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How Philosophy Drives Medical Ethics Part 1

Recently, I composed a series of blogs illustrating ethical quandaries in medicine. In those writings, I examined four ethical principles (beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy and justice) that could be applied to different circumstances to discern the morally correct response.


However, this approach assumes truth exists and is knowable. Otherwise, it is like looking at a room through the perspective of different windows, only to discover the room doesn’t actually exist.


This second series of blogs regarding ethics will have its roots in philosophy. Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of reality and existence. It is a search for truth. Most folks would prefer a root canal to a philosophical discourse, which is usually tedious and deals with questions that aren’t worth the time, because they really don’t make a difference in our lives.


So, my task is to make this discussion relevant and interesting. Fortunately for you I have help.


I am not Catholic. However, many of my favorite authors are. J.R.R. Tolkien, G. K Chesterton, Gregory Boyle, and Henri Nouwen are prime examples. Recently I discovered another.


Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College. He is the author of over 80 books on Christian philosophy and theology. His book, “A Refutation of Moral Relativism” written in 1999 is eerily prophetic to current social expressions.


The book is written in dialogue form making it very readable for the non-philosopher. It is like sitting at the kitchen table bearing witness to the most amazing conversation about how we define truth and perceive reality. It is broken into bitesize principles of logic intertwined with the essential history of philosophic thought and how it impacts social behavior. I found it a delightful book which I quickly read several times.


As I plod through this series of essays, I am going to steal material from this book to illustrate points and hopefully convince some of you to read the book.


A pervasive and dangerous world view in our time is moral relativism. You see this expressed, even if you fail to recognize the underpinning premise, in the moral and social shifts confronting our generation. Have you not wondered how the behavior you encounter has so quickly become normative? Do you worry where it is leading?


It is dangerous to underestimate the power of this infrastructural construct for thought that creates the behavior. This unseen, but powerful, undercurrent has its genesis in philosophy, even though most, whose lives are swept along by it, have not examined its premises


Moral relativism is the idea that there is no standard for right and wrong independent of either our personal beliefs or our societal conventions. Morality is a matter of convention like the laws of society. Just as laws differ from place to place, so standards of right and wrong vary from society to society, and even from one time to another.

For example, slavery was once widely regarded as acceptable, whereas today it is not. So, morality changes, and we are responsible for changing it. This world view denies an absolute law for man, believing good and evil are man-made.


Moral absolutism states that absolutes exist that are not relative to time, nor relative to place, nation, class, culture, etc. These laws are universal and not relative to opinion, thought or belief, desire or feeling. Changing situations impact how you apply rules, but they don’t change the rules.


There is another tension in the philosophical search to define reality. This tension is between science and metaphysics. This is unfortunate as neither should have a quarrel with the other. Rather, they complement one another in a search for truth.


Science is based in empiricism. What may be measured. Objective facts. Science makes no claim of morality. Something can be right without being morally right. Yet, for some, science is a religion, and they will trust none other.


Metaphysics is the foundation of morality. It is a major branch of philosophy that concerns itself with existence and the nature of things that exist. Metaphysics refers to studies of what cannot be reached through objective studies of material reality. Examples of metaphysical concepts are being, existence, purpose, universals, time, and love.


If you are still reading, I am impressed. Let me introduce Isa (absolutist proponent) and Libby (relativism proponent) as they elicit the tension between these views. Libby is quoting David Hume (an Empiricist philosopher), arguing all moral values are subjective, because they cannot be measured. They are only something you feel, therefore not real.


Libby: Prove it. Prove Empiricism is false.


Isa: OK. How tall is your body?


Libby: 5 foot six inches


Isa: Are you conscious of that fact?


Libby: Of course.


Isa. Are you certain?


Libby: Absolutely.


Isa: And how tall is your consciousness?


Albert Einstein understood the importance of metaphysics when he said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”


(To be continued)

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