Shadows of Doubt
- Denise M. Hise,Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 209-10.
Entering the 21st
century, men in Africa are raping babies in hopes of curing themselves of AIDS.
If one were to contemplate for
just a moment the manner in which the laws of a society formed before the
existence of organized religion would be determined, one might consider such an
act to be beneath the level of baseness that would require consideration.
Surely every man would know better than that. Although we know the basics such
as sharing must be learned, we tend toward the hope that man possesses some
level of instinctual knowledge of what is right that would not need to be taught.
We assure ourselves that we were created in God's image so we must be
inherently capable of moral excellence. But brutality is as much a part of
human nature as compassion and though we may long for a time when "each would
strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds",
we've never even gotten close to that ideal. In truth, we're still working on
the golden rule. Still, throughout history thinking men have debated the nature
of the good and proposed various theories for how it might be attained. One
such proposal suggests that man was given a conscience so that he could assume
responsibility for his own moral evolution and eventually attain goodness. In
these times, when we face daily images of hatred and violence bred of ignorance
and fear, this is a tough sell.
Turning to the ancient Greeks for
insight, evidence of any such evolution is in short supply. In his famous
allegory, Socrates (c. 469 BC) likens man to a prisoner in a cave, his head
restrained so he must see only the shadows cast upon the wall. The shadows are
the only reality he knows and it will prove very difficult for him to ever
become enlightened as to the true nature of the world beyond the shadows. He
accepts unquestioningly the right or the good to be that which the puppeteers,
those in power over him, say that it is. Socrates demonstrates through his
dialectic that taking the extreme measure of establishing a state with the sole
purpose of fostering virtue would not be enough to achieve the ideal. He doubts
that even his thoroughbred philosophers, once enlightened, would be willing to
play the puppeteer, to cast the appropriate shadows and guide the populace
toward the perfection of their natures.
Aristotle - the consummate
caveman - (c. 384 BC) provided a thorough accounting of the shadows of his
time. Perhaps in light of the failure of the extreme experiment of Socrates, he
taught that the extreme is usually to be avoided and that the mean is a much
better target to aim for when seeking the right course. Aristotle thought that
where the philosopers would have failed, the common man may have succeeded,
noting that most men would be willing to teach their own, and eventually the
light would be filtered through society. Aristotle further surmises that the capacity
for the good could be a matter of genetics, some of us being naturally closer
to the pinnacle of man's existence than others. Aristotle seemed to accept the
shortcomings of humanity, our limitations, our self-indulgence, our delusions.
Even then he was amused by man's fondness for the notion of his own godliness,
and may have enjoyed Charles de Secondat's quip: "If triangles had a god, he
would have three sides."
Turning then to contemporary
Americans for evidence, my grandfather, Andy (c. 1910), professed that there is
good and bad in everyone and therefore tolerance should be extended
universally. Andy further counselled, like Socrates and Aristotle before him,
that success in our chosen endeavors - including virtuosity - would only be
achieved through study and practice. My mother, Arlene (c. 1939), advised that
we all have the opportunity to live and learn and we have to suffer to be
beautiful. These 20th century viewpoints belie the unmistakable
influence of their speakers' religion, in this case Catholicism. Alongside a
certain amount of resignation to our human condition runs a sidecar full of
hope. We know we will falter. We acknowledge that at times, even when we know
what is good, we will so easily allow ourselves to do otherwise if it benefits us.
We will never be paragons of virtue, we're nowhere near perfect and we do not
know right by instinct, yet we shoulder our human burden and walk gamely down
the path of life. The lessons we learn from our life experiences form the body
of our wisdom and we can take heart knowing that this life, the one we are
living, the one with suffering and brutality, hardships and regrets, faux pas
and challenges - is our best life, full of opportunities for spiritual growth
and the chance to open our hearts and realize that our greatest aspect, our
greatest gift, is our flawed humanity.
It does not escape notice that
the ordinary person described by the ancients can hardly be distinguished from
us. We are still the self-serving oafs with a herd mentality, bound by the
paradigm of the time. We are still the cavemen of the allegory, staring blankly
ahead at the shadows on the wall. Most of us see the world as we are, not as it
is and we blithely accept the shadows as reality. The world mirrors our level
of awareness and we the people don't seem to have evolved much at all. For all
the great expectations of the possibilities we hold, we have remained close to
our animal underpinnings, rather than availing ourselves of the opportunity of
working toward human excellence. And yet, we clearly see things differently
today. While we are much the same, the shadows have evolved. In this strange
and troubled world, with nary a philosopher to guide us, where few are afforded
an upbringing conducive to the perfection of their natures, some light has
seeped in and we the great ungodly have edged ever so slightly toward moral
While in Socrates' day, the
politician was the man behind the curtain - in control of the shadows, today
the everyman has a voice and perceptions can change more rapidly. Technological
advances and globalization have helped us become more worldly, more accustomed
to different peoples, different cultures, and as we do we can become more
accepting of the differences and better able to recognize and feel compassion
for our shared humanity. The state of humanity in ancient times was in some
part at least due to ignorance. It is easy to believe the paradigm of the times
when that's all you know. Today, many more people are educated and aware that
there are alternatives to the prevailing wisdom. We decide what to accept or
reject as we attempt to make sense of our world and we ultimately determine our
perception of the shadows. Doing what is right then becomes a matter of
conscious choice and we must assume responsibility for our choices. We may
still be cavemen watching shadows, but we can now turn our heads if we so
Education has given us options
and hope sustains us, but is the very hopeful vision of evolution through our
collective conscience a reality we can create or just another illusory stairway
to heaven? Tomorrow, more babies will be raped in Africa. Some maintain that
education is required to rectify this situation. Unfortunately neither
education nor hope are easy to come by there. The 21st century in
Africa looks very different from the one most of us can see. There the shadows
don't depict long lives filled with opportunities and bright futures. There the
shadows don't relay tales of hospitals and clinics full of drugs and caretakers
aiding in the recovery from AIDS. The unfair partitioning of the world's
resources, the inequalities in the distribution of disease, the isolation in an
increasingly interconnected world are the reality and all get more and more
difficult to excuse. Education may sound noble but it is not the honest answer
in this case. It is little more than a fig leaf proffered the collective
buttocks of humanity.
teachers, who inspire me every which way they can.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. David Ross, Translator. Oxford University Press, 1998.
LeCompte du Nouy, Human Destiny. Longmans, Green and Company, 1947.
Paul Farmer, Infections and Inequalities. University of California Press, 1999.
The Republic of Plato. Allan Bloom, Translator. Basic Books, 1991.
Go back to EJAIB 13 (6) November 2003
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