Observations on a very funny video about doctors meeting bioethicists[1]

11/30/2017 11:38

by D.N. Irving

The video, “The Doctor Meets the Bioethicist”, with its URL given below, is truly one of the funniest, yet timely and profound, “discussions” on “bioethics” and medical doctors I’ve seen in a long time.  It is amusing, short and sweet, easy to understand, and yet beautifully articulate.  Please take a few minutes to watch it!  What follows also in this article are simply a few of my own observations I thought would also help people with the range of issues -- just “fill-ins” that might additionally bring home several of the critical points briefly made in the video itself -- and help people better understand historically to some degree how we ever got into such messes these days to begin with (and continue to do so!).

The Doctor Meets the Bioethicist


As a member of the first formal bioethics group of graduate students at the then-brand-new Kennedy Institute of Ethics (we were called the First Generationers) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and with a doctoral (Ph.D.) degree in that new “bioethics” as well as in the History of Philosophy (which I later taught for 15 years), let me just add a few additions to the points made by this wonderful and very funny video about a conversation between a doctor and a bioethicist.


Third, “push the logic”, as I used to insist with my students.  Note that the “bioethicist” in this video below often quotes the “personhood” arguments of Oxford educated (with a thesis on civil disobedience supervised by R. M. Hare) Australian bioethicist Peter Singer, promoter of a kind of bioethics called “preference utilitarianism”, and of “specism” (erroneously privileging human beings above other species), referred to by the bioethicist in the video below.  [For an unusually accurate article, with lists of his books, articles, and “ethical” positions, see “Peter Singer” at Wikipedia, in:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer].  Singer was subsequently brought to Princeton to head up their Center for Human Values   [https://www.coursera.org/instructor/petersinger]!  Go figure!  He taught an internet course reaching globally on his “Practical Ethics” from Princeton just this past March 2014 [https://www.coursera.org/princeton].


Thus the “philosopher” in the video featured below might be familiar with Peter Singer, but would have no knowledge at all of the entire rest of the History of Philosophy whatsoever, or any intellectual problems with Singer’s brand of “philosophy”.  “Philosophy”, instead, became a source of finding a “hero” for whatever political agenda one wished to pursue.  This is why I later stated to my students on the first day of my 2-semester required courses in the entire History of Philosophy (covering 28 historical philosophers in chronological order, including their metaphysics, epistemology, natural philosophy, anthropology and ethics) that the purpose of the course was not to find a “hero” that agreed with you, but to help you learn how to think straight and evaluate all philosophical theories.  As they fully learned by the end of my 2-semester course, no philosopher is all right, and no philosopher is all wrong.  Thus it is very sad that at the KIE the bioethics professors “counseled” that it was a total waste of time -- even “criminal” -- for any bioethics or philosophy graduate students to be forced to study any philosophers that came before Hume and Mill (the modern basis for utilitarian theories, but rather “deconstructed” versions of them for purposes in bioethics courses).  Thus these students would be oblivious of the dogmatic intellectual fallacies inherent in Hume, Kant, Mill or therefore bioethics itself.  I guess ignorance is bliss.


In short, the field of “bioethics” was concocted by mostly politically-appointed non-philosophers with no degrees in philosophy or ethics (a subfield of philosophy), taught mostly by bioethics professors who had no degrees in bioethics or in philosophy themselves, and the bioethics grad students could get a Ph.D. in philosophy but was not required to study any philosophers who pre-dated Hume or Mill.  And that is precisely why many don’t have a clue as to the pitfalls and fallacies of “bioethics” -- because the philosophical and intellectual errors in modern and contemporary philosophy were nothing more than the very same errors that surfaced centuries ago and since then, and which had thus been identified and fully rejected.  Such historical knowledge would have let these new bioethics students understand precisely what was therefore erroneous in the philosophical “theories” that post-dated Hume, Kant and Mill -- including this new field called “bioethics”.  Can’t think -- or teach -- what you don’t know.  So how did such “bioethicists” become so influential in public policy-making so fast across the globe since then?


First, the utilitarian-based “bioethics” was created out of thin air in the 1978 Belmont Report on mandate of the 1974 National Research Act by an 11-member National Commission politically appointed by then-Secretary of DHHS Casper Weinberger.  Note that “ethics” is a sub-field of philosophy, yet only one member of that National Commission had a doctoral degree in philosophy (Art Caplan), and another had some academic work as an “ethicist”.  The other 9 members had various unrelated degrees.  Of course, since bioethics didn’t exist until the Belmont Report (referred to as the formal “birth of bioethics”), none of the members of that National Commission were bioethicists themselves, and none of them were required to take all those 36 graduate courses in bioethics that we were required to take -- they just taught them.  Since 1978 probably 95% of “bioethicists” have no degree in bioethics per se, but might have taken a course or sat in on a seminar on bioethics -- often “taught” by another “bioethicist” who also had no doctoral degree in bioethics. 


Interestingly, the first formal course in bioethics (1979) at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University was taught by “bioethicist” and animal-rights proponent Tom Beauchamp who used the very first textbook in bioethics co-authored by himself and theologian James Childress;  the text was published in California in 1975, long before the Belmont Report.  You might challenge any bioethicist you come across for their academic credentials to teach or practice “bioethics”.  I think you will be shocked at their lack of academic credentials.  See my long and fully documented analysis and evaluation of that new “bioethics”, "What is 'bioethics'?" (June 3, 2000), UFL Proceedings of the Conference 2000, in Joseph W. Koterski (ed.), Life and Learning X:  Proceedings of the Tenth University Faculty For Life Conference (Washington, D.C.:  University Faculty For Life, 2002), pp. 1-84, at:  http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_36whatisbioethics01.html.). 


Second, the degree in utilitarian bioethics at the KIE came through the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown University -- but no real philosophers in the philosophy department had any degrees in bioethics (in fact, they argued with the bioethicists constantly), and only a couple of the more than a dozen bioethics professors had degrees in philosophy.  Yet, as professors, all of these bioethics professors from the KIE were required to teach hard core philosophy as well as “bioethics”. 


The academic field of philosophy itself was changing at that time.  It used to be that an undergraduate degree in philosophy (BA) was required before being accepted into the graduate courses for the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy -- and most Ivy League universities before that, including my small Catholic college, had required that all undergraduate students take the entire History of Philosophy over four years in chronological order regardless of one’s major, a requirement for any “well-educated person”.  Many colleges and universities also required that students take their Great Books Program.  But no longer.  With the advent of bioethics, one could get into the graduate program for philosophy at Georgetown with literally no former courses in philosophy.  Nor was it necessary to take the full History of Philosophy, as one could now get a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in philosophy by doing course work in just one of the 4 historical periods of philosophy (including contemporary or modern philosophy only).


According to Singer (and the other “bioethicists” mentioned in the video below), “personhood” depends on “rational attributes” (the active expression of mental qualities of self-awareness, ability to think and relate to the world around one, etc.) and “sentience” (the active expression of the physical ability to feel pain and pleasure).  According to Singer et al, some non-human animals are “persons” because they actively express these “personhood” standards, and some aren’t “persons”.  Indeed, it is this Singer-type of “philosophical” inspiration that is behind much of the “non-human personhood” efforts of today’s transhumanists.  The actual “human species” is essentially irrelevant, while the legal push is on for a new “posthuman” species with high levels of “rational attributes”, e.g., Artificial Intelligences, etc. that can fuse into Cosmic Consciousness;   and dolphins, apes and even chickens are more “persons” than many human beings.  (In fact, it was Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, who as the first president of the International Bioethics Association submitted a “Personhood of the Great Apes” declaration to the United Nations, and who wrote their first bioethics book on Global Ethics!).  And for Singer et al, some human beings are thus “persons”, and some aren’t.


But let’s push that logic.  IF, as Singer et al claim, even normal human infants don’t qualify as “persons” (and whose parents don’t want them, and the wishes of their parents who are persons are to kill them), THEN even adult human beings who do not actively express “rational attributes” and “sentience” are also not “persons”, as Singer et al admit -- AND THEREFORE, it is “bioethical” to kill those adult human non-persons using euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, use them to obtain their organs, use them in highly destructive experimental research “for the benefit of other persons” in society, etc. -- and no need for their “informed consent”, of course.  This would include the following adult human non-persons who can’t actively express “rational attributes”:  the comatose, those under anesthesia during surgeries, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, drug addicts, alcoholics, teen-agers (?), transhumanists/futurists (?) -- even anyone who is just SLEEPING (one of the famous arguments by Mersenne against Descartes’ absurd philosophy with his “mind/body” splits, after which Descartes was laughed out of the academy, along with his absurd “physics” theories:  see,  https://www.google.com/#q=%22Descartes%22+%22Mersenne%22).  This would also include the following adult human non-persons who cannot actively express “sentience” (the ability to feel pain and pleasure):  the frail elderly, those with severe nerve damage (e.g., neuropathy, nerve damage from traffic accidents, etc.), the physically handicapped including paraplegics and others who are wheel-chair bound or are using prosthetics  (and that would include millions of war veterans).  Why not use them in destructive experimental research “for the greater good of society”?  It is no wonder, then, that it was the international disabled community who first recognized the dangers involved with Singer’s new “bioethics” from the start and protested him globally.

Finally, while it is good to remind people about “human exceptionalism” and support it, how one defines that term is just as critically important.  Is the term being defined selectively, reductively?  If only human beings who are reproduced sexually (fusion of sperm and “egg”) are “persons” and asexually reproduced human beings aren’t, if only those human beings sexually reproduced and “in the womb” are “persons” and those still in the woman’s fallopian tube traveling towards her womb or those in petri dishes in IVF and ART facilities aren’t,  or if only those human beings who develop after the formation of the “zygote” (Carnegie Stage 1C) are “persons” but those human beings who already exist before (Carnegie Stages 1A and 1B) the formation of the zygote aren’t (when most human cloning and human genetic engineering is performed), then the claim of “human exceptionalism” is not much better than the claims of the Belmont “bioethicists”.

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