening again, we must formulate the principle of "informed consent" and observe it unconditionally. It is the significance of the Nuremberg Code. But many people in China have not realized this and consider informed consent as an excessive demand of Westerners. If this is the case, the souls of those Chinese victims who died in the Japanese doctors' human experimentation do not rest in peace yet.

I very much agree with Dr Nie to bring up the past tragedy from this perspective. In this sense, Japanese, Chinese and all Asians should learn lessons from the tragedy, learn more on the unethical depths to which human beings may fall and how can we prevent such tragedies from happening again.
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