Sunday, April 03, 2005

On the virtue of gray

There is no bright side to the story of Terri Schiavo, nor would it have been my place to suggest to her loved ones an appropriate course of action.

But I am always astonished by those on the right who profess the absolute sanctity of life, then issue death threats against, say, Terri's husband Michael or doctors who perform abortions, and those on the left who condemn the use of animals in medical research, for example, then attach bombs to the researchers' cars. Last Sunday's NYTimes had a story about a Muslim actress who has received Islamic death threats for sharing an on-screen kiss with a Hindu actor.

That is to say, I distrust moral absolutes. It seems to me that any compassionate ethics must negotiate shades of gray, struggling as best one can to maximize happiness and minimize harm.

Advances in medicine, genetics and reproductive research, especially, raise difficult ethical issues for which past experience offers little guidance. That's why hospitals and research labs have ethics committees. Ideally, those committees should reflect a broad range of ethical traditions, religious and secular.

Still, their work is not easy.

Absolute commandments -- "Thy shalt not kill," for example -- have done little to help humans steer a compassionate course through history. Certainly, "Thy shalt not kill" didn't stop the many slaughters past and present perpetrated by those who profess to hold the Commandments sacred. The very people who are most anxious to enshrine the Ten Commandments in hospitals and courthouses are often the same people who support capital punishment at home and military adventurism abroad.

Even such a broad-based moral principle as the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- can be ambiguous. For example, if I were in Terri Schiavo's position, I would not want to be kept alive, but that doesn't mean I would be comfortable pulling someone else's feeding tube, especially not that of my own wife or child. It is easy to feel sympathy for both Michael Schiavo and Terri's parents; less easy to relate to those who sought to make political capital out of an inherently tragic situation.

What seems fairly certain is that there is an innate altruism built into the human species that is a product of our evolutionary history. The broad outlines of that altruism have been incorporated into all of the world's great religions -- including the Ten Commandments -- but they also guide the actions of people who do not profess any particular faith. Altruism means recognizing that one's own health and happiness depends upon respecting the health and happiness of others.

But knowing the right thing to do isn't always easy. The fact that I don't cheat on my taxes, run red lights, or express my anger by kicking the cat are no-brainers. Whether I eat factory-farm animals, drive a hybrid car, or donate a substantial part of my income to charity are trickier questions. Pulling the feeding tube from my own mentally incapacitated wife or child is a decision I would make only after deep soul-searching and seeking the wisdom of others whose moral sensitivity I respect.

Most importantly, I don't pretend to know the mind of the Creator. I claim only to be human, and therefore heir to all the tendencies toward vice and virtue that go with being part of the human race. Like most people on the planet, I feel best about myself when I choose virtue over vice.

Our current regression into moral absolutism has a parallel in ancient Greek thought, as described by E. R. Dodds in the last chapter of his classic book, "The Greeks and the Irrational." He tells of the great age of intellectual discovery that began with the foundation of the Lyceum in 335 BC, and continued until about 200 BC. Horizons expanded. For the first time in history, it didn't matter where a person was born or what was his ancestry. Individuals began to consciously use traditions rather than be used by them. The scientific way of thinking was invented and briefly flourished.

But there was, writes Dodds, a fear of freedom, a longing for the old certainties. Greek culture slipped back into superstition and irrationality. The ancient gods regained their sway, and a confident, cautious openness to gray reverted to the rigid polarities of black and white.

Gray isn't easy, but it's the planet's best hope for a civilized future.

Further Reading

For a classic statement on the biological basis of human nature, including our moral sense, see Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature.

Student Activities

  1. Are religious people more ethical in their daily lives than non-religious people? Go to the internet and look for unbiased research on the connection between religion and morality. Try not to rely on pages with an obvious vested interest one way or the other.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.