Thursday, May 25, 2006

It's a cruel world out there

Yes, it is. A recent study suggests that healthy lobsters avoid sick ones like . . . well, like the plague. This is a very effective means of infection control, of course, so we can't blame the crusty old beasts.

I could make some comments about how humans do this too--how modern medicine allows us to shunt the sick off into some other place, where we only have to see them at our leisure--but I won't.

Because, in fact, I think the important part is that it is, to use Thomas's words for an idea with which he may not agree, proper to humans to care for the sick, even at their own peril. It is morally praiseworthy in most societies, and positively obligatory in Christian ones, to risk infection, inconvenience, and intimacy by caring for one whose body is in revolt.

Thomas says that man's proper activity--the activity that distinguishes man from other animals, the activity that is most emblematic of man and therefore whose exercise is most necessary to man's happiness, the activity without which man would not be man--is Reason. Rationality is that activity which man shares with the higher beings (angels, God), and in which the lower ones (animals, even the highest non-human animal) do not participate. It might almost be said to be the imago dei.

Sometimes I buy this, but other times I sense that Thomas was dead wrong.

Sometimes, I think self-sacrificing compassion is the imago dei, man's proper activity, the activity without which man would not be man.

1 comment:

JoVE said...

I've been thinking about this post on and off for a couple of days now and thought I maybe should communicate my thoughts. This is in the period of dialogue and food for thought and I hope you take it that way.

I think you have a point about self-sacrifice being an important part of what makes humans distinctly human. What has been troubling me is the fact that some are called on to be self-sacrificing much more than others. Women in particular (but not solely women).

A second thing (which may be an aspect of this) is whether this capacity for sacrifice for the good of others should just be individual -- one individual sacrificing for one other -- or collective -- many of us sacrificing for the good of all. In terms of health care, this would be the difference between some obligation on a woman to sacrifice her own needs to care for a member of her family who is ill versus an obligation on us as a society to pay taxes and make other sacrifices so that everyone has access to good quality care when ill.

Linking these thoughts on sacrifice back to some other specific issues you have mentioned in the past, I also wonder what the implications of this view of sacrifice as central to humanity are for legislation or quasi-legislative action (like ethics policies). Is it necessary to legislate a certain level of sacrifice or is it just a moral judgement? Can we require a certain level of sacrifice of particular persons in particular situations?

One example, clearly very controversial, is that you can believe that it would be better if no woman ever terminated a pregnancy while still accepting that we should not force any woman to make that sacrifice in a particular circumstance (i.e. that the law should permit termination and other means should be used to reduce the number that actually happen).