Shadows of Doubt

- Denise M. Hise,
Maryland, USA

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 virtue.

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 choose.

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.


To my 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.

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