Commentary On Reem: Does analytic philosophy have anything to do with bioethics?

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)
(Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il)
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 34.


Dr. Jong-sik Reem's article in this issue is an excellent professional philosophical analysis of uses of words like "intending" and "wanting". But I don't think really that analytic philosophy has a great dead to teach to physicians and nurses who are agonizing over patients' requests to be killed or to be helped to kill themselves.

I would like to say something, therefore, about this analytic philosophical tradition. "Ordinary language philosophy" was primarily popularized by philosophers at Oxford University, in England , about fifty years ago, although it had roots in earlier western philosophy. The idea was that philosophers shouldn't try to criticize or revise or revolt against accepted ways of thinking, but they should only describe the ways words are used. I suspect a major motivation was a desperate desire to hang onto comfortable (to them) Western bourgeois ways of thinking in the face of world-wide political, economic and cultural revolution. In order to accomplish this they invented an idea called "our conceptual scheme", and they decided that the job of philosophy is not to criticize or revise "our conceptual scheme" but just to describe it (at Oxford this was called "descriptive metaphysics"). Their method for finding out what was in this "conceptual scheme" was to analyze the everyday use of words. And you found out whether a use of words was acceptable or not by seeing whether it was approved by what they called "our linguistic intuitions". This is the source of Reem's saying that "our intuition goes against" certain things, or that certain ideas are "counterintuitive". It follows from all this Oxford philosophy that you cannot revolt against concepts deeply entrenched in your culture because you will then be called "counterintuitive". It therefore follows that if you belong to certain tribes you cannot say that it is unethical to scalp children from another tribe because this would be a "counterintuitive" use of the word "unethical". (with respect to the American tribe, back in the days when ordinary language philosophy was popular, it would have been "counterintuitive" to say that it is unethical to napalm Vietnamese children).

In my opinion a central, perhaps the major point in Asian - as opposed to Western - ethics is the understanding that entire cultures can be corrupt. So it is sometimes good to shatter an entire conceptual scheme. Meditative techniques to empty one's mind of cultural conditioning are found both in Zen and Tao. In Shinto, which I an just starting to learn about, there seems to be s process of mind-emptying in preparation for receiving divinity (2). And in Jewish methodology of prophesy, Maimonides, in his Eight chapters, the introduction in the commentary on the Mishnaic Treatise of the fathers, discusses Scriptural prophets who went to live alone temporarily in mountains or deserts to cure their souls of the influence of corrupt society.

The Maoist Cultural Revolution, another attempt to shatter an entire conceptual scheme, also grew out of this feature of Asian ethics. If I understand Reem, his entire paper is based on a dogma which is widely accepted in the conceptual scheme on which Western ethics is based and which says that if you didn't intend to do something then you cannot be ethically responsible for it. Kant popularized this dogma when he wrote that the most important thing in ethics is "a good will". This doctrine is false because if we hurt someone unintentionally, for example, in a traffic accident or because we slipped and fell, we are nonetheless responsible ethically because we should have taken more care. And if I insult you, not intentionally but because of certain habits of speech of mine or subconscious motive, I am nonetheless responsible ethically because I didn't control myself, or re-educate myself (shattering my conceptual scheme) to change my feeding and motives. Israeli tradition also recognizes that ethical responsibility does not depend entirely on motives. In Scripture.(Deuteronomy XIX, 5) it says that if someone is chopping wood and the head flies off the axe and kills another person, the woodchopper will be exiled to a city of refuge (Hebron, for example). He or she is ethically responsible for the murder even though it was unintentional. Also the Mishna (tractate Baba Kama) makes one ethically responsible for paying damage even if one did the damage while sleeping.

As for assisted suicide the serious questions are whether it is ethically good or ethically bad. And if it is ever ethically acceptable should this be the job of physicians who are sworn to save health and life. Whether the physicians "intends" it or not, in some fine philosophical sense of "intends", is totally irrelevant.

I'm sorry to keep harping on the same thing in my Eubios commentaries. But I don't think that counterintuitions about uses or words can teach right and wrong. Prophesy teaches right and wrong. And Scripture teaches us to help our fellows when they are in need. Someone who wants assistance to commit suicide is a person in need. But giving into the request is not necessarily the best way to help. Another way would be to try to help the person find some joy or love or meaning in his or her remaining days even though quality of life may be very low. That person just possibly might decide that suicide was not what he or she really wanted.


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