Pitch for a sequel to W;T

Some friends and I were saying we wish Margaret Edson, author of “W;t,” would write another play. Jokes about possible sequels ensued, so I imagined the following:

After witnessing and participating in the disrespectful and undignified death of Vivian Bearing, a feared and respected scholar of John Donne, Jason Posner begins to question whether biological reductionism is any more reasonable than attempts at metaphysical reductionism that John Donne paradoxically sought and repudiated. As Posner grapples with the contradiction between his desire to prolong life through medical research and his denial of the significance of suffering, he develops a yearning to create meaning out of the intersection of biological necessity, emotional fervor, and human connection.

As Posner completes his required clinical experience in the hospital and moves into the lab full time, he finds himself plagued by questions about the patients whose tissue and cells he is observing and manipulating. He begins to question the motivation of nurses, social workers, chaplains, and therapists in the hospital.

As his curiosity grows, isolated from human contact, he begins to read not only Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” but patient narratives as well as caregiver narratives. He begins to realize the importance of suffering to meaning humans make of their condition.

Through the turmoil of his own imagination, he has one other realization: He realizes he will die.

Can justice be utilitarian?

I have always been fond of Utilitarianism and, quite frankly, impressed by the arguments of all the major Utilitarian writers. Criticisms of Utilitarianism also make sense, but they don’t seem consistent with the views of major Utilitarians. I suppose I most commonly hear Utilitarianism dismissed as a cruel philosophy that would accept sacrificing individuals so long as a larger number of people drew some advantage from the sacrifice.

This argument affects me strongly as I feel a society that is unjust to only one person is an unjust and unacceptable society. Yet, I still find myself in great admiration for Bentham, Mill, Hare, Singer, and others. What I admire about these Utilitarians is that they never ignored the plight of people (or even non-human animals) who were marginalized by society. It is precisely this inclusiveness of Utilitarianism that attracts me.

For example, in one of my bioethics classes, we had a discussion of how to respond to a pandemic. Some of my colleagues said that doctors must deal with the person in front of them with full attention. To toss this person aside, they said, would just be Utilitarian. They pronounced “Utilitarian” as if they were saying, “pure evil.” Utilitarianism seems heartless to them. Doctors making calculations as to what actions would benefit the most people. I object, however, and say that it seems more heartless to ignore the 10 people dying in the street than it does to step away from one hopeless case in the hospital. I am biased, but I happen to think the person in the hospital is likely to be more privileged than the people who are in the street, and I feel we should give priority to the poor and dispossessed.

I also noted that everyone, doctors and non-doctors, was obligated to help as many people as possible. In this way, no one should be left to die alone with no one showing concern for him or her. Utilitarians such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger make powerful arguments for devoting more attention to those dying of starvation in the world. They do not advocate, as you might expect from the criticisms leveled against them, ignoring the suffering of the poor so long as it benefits the rich. Rather, they suggest that everyone has an obligation to try to relieve the suffering of everyone else, with no one being left out of the mix. I realize things don’t happen this way, but ethicists attempt to describe how things ought to happen, not how things are likely to happen.

So, all this leaves my question about justice open. I want to say that everyone will be happier if we all live in a state that is perfectly just.* For this reason, we cannot ignore injustice inflicted on any one person. When I make this assertion, I’m taking the line that we should all follow a rule, and some will say that so-called “Rule Utilitarianism” is just another form of deontology. I think the two may be compatible. It may that I have misunderstood Utilitarianism. If that is the case, I think most Utilitarians have also misunderstood it.

*Yes, I know, we are not likely to agree on what is meant by “perfectly just.”

Is it possible to reduce “futile care”?

Ken Murray, MD, recently wrote an excellent essay on how doctors die. To make a short story of it, doctors reject invasive, expensive, and ineffective treatment at the end of life that may prolong life for a short time but often with great suffering. It isn’t hard to understand why doctors reject such treatment seeing how it causes much suffering and provides so little benefit. It is a little harder to understand why so many non-doctor patients receive so much of this so-called “futile care.”

Murray offers some explanations of why patients receive so much expensive care that benefits no one. For one, doctors feel they are less likely to be sued for negligence if they “try everything” and never suggest withholding any treatment. Although the financial cost of such care is often astronomical, most patients and families of patients feel it is inappropriate to suggest that someone’s life is not worth the cost of care.

Clearly, if patients and their families understood the risks associated with invasive care as well as doctors, they would make the same decisions as doctors (unless, of course, we believe doctors are inherently more rational than everyone else in the world, and a handful of doctors may in fact believe just that). The problem is that patients do not understand the drawbacks as well as doctors (and other healthcare providers), and it is extremely difficult for a doctor to suggest turning down treatment without being occasionally accused of insensitivity or cruelty.

But I think this is an overly simplistic view. Many changes in medical practice in the past few decades have led us to some of these difficulties in communication. One problem is the way both doctors and patients view autonomy and informed consent. Both medical ethicists and the courts have declared that patients must make their own decisions regarding what treatments should be sought or declined. Many see the role of doctors as one of providing a list of treatment options, explaining the risks and benefits of treatment, and stepping back to let the patient decide on which treatment is appropriate. For better or worse, we have rejected the authority of the doctor to make medical decisions for us. This has been an important and generally positive development. For example, few if any feminist ethicists would suggest we should return to an era of medical paternalism.

However, patients go to doctors because the doctor is a medical authority. While patients rightly want the doctor to present treatment options, they do not necessarily want the doctor to withhold any opinion regarding which options are most suitable. Patients do not want to take orders from doctors anymore, but they do really want some suggestions, and they want to know why their doctors favor one suggestion over another. This happens routinely in day-to-day interactions, but it is more difficult in an emergency where someone is near death and decisions must be made quickly.

When a doctor says, “There is only one treatment available that may prolong your father’s life,” loving children are likely to reply, “Please do whatever you can to save our father.” Caregiver panic is one of the most common reason people end up dying in hospitals with unwanted treatment instead of in a quiet setting surrounded only by loved ones. I knew someone a few years ago who experienced this first hand. She was caring for her father, and she knew he was dying and wanted to die at home. However, when he began struggling for breath and appeared to be suffering, she called an ambulance. It would be counterintuitive for the staff on the ambulance or in the emergency room to assume she did not want her father rescued. She did want him rescued to the extent that she wanted him relieved, but she was not thinking clearly when she called for help. Of course the doctors assumed she wanted everything possible done to save her father.

Even when panic is not the driving force behind decisions, families may not understand that their loved one will die shortly in any case. Nor do they understand that further treatment may cause great pain for the few short days or weeks remaining. Communicating this reality is a skill that some doctors have, but many find it difficult for obvious reasons.

And one final note: I have heard doctors sometimes say, “The best I can offer you is an experimental drug that was just released,” or something to that effect. The word best is confusing to patients. Of course the patient will want the best treatment available, but they often fail to realize that even the best treatment available will lead to an undesirable outcome. Also, they do not understand that “best” means the medicine has the best chance of doing what it is designed to do. It does not mean it is the best option for care overall. I don’t want to say this is a common occurrence, but it is one I have observed.


Jamie Dimon shoots feet

At an investor’s conference, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said, “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.” He went on to say that a few bad apples don’t ruin the whole bunch. It is wrong to generalize, you see. Does he really think OWS protestors hate success? Does he not understand why the banks are targeted while other industries are not? Either he is genuinely clueless or her is trying to deflect attention from himself.

A November 12 Huffington Post article by Janet Tavakoli claims that Dimon dismissed the assertion that JPMorgan Chase was involved in foreclosure fraud. He said, Chase should carry on with foreclosures, even if it had to pay some penalties. Tavalokoli says, “JPMorgan’s role in alleged foreclosure fraud had already been made public when Dimon made these ill-considered statements.”

Tavakoli quotes from Annie Lowrey of the Washington Independent: “But the financial statement itself proved the lie. The bank said it was carefully checking 115,000 mortgage affidavits. It set aside a whopping $1.3 billion for legal costs. And it put an extra $1 billion into a now $3 billion fund for buying back bunk mortgages and mortgage products.” OWS protestors are not against success; they might just want people to succeed through hard work, creativity, intelligence, and honest business practices. They might also expect a little humility.

But not only that, Irving Picard, a trustee in the Bernie Madoff scandal, accuses JPMorgan Chase of making a half a billion dollars off Madoff’s victims and is responsible for $5.4 billion in damages. It could be a case of just taking advantage of a bad situation, but what of further investigations against JP Morgan Chase?

Earlier this year the SEC fined JP Morgan Chase $228 million for a bid-rigging scheme involving municipal bonds. Matt Taibbi compared this to mafia-style bid rigging and said, “But if the defendants are a bunch of Ivy-League educated bankers from Wall Street, what we end up getting is a negligible fine (officials will brag about this $228 million, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the banks make scamming communities and governments) and, as always, no admission of guilt.”

Taibbi ends his blog post by declaring, “It’s not going to stop until people start doing hard time for these crimes, and it looks like we’re still a very long way from that.” It is just a little hard to believe that Jamie Dimon really thinks people are angry because he is successful, is it not?

Will technology destroy heroism?

While heroism is a concept without rigid definitions, I will loosely define it as putting one’s own life at great risk for the benefit of others. We may say that someone who developed lifesaving technology is a hero, but his or her laudable actions may or may not fit the description of heroism I’m trying to describe. For example, developing a life-saving vaccine is a laudable achievement for anyone, but some people have developed such vaccines by their willingness to first try inoculating themselves, knowing that their inoculations could kill them.  Similarly, those who may fly test aircraft they designed put their own lives at risk in order to benefit others.

In the past, technology created a heroic elite of sorts. Not many people had an opportunity to be the first person in space. Also, not many people had the education or experience to dream of how to inoculate someone against smallpox. People with the most advanced training would put their lives on the line to test new technology, leading to even greater advances in both knowledge and skill. These people saved lives, won wars, and opened the wonders of the universe to us all. They used technology to expand their opportunities to demonstrate their courage and commitment to human advancement.

It seems to me that something has changed, though. Unmanned spacecraft are now going deeper and deeper into space to return information we only dreamed of before, but the risk to humans has now been minimized. The space explorer now sits comfortably on earth as a machine takes all the risks of space travel. Unmanned drones now conduct what would have been extremely dangerous operations only a few years ago. We still need humans to fly and take great risks, but we can now imagine a time when all flight operations may be automated. The fighter pilot and astronaut may both become obsolete.  In medicine as well, new developments are frequently mechanized with risk to humans greatly reduced.

It is hard to find a reason to complain about this development. I would much prefer to have a robot disarm a powerful explosive than to have a human risk being blown to bits. Technological advances that reduce risk are welcome, and they will never eliminate heroism. What they do, though, is shift an emphasis from the elite heroes of the recent past to the more mundane heroes known throughout history. People will always risk their lives for others without the benefit of advanced aircraft, space travel, or obscure scientific knowledge.

People will continue to rescue others from fire and drowning. Foot soldiers will continue to fight battles on the ground, often in primitive forms of combat our ancient ancestors would recognize. People with brilliant but controversial ideas will continue to express them in the face of public hostility and aggression. And people will continue to put their lives on the line to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity.

The high cost of low taxes

No one likes paying taxes, and I’m no exception. I’m far from being in the top one percent of earners, but I’ve also had to pay federal, state, and local taxes all my life.

Anyway, I’d prefer to keep my money and spend it on other things. Some costs, however, are best to be borne by the public rather than by individuals. The move to lower taxes is not about reducing what we pay for services. Rather, it is about a shift from public payments to privatization. When the government does not fund basic services, the services are then provided by businesses for profit. This means the burden of payment for necessary services shift to the less wealthy while control and profits shift to the wealthy.

For example, roads benefit all of us. The alternative to having the government spend money on roads is to let private firms build the roads and charge whatever costs the public can bear. I do not happen to think this is the best way to build a modern, efficient, and functioning society. Our country needs a mobile workforce. Denying citizens this mobility is to deny what I view as a basic human freedom: the ability to move and seek better opportunities and living conditions. While I agree that people who build roads should be paid for the effort, I do not believe the construction and maintenance of roads should be driven purely by considerations for profit. When we don’t pay for roads through taxes, we pay for them through tolls.

Nor do I think education should be operated for this reason. As school funding is cut, schools must turn to corporations for sponsorship. School lunches are provided by the big food industry, and the logos of major industrial players abound in the school lunchroom.  When asked to provide more healthful alternatives, the industry lobbies our government to circumvent regulations by declaring that the tomato sauce on a pizza is a vegetable. Further, education materials, from textbooks to video lessons, are prepared by corporations and include advertising and other forms of blatant indoctrination.

And when universities lose government funding, they also seek corporate sponsorship for their research, faculty positions, and buildings. Rather than providing a forum for intellectual discovery and exchange, universities become the mechanism for generating increased profits. This means scientific research is aimed only at supporting industry and basic research is stifled. Fields that are not seen as contributing to “the economy” are constantly under attack. The arts and humanities must constantly fight to survive and themselves must rely on corporate donors to stay afloat.

A vibrant and thriving society, however, needs free intellectual and artistic expression. Relying on corporate donors suppresses dissent or even basic disagreement. This impedes intellectual progress and, more importantly, moral progress.  Of course, the higher tuition fees that result also limit educational opportunity for most of us. Higher tuition and reduced financial aid mean more students graduate heavily in debt.

It is appropriate that some health care be provided for profit and that only those willing and able to pay for it should receive it, and this is the situation even in countries that have “socialized medicine.” A health care system that is entirely privatized however creates two contradictory and unworkable conditions: 1. Health care providers make the most profit by providing unnecessary tests and treatments. 2. Insurance companies make the most profit by denying access to as much care, necessary or not, as possible. Basic health care does the most to improve life quality for a society, but it is the least profitable care to provide. Public funding for access to basic healthcare ensures that everyone has a better chance to live and be productive.

Prisons are necessary in any civil society, but prisons are increasingly built and operated by for-profit companies. Some people need to be removed from society, but it is best that no one profit by increasing the number of people incarcerated. Incarcerating people should be something we do only when no other alternative is available, and it should create a burden for all, not an opportunity for profit.

When taxes are lowered, and public spending is reduced, these basic services do not become free. On the contrary, we pay more for them (unless you are a person who makes enormous profits from them). For most of us, lowering taxes too much limits our freedom and increases our financial burden for obtaining basic services. Certainly, wasteful government spending should be eliminated and taxes should be reduced when appropriate, but public funding for basic services is essential. The United States is currently experiencing a massive move toward privatization, which is hurting our mobility, education, and health. It is also resulting in a growing prison population that is inconsistent with a just society.

Corporate funding of research.

Many of us are suspicious of health and safety claims based on research funded by corporations that get rich off public confidence in the health and safety of their products. I don’t really trust manufacturers of drugs or genetically modified foods to tell me that they are safe. I also would feel better hearing that an oil spill is no threat to life or environment from someone other than the company that spilled the oil. (Many people seem to have made one inexplicable exception to this rule, which I will mention in the postscript.)

Further, when corporations fund research projects or labs, they gain control over what information is published. The scientists involved may have enough integrity to conduct rigorous research, but unwanted results are likely to be suppressed, especially if they will hurt the bottom line. This may be justified by claiming that only “useful” data need be published, but negative data can also be useful and can avoid wasted money and energy. If one researcher finds that something doesn’t work, publishing that data can help others avoid the same mistakes. Of course, researchers do share data, but some studies are also suppressed. Publication of misleading data and suppression of useful data are two possible hazards of corporations funding research that will affect their bottom line.

On the other hand, if corporations are the ones to benefit from research, it seems they should bear the cost of supporting labs, scientists, and related endeavors. Of course, some research is in the public interest, and I believe the public should fund it, which may be the topic of another blog. To avoid obvious conflicts of interest in research, companies should not be permitted to hire and promote researchers directly. Funding should go in to a pool and be dispersed anonymously to research labs, scientists, and universities. For profit labs could still exist, but researchers should not be beholden to a specific entity. It was not that long ago that much university research was conducted in this manner. In that sense my proposal is regressive, not progressive.

Postscript: When people get sick, many of them demand the latest drug available, even if it hasn’t been tested thoroughly. They seem to feel that their suffering from the disease is always going to be worse than the effects of the drug. I recently had a student (not a medical student) argue vehemently with me that no one had ever died during a drug trial. For those who know anything about drug trials, this over confidence is baffling, but I fear many share his optimism regarding the safety and effectiveness of experimental drugs. If you don’t know this already, let me tell you that drug testing is there for a reason; not every drug tested turns out to be safe and effective.

I paid you back, so what’s the problem?

One of the most common chants at Occupy Wall Street protests is, “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” Critics of OWS (Erin Burnett of CNN, for example) have been quick to point out that the banks paid back the bailout money they received, and they expect we will find this to make things all right again.
Why doesn’t it make things all right? To me, it is kind of like having a brother in law who is also a gambling addict. When he can’t cover his bets, he comes looking for a loan to cover him just for a few days, you know. You give him the money, because otherwise he will destroy your entire family, and you sister and her children may end up homeless or living with you. To avoid absolute disaster, you cover his bets knowing it is no long-term solution to the problem. You hope he will get help. You hope he will change, but you know he won’t change until his own world collapses or he goes to jail, but you still feel trapped.
So, you pay, he puts it all down in a big bet and makes a huge winning. He pays you back and gives you a little extra for the trouble. He even suggests that you invest a little of the extra in some risky bets of your own. After all, you won’t really be losing anything. In the meantime, he continues to take even greater risks on long-shot bets. You continue to live frugally in order to protect the family when the next crisis comes, but you are really starting to get fed up.
This is the scenario we have, except our situation is worse. Taxpayers covered the bets for the banks, but taxpayers were not kept afloat. Many people lost their jobs, and even more lost their homes. The global economy was severely damaged, but the people who caused the damage did nothing to repair it. They repaired their own bank accounts but made no reparations to the rest of the people who were affected. People who have expressed their outrage at this injustice have been beaten, pepper sprayed, and put in jail. When will the people who caused this crisis be held accountable?

Camus on Wall Street

As a young man, angry as I was, Albert Camus spoke to me. Many described him as an existentialist who focused on the absurdity of life, which was true, but I think it missed the point. At the very least, it missed the main point I took away from his work. After going through some periods of despair, I found “The Myth of Sisyphus” to be uplifting and inspiring. Camus offered the surprising revelation that Sisyphus could be happy. Actually, Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. If Sisyphus is happy, surely anyone can be.

But Camus does not tell us to choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances. He does not tell us to turn inward in a meditative trance to achieve happiness. He does not tell us to live in the moment. No, it is a defiant spirit that keeps Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus has the misfortune of not only having a dreary existence but also of being all too aware of it.

Many people appear to go through life without ever realizing they are living a pointless and dreary existence that would be torture if they thought about it for one second, but they do not think about it. Or they try not to, but Sisyphus does think about it. Camus says, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is scorn for his masters that gets him through the day. Even if he cannot change the situation, his hatred for his masters is a victory over them.

So some of us continually rail against the state of the world, and we are counseled to accept our reality, count our blessings for what we do have, be productive, and live in the moment. Our rage, we are told, prevents us from being happy, but I think our rage, our scorn, our repudiation of injustice is what sustains us and gives us meaning. It gives us happiness.

Our scorn and anger sustain us because they declare that we are something of worth, even if we are worthy only to ourselves. In The Rebel, Camus says, “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to himself.” Rather than being a negative, rebellion is a positive expression of one’s humanity. To do otherwise is despair, which is silent. Camus says, “To remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinions, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases it really amounts to wanting nothing.”

Bewildered pundits, reporters, political observers, and sedated citizens ask what the protesters on Wall Street hope to accomplish. They have already accomplished something important. They have said, “no.” They have begun to live. They have chosen to want something.