Sunday, September 27, 2009

Justice with Michael Sandel

Just learned of that lecture series on ethics. The first two episodes are already up for viewing. Succeeding ones will be uploaded once a week. While watching the preview/teaser, "Star Trek!" was the first thing that popped in my head. Ethical questions and dilemmas are what draws me to that sci fi series.

Prof. Sandel begins his first lecture with the (classic) trolley (or train) problem. It exposes how we humans basically are utilitarian when faced with no option but to choose between the lesser of two evils. (By the way, Sandel sounds like Command Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation)

In the movie The Wrath of Khan the dying Spock tells Kirk--having sacrificed himself to save the crew: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." That's utilitarian logic. And we all extol such such self sacrifice.

Seven years ago, after watching a Star Trek Voyager episode (you can watch it on Youtube) I wrote the following analysis of the ethical questions which it raised and tackled.

I. The Storyline

In the episode "Nothing Human" the crew of the starship Voyager comes to the rescue of an intelligent yet heretofore unknown alien species, one resembling a very large scorpion or lobster. Because its ship is badly damaged Captain Kathryn Janeway decides to beam the lone survivor to sick bay, knowing fully well that by bringing this 'stranger' on board her ship she is putting Voyager at risk.

Preliminary diagnosis indicates that the creature is ill or injured. Though at first docile this creature moments later pounces upon the ship's engineer B'Elanna Torres and attaches itself to her, pierces her neck, and starts injecting substances into her body and sending tendrils into her major organs. By so doing the creatures survives by parasitically siphoning her energy and nutrients (reminiscent of Dracula).

Unable to decipher its language consisting of shrills the crew has no way of understanding the motives of this creature. They don't know whether it has attached itself to Torres because it merely wants to survive or whether it has more long term malevolent intents.

Knowing nothing about this creature and its anatomy, Voyager's chief medical officer "The Doctor" (a hologram) decides he needs the assistance of a Cardassian medical expert on exobiology. The engineers toil to create a holographic representation of Dr. Crell Moset, a feat they manage to pull off. After the Doctor explains their predicament Moset proceeds to examine Torres and the alien creature. But because the equipment on board Voyager is inadequate he asks that his laboratory be recreated in order that he may have access to the specialized instruments he requires to further examine this creature.

While Doc and Moset try to learn about the creature and ultimately devise a method to remove it from Torres without killing her, one crew member, Ensign Tabor, by chance comes face to face with Moset. The Bajroan is aghast and is unable to contain his rage. He accuses Moset of having murdered his family by exposing them to all sorts of radiation and chemicals as part of his medical experiments. The Doctor cannot believe his ears. Surely there has been a mistake. The great Dr. Moset singlehandedly came up with a cure for a rare disease and saved thousands from the fatal epidemic. It must be a simple case of mistaken identity.

But alas, searching through the ship's database, the crew piece enough information that corroborates Tabor's allegations: the 'good' doctor indeed had performed horrible experiments on Bajorans directly causing the death of dozens if not hundreds of their people.

Captain Janeway calls for a meeting. Voyager is caught in a dilemma. How can they let Moset continue helping them when the very knowledge he's utilizing was gained from his murderous experiments? Given the fact that his expertise derives from many counts of heinous crimes, is it at all conscionable to use whatever Moset has to offer to save the life of Torres, notwithstanding that this Moset is merely a holographic representation? No, they say, not even if it's only a hologram since the representation relies on the actual Moset files found in Voyager's database. The debate among the officers heats up. Several want the Moset program terminated immediately. Even the Vulcan Tuvok agrees that it is logical for Torres to refuse help from Moset. However, a few believe that saving Torres is more important and that the chances of doing so drops to nill if Moset's expertise becomes unavailable. The captain must make a decision. And she is forthright and does not dally, giving us the impression she had already made up her mind even before she called for the meeting. For now she says Torres is more important to her than ethical issues and instructs the Doctor to continue working with Moset.

In Moset's recreated lab he and the Doctor successfully induce the creature to retract its tendrils and free Torres from its death grip, by applying a neurostatic shock to its nervous system. They move on to sickbay and try the method, for real this time. But while Moset wants to apply a large dose of electrical shock ensuring rapid retraction of the tendrils, Doc intervenes and takes over, and applies a less than lethal dose to the creature.

Meanwhile, the comrades of this alien creature have arrived and are pounding Voyager. Its energy shields are useless against the aliens' weapons. Voyager still does not understand the shrills even as the crew tries desperately to telll the aliens that they mean no harm. It is clear, however, the aliens want their comrade back.

Over in sickbay the Doctor manages to induce the creature to finally let go of Torres. With the separation complete engineers are finally able to lock onto the creature and beam it to its ship. With mission accomplished the alien ships depart without damaging Voyager. They even seem to say "thank you" on their way off.

In the aftermath Captain Janeway tells the Doctor that as the medical expert on board he must decide the fate of Dr. Moset. It will up to him whether to retain Moset or pull the plug on this most controversial hologram. The Doctor arrives at Moset's laboratory. The latter is stowing away his instruments while humming a tune he and the Doctor had sung during their most fruitful collaboration earlier.

The Doctor tells Moset that he has come to inform him of his decision. The Cardassian understands that the Doctor is still bothered by his shady past and so tries to persuade him that what is important are the results. That he was able to cure thousands during the war. Moreover, that the two of them were able to save both Torres and the parasitic alien creature should be considered a victory. The means by which they managed to do that is irrelevant. The eloquent Moset puts up a convincing argument. He even reminds the Doctor that humans had for decades used animals to test virtually everything that humans dare not try on themselves. But the Doctor has already made up his mind. No argument by Moset can possibly make him reconsider. He hails Voyager's voice-activated computer and commands it to delete the Crell Moset program and all files related to it. The laboratory and Dr. Moset, murderer and savior, disappear from the holodeck forever.

II. The Issues

A. Moset's Move

Was it right for Dr. Moset to conduct his medical experiments on Bajroans, to use them as guinea pigs and in the process maim, mutilate, and eventually kill them? No. I doubt any one of us would agree. Those who dare say yes should be ready to stand beside Moset and infect, irradiate, and eventually kill any number of people.

The end does not justify the means, certainly not in this case. But this is exactly the point around which Moset's argument revolves. The Cardassian doctor believes that the thousands who were saved did justify the (cruel) means he employed. Moset is a utilitarian, i.e., he believes that if a hundred thousand lives can be saved by sacrificing a hundred or a thousand then it is a good bargain and one must go for it unhesitatingly. Moset would further argue that with the knowledge gained from experimenting on Bajorans (or humans for that matter) medical science would be so served and advanced that the potential benefits may be even more than what is now apparent.

The utilitarian angle is an attractive argument and many throughout our history have so reasoned and rationalized their actions this way.Surely if I deny myself the several dozen books I would like to purchase right now and instead place that money in an investment that gives a return of a whopping 20% per month I'd be able to enjoy even more books next month. In this rather trivial case the small amount of pain that I suffer today from being deprived of much desired reading material indeed is more than offset by the greater amount of enjoyment I will experience in the near future. Delaying gratification, of course, if one of the signs of a mature person (very young children as we all know fail this test miserably). In this sense utilitarianism may be a good thing.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of utilitarianism and made it famous (or infamous) with his formula that we must strive for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Doubtless our Cardassian doctor would gleefully assent. And to the sure delight of Bentham, Crell Moset is a utilitarian to the very end and in every circumstance. He is a doctor, but with a twist. He wants to save and cure people, yet he is ready to sacrifice a 'few' if that would ultimately enhance the life of more people. For Moset the injunction "Do no harm" is not absolute if in the end more will benefit.

On the other end of the scale is Ivan Karamazov of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan argues that if the salvation of the entire world were to be founded on the abominable suffering of but one little girl then it is not worth it at all. In fact it is unthinkable, so much so that Ivan would rather return his ticket to God. The price is simply too much to pay. Indeed who amongst us would agree to such a Faustian bargain—one tiny insignificant soul for the salvation of the entire world? Tempting sometimes, until you're handed the stick and asked to torture the child yourself.

B. Voyager's Move

The dilemma on board the Voyager is whether to allow Moset to continue counseling them, thereby directly benefiting from the murderous experiments he conducted, expert opinion which would probably save Torres; or whether to delete the Moset holographic program, thereby denouncing in no uncertain terms the crimes against humanity (or Bajorans) committed by Moset, a move which will almost surely lead to Torres' death.

Let us now tackle the argument by some of the crew members that it is absolutely wrong to reap any benefit from the work and expertise of Moset because they were gained through the most unethical means imaginable. Was it wrong for Captain Janeway to use Moset in saving Torres? Does her decision make her an accomplice to Moset's crimes?

My personal response is this: While it is incontrovertible that Moset's experiments were criminal in nature, that the harm he willfully inflicted upon the Bajorans cannot and should never be countenanced, the fact remains, today, that what happened had happened and that we now have in our possession the medical knowledge, the know-how which can and does allow Star Trek doctors everywhere to help cure and save lives, indispensable knowledge without which many will not be saved. I am of the opinion that we must not throw away that knowledge simply because it was derived unethically. If that knowledge is summarily discarded then the suffering of those who served as Moset's guinea pigs would have been in vain. Not only had they been tortured, but the only good that ever came out of their suffering and untimely death would be put to death as well.

We cannot change the past. History is like a moving hand that writes which, having writ, moves on (Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam). That Moset committed crimes against humanity is undeniable. That he was able to use the knowledge gained from those crimes to save not a few cannot be denied as well. That the same knowledge will benefit others in future (as in the case of Torres) must also be acknowledged. Call it some form of pragmatism but it is not conscionable to me to deny a starving family a loaf of bread just because that particular loaf had been stolen. If that stolen loaf is the only sustenance available that will keep that family from dying tonight in their sleep, I see an imperative for all to immediately offer them that loaf however it may have been acquired. There are priorities. And life is one of them, as Captain Janeway correctly recognized.

On the other hand, if the knowledge we had derived from the suffering of those Bajorans was how to kill more people more efficiently and effectively, then, yes, we most certainly must immediately efface, erase, expunge, and raze all the knowledge Moset had acquired.

III. An Experiment of Our Own

Let us imagine that we have been transported to the time when Crell Moset was just about to conduct these experiments. Further, let us suppose that conducting these experiments is the only way the for the doctor to find a cure for the hundreds of thousands who are dying. Moreover, let us also suppose that we have enough authority and power to stop Moset from continuing with his experiments. Let us also assume that we can see the future well enough to know of the alien creature that will attack Torres which would thus require the services of Moset, and that if we stop him from performing his experiments now the future Torres will surely die. The question for us who can grant Moset the thumbs up or down is: Should we allow Moset to proceed unimpeded? Given our perfect foreknowledge can we deny the hundreds of thousands, and Torres as well, the medical knowledge that will cure and save them? How would you answer or change your answer if one of those who will eventually be saved will be your 4-year old child? How will you answer or change your answer if all of those who will be saved are the people who invaded your country and massacred your people, leaving you widowed?

If we permit Moset to conduct his experiments then we become utilitarians ourselves just like Bentham and Moset. Morevoer, we would become accomplices to murder and all the crimes Moset will commit in the name of medical science.

Although the experiments will surely yield the answers we need to cure a whole generation there is no rationale that can permit us to decide the fate of a few in order to save the many. The end does not justify the means, however much more good there will be (as if we can, with ease, quantify goodness, happiness and utility) in the end than what we started with.

Therefore, while knowledge that already exists should not be discarded despite the means by which it was gained, consenting to create new knowledge through such means is not an option.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rated X

Among the most important people in my life are my nephews--my sister's children. Over the past couple of years I've become some sort of a de facto tutor to her 5- and 4-year old sons. I'm a handyman and so I bring my toolbox(es) almost every time I visit my sis--not least because there's always something she needs fixed. Soon after I arrive the kids would come flocking to the toolbox and start the mayhem--littering the floor with pliers, screwdrivers, electrical tape, ... and trying to snatch my digital multimeter. Of course I have to be there to supervise and keep in check their insatiable curiosity lest they hurt themselves. I know I'm asking for disaster and their mother frowns upon the activity. Though real tools are not at all kid-friendly I'm happy to say that they've learned the names of all the basic tools and can even manage to fasten and unfasten real screws (on second thought that may not be all a good idea--I shudder at the thought of one of them grabbing a screwdriver behind their parents' back and jabbing themselves accidentally while taking their toys apart). But what I'm most proud of is the fact that I've been one of their English teachers so to speak, correcting their mistakes, expanding their vocabulary, reading them stories. We live in a trilingual community and I've set it as my goal to make English their first language. An uphill battle most certainly, but I wouldn't let anyone else have this dirty job.

Well, having said how much I am part of these children's lives and how I find it so fulfilling, my almost irrational reaction to what just happened last night to the eldest will be in context. I found out from my sister this morning that her husband was watching a TV program last night. Apparently, John was watching too. At one point he turned to his mom and asked why the man was bleeding. His mom replied that the blood isn't real and the man was just a statue--although a life-sized one. A couple of seconds later John burst into tears. His mom rushed over and hugged him, trying to console the frightened child. She told him not to be afraid, that it wasn't really blood, just red paint and that it's dripping because the artist hadn't finished his work yet. The scene so traumatized John that an hour after he was still in a state of unease, still asking about the blood. In fact it was so bad that even after bedtime he kept waking up. He was able to sleep soundly only past midnight.

So what exactly did my nephew see that rattled him the whole night? John saw a naked man impaled on a cross, complete with blood oozing out of his hands (and perhaps feet). The TV program was a mini documentary on the life and sainthood of that Catholic priest Padre Pio, a purported stigmatist.

We adults who've grown jaded and inured to seeing crosses can't imagine how frightening and nightmarish it must be for a young child to see it for the very first time particularly when they've already sustained previous injuries and understand pain. In John's case he's already experienced various cuts and even a fractured arm and knows blood and pain very very well.

So here's a human being, practically naked, hanging from pieces of timber--nailed! to it--and bleeding to death. How awfully disturbing that must be! I imagine in that child's mind, in some way, he was able to apprehend how he could or would share the same fate, that he would be subjected to the same pain and suffer the same tortuous death.

My sister knows very well that I'm an atheist. I told her that what happened to John has made me angrier than ever. Not at the parents of course. At religion. As others have already pointed out using other hypothetical examples, what if some religion had for its central symbol a depiction of how their holy teacher or god-man was racked, eviscerated and quartered, because that's how he gave his life to save humanity. How would Christians react to that? Would their pastors and priests see no psychological harm in exposing youngsters--particularly those whose parents belong to that disemboweled man's religion--to such pictures and "artistic" works? The cross with a lifelike depiction of a bloodied dying man is a gruesome image. To subject children to such violence is downright insane! It's so graphic that's it's porn. It should have an X rating. And yet weekly, we have children dragged to churches and treated to a giant cross behind the altar complete with naked, tortured Jesus on it. I think this qualifies as child abuse.

My sister now knows more than ever that she has to be careful what her kids watch on television. She's been pretty successful in keeping the tots from seeing violent programs (needless to say, toy guns and swords are absolutely banned in her home). I believe now she's also aware that she has to be on guard against religious insanities as well.

It's been half a day since the news but I'm still seething. My sister warned me not to ask John about the nightmarish scene he saw. He's suffered enough. We certainly don't want to resurrect the fearful feelings dread. I'm still so angry that John went through what he did.