Weekly Word

The American philosopher William James writes that “the radical question of life” is the question whether this is “a moral or unmoral universe.” (He says this in his essay “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in his collection The Will to Believe.) Is the universe merely material, something which just happens to be, with no mind or purpose or plan for good above it or before it? Or is there some objective standard of value either built into the universe or transcending it, so that it really, ultimately, matters how things go in the world, and how I live my life?

James points out that there is an enormous practical difference between the moral objectivist and the moral skeptic or subjectivist. The skeptic will have moral feelings and make moral judgments like the rest of us, if only because social convention and human nature require him to do so, but “when his moral feelings are at war with the facts about him, [he] is always free to seek harmony by toning down the sensitiveness of the feelings.” Since his moral feelings are mere brute data, neither good nor evil in themselves, he can lull them to sleep if doing so makes his life easier. In a society run by Nazis or slave-owners or the Mafia, toning down one’s conscience will be the surest route to a pleasant life.

The moral objectivist, however, is not free to sacrifice his moral principles when they clash with the world: “Resistance…, poverty, martyrdom if need be, tragedy in a word – such are the solemn feasts of his inward faith.”

Now let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is no conclusive argument proving that the universe is moral or unmoral. After all, the evidence of our experience is mixed. In many ways the universe seems morally indifferent, oblivious to human suffering and injustice. And yet, our experience perhaps suggests to us the ultimate importance of values like love and justice, so that we do not feel free to abandon our commitment to such values when the going gets tough.

But here’s the rub: I have to decide how to live my life. Do I proceed on the assumption of moral objectivism (e.g. by believing in a God who is Love), or on the assumption of moral subjectivism (e.g. by believing that mindless matter is all there is)? We do not have the luxury of waiting to begin our lives after a period of indefinite reflection and investigation. Even as we reflect and investigate, we must act and choose. We are gamblers, staking our lives on an uncertain throw of the dice. Faith here is unavoidable, since “faith means belief in which something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible,” and it will always be possible to doubt both moral objectivism and moral subjectivism.

What kind of a world do you prefer? Here are your options: (1) a world in which the appearance of moral seriousness “is but a superficial glaze upon a world of fundamentally trivial import,” or (2) a world in which every choice you make is a matter of infinite seriousness, where “the nature of things is earnest infinitely.” To believe in the former is to run the risk of anaesthetizing yourself exactly when you most need to brace yourself for moral struggle: to stop Hitler and the Nazis, to end slavery, to rescue loved ones in dire straits. James is right to assert that “skepticism in moral matters is an active ally of immorality.” Since an act of faith is unavoidable no matter what, is it not most rational to believe in a moral universe? And does this not point also towards faith in a God of Love?

In traditional ethics, the moral absolutes tend to be negative formulations of what we should never do. Thus in Plato’s Crito, Socrates says that we should never do what we know to be wrong. Of the Ten Commandments having to do with our relations with other people, six of them are negatives: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. The natural law tradition seems to have as its main directive never intentionally to violate a basic good, such as life, truth, or friendship. And Kant’s second version of the categorical imperative stresses that we should never treat humanity, self of others, merely as a means to an end. All these negative formulations point out to us what would be wrong to do as well as what would be worthy of punishment. The positive commands, at least insofar as they have to do with our relations with other human beings, seem to be less absolute. That we should honor our mother and father, promote the basic goods, and treat people as ends are certainly obligations, but they are less strict, to use Kant’s terminology. It is worse to take a person’s life, for example, than to neglect to feed that person or provide for that person’s healthcare. Normally, we do not punish people for what they neglect to do (except if the need they refuse to meet is extremely dire); but we do think it right to punish people who kill or lie or steal.

However, this emphasis on negative obligations is somewhat odd since knowledge of what is right and good must logically precede knowledge of what is wrong and bad. We only know what a bad eraser is by knowing what a good eraser ought to be. We only know what a bad apple tree is by knowing how it falls short of a good one. And we only know that killing is bad because we know that life is good, and that lying is bad because truth and friendship are good. And the really good people we can think of do not just avoid violating goods but act for the sake of those goods. Think of Socrates: he did not sit around all day trying to avoid doing what was wrong or trying to avoid mistakes. On the contrary, he strove every day to be good and to know the truth. And it seems that he succeeded in avoiding wrongdoing precisely because he was focused on doing what was right.

I suppose one reason the negatives have been stressed is to counter our tendency to justify our behavior by our general intention to do good, to the point, sometimes, of neglecting the morality of how we go about achieving that good. For a good end does not justify an evil means; and one should never do evil so that good may come. As it could be argued that all our actions are for the sake of good ends, the key place to examine their morality is in the means we take to achieve our ends. These, like the ends, should always be good and never evil. It is clearly helpful for us to know, individually and socially, some absolute limits on our behavior, and these negatives provide those limits.

Still, it does not seem true to say that avoiding doing evil implies doing good, while it does seem true to say that thoughtfully seeking to do good keeps us from doing evil. Were we to be ever after the best actions—freely and intentionally—there would be little danger of our violating fundamental human goods. In general, refusing to be rude is less the essence of a good host than making every effort to be polite. And refusing to do evil is less the essence of a good person altogether than seeking to do what is good.

Another reason why we emphasis the negative prohibitions may be that it is hard to be good; and as we become better, we become more and more aware of our failings. It is more comforting to think of how we do not violate the absolutes, for doing so puts us in a positive light. But the reality is that becoming good is a difficult and never-ending process. And so we see Socrates claiming, and I think genuinely, that the more he knows about virtue, the less he is certain that he really knows it and lives it. This helps explain his on-going quest which, even in the face of death (not our hoped-for reward for being good) continues unabated. St. Paul admits the same kind of struggle to be good. As he gets closer to Christ, the living instantiation of all good, the evil in him is more and more evident. “I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not” (Romans 7:18).


So it is that our knowledge of good is not only necessary for us to know what is evil, but it keeps us humble and persevering in our attempt to live well—to do good.

            Recently I’ve been reading a bit of ancient Hindu and early Buddhist thought.  One of the logical devices they used is the “tetralemma,” which has 4 problematic alternatives, just as a dilemma has 2.  For instance, one might ask the question whether the soul lives on after death, and the perplexing answers could be as follows: i) is the soul immortal? –No; ii) is the soul mortal? –No; iii) is the soul both immortal and mortal? –No; and iv) is the soul neither immortal nor mortal? –No.[1]


What is the value of such a ploy, other than to test our patience?


Let’s raise another sort of question, in the spirit of a recent philosophy blog:

Is agreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Is disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.

Are both agreement and disagreement signs of rationality?  –No.

Is neither agreement nor disagreement a sign of rationality?  –No.


This tetralemma could encourage us to realize that disagreement doesn’t fit the case when we ask for a sign of rationality.  What does fit the case is rather the ability to entertain a proposition. Agreement or disagreement with a proposition (or with another person) requires not only entertaining the proposition in question but also an act of the will, affirming or denying it.  But affirming or denying can just as easily result from non-rational impulses, such as the impulse to annoy someone, or not to.  Yet there are times when it is rational either to agree or to disagree with a given proposition, and irrational not to.  In a similar way, we might argue against Kant’s universal agreement criterion of objectivity, at least given that the above replies to our four questions are correct.


Let’s take an easier, Buddhist example of a torch that burns all night:

Does the same flame exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame then not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame both exist and not exist all night?  –No.

Does the same flame neither exist nor not exist all night?  –No.


This tetralemma is intended to teach us that a flame is not the sort of thing that can be properly referred to as “the same.”  One flame rather leads to the next in a causal series of momentary flames, serially exhausting their infinitesimally different fuels.  This is the real truth of the matter; if we nevertheless say, “the flame burned all night,” what we are expressing is rather a conventional truth.

In Buddhism, the image of the flame is used to teach us something about the self or the soul.  But that is another story for another day.

[1] See for instance the Majjhima Nikaya, ed. V Trenckner (London: Pali Text Society,1948-1960), I 483-88, as quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), p.71.

Many people think that a hallmark of rationality is agreement. They think that genuinely rational inquiries should result in one side convincing the others to agree that its position is best. When agreement cannot be achieved, the matter in question is just a matter of opinion or preference.

This view is behind a commonly heard criticism of philosophy. Philosophy is merely a bunch of opinions or preferences because the history of philosophy is a history of disagreements. Surely, so goes the criticism, if anybody indeed understood anything substantive, then he or she could lay out the reasons, evidence, and arguments that would convince other rational thinkers. Nobody can lay out what convinces. Therefore, nobody has understood anything substantive (modus tollens). This view is also behind commonly held beliefs that politics, morality, aesthetics, religious faith and practice, and much more are nothing more than matters of opinion or preference.

But is it correct? Should we expect agreement to be the norm among thinking people? One tricksy way of showing that the view of rationality as leading to agreement has problems is by pointing out that many people (like myself) do not think that agreement is a hallmark of rationality. They disagree. As a result, the view, if it follows its own rule, becomes merely a matter of opinion or preference.

A less tricksy, somewhat helpful answer distinguishes between maximal rationality and everything less. Regularly reason goes off the rails, and when it does, disagreements among people naturally arise. Feelings and interests can skew rational judgment, just as biases and prejudices can. Poor education and bad mental habits can enfeeble rational thinking. Moral turpitude routinely spills over into thought and judgment. So also if enough goes wrong, minds can simply break. When a couple of these are added to the various shapes and sizes that native intellectual capacity and ability take, they form a toxic stew that should surprise nobody in its failure to produce agreement.

But what about in their best moments when people are maximally rational? Should we not expect agreement then? Probably not. If human reason is not all-powerful and if the world is as big and complex as it seems to be, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in speculative matters. Even truths as simple such as 2 + 3 = 5 become horribly convoluted when one presses harder on what exactly are numbers, what is addition, and in what sense are 2 + 3 equal to 5. The Hindu story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and then self-reporting wildly different accounts of what an elephant is may be a rather good image after all of the difficulty of reaching agreement in speculative matters.

Similarly, if there are a multitude of genuinely satisfying human goods as there seems to be and if they can be realized in different degrees by means of many, different, concrete projects and plans, then we should not be surprised that people even at their best do not reach the same conclusions in practical matters. Betty wants to climb all of the fourteeners in the contiguous US, whereas Ron wants to raise children, garden, and bake bread. Even if they are broad-minded enough to see the value of each other’s goals, they still disagree so much on what is worth pursuing here and now that they have little hope of joining in the collaborative efforts that is the stuff of friendship and marriages. And so it goes. Juwan wants Paramount Pictures to make more Star Trek movies, whereas Deirdre wants them to make more Mission Impossible movies. Nation R wants justice that settles old scores first, and Nation P wants justice that wipes the slate clean and begins anew. You want ObamaCare, and I do not. And on and on.

In the end, people disagree because they have good reasons to disagree. Thus, we should expect disagreement because disagreement typifies human rationality at its best.

Of course, if you disagree with the above, you prove the point. And if you agree with it, you prove the point again!

“It’s not lymphoma, it’s leprosy!”  Ack!!!!  Yes, I admit I was watching re-runs of House the other night.  It seems the other televisual options included a ruined baseball stadium filled with Godzilla eggs, a WWII movie about carnage on the German front, and a variety of news shows featuring politicians and pundits running around with their hair on fire, not to mention winter storm warnings and a meteor exploding over Russia.  As Mel Brooks said, “High anxiety, you win!”

What is it that people find so attractive about the raised emotional pitch, especially in fiction?  (As if we didn’t have enough of that in daily life.)  I’m not going to say this is a recent phenomenon, or an American one.  Check out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or better yet, Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the ancient Egyptian story about what happened to Osiris.  (Look it up.)  We humans enjoy being shocked and horrified.  But why?

If Plato is right, it might simply be a common and understandable mistake.  “Whenever anyone’s soul feels a keen pleasure or pain,” says Socrates in the Phaedo, “it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the plainest and truest reality, which it is not.” (83c)  Really?  If things that cause a profound emotional surge aren’t the most real, what is?

The Buddhist scholar and retreat master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we deal with our emotional storms the same way we face violent weather; go home, close the doors and windows, be still.  Reality is to be found in the quiet of our hearts when we are calm, not in the tempest.

Elijah found that God was not in the heavy winds or in the earthquake or in the raging fire, but rather in a still, small voice.  He had to be very quiet to hear it.  And once he listened, he was refreshed and fortified. (I Kings, 19:11-13)  He did not withdraw from the chaotic world permanently, but he did need to take a break.

We, too, need a break, but events and entertainment conspire to keep us riled up.  Even when we go on vacation, there is so much to do and to experience that we return home exhausted as often as not.  And when we “relax” with our portable electronic devices, well, de Tocqueville would not be surprised.  We need a real break.

But we also need to do something different.  We need to be still yet alert.  And this is a work quite unlike what we are used to, as well as a relaxation that can’t be found on TV or the internet or in collision sports.  There are no fireworks in this practice of being still.  But there is a deeper reality, a plainer and truer reality than what we can encounter by any other means.  Be still, yet alert, without trying to control the outcome.  Then sometimes, High Anxiety, you lose.

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the great 18th C. Scottish skeptic David Hume considers four hypotheses about the first cause (or causes) of the universe: “that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness or malice” (Part XI).

The first hypothesis is clearly false, he argues, given how much suffering and evil there is in the universe. But the second is also false, since there is also goodness in the universe alongside of all the evil. The third hypothesis is Manichaeism, the thesis that there are good and evil gods locked in eternal struggle; this Hume rejects on the grounds of the uniformity and steadiness of the laws of nature, which sometimes make us happy and at other times make us suffer. This leaves the fourth hypothesis as, in Hume’s judgment, “by far the most probable:” the causes or causes of the universe is or are completely indifferent to our happiness. It is (or they are) neither benevolent nor malicious. On Hume’s view, the most that human reason can establish is that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Part XII, penultimate paragraph).

The presence of evil in the universe is a standing challenge to the belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, as Hume never tires in pointing out. But is the notion of a morally indifferent God really all that probable? Or does it, too, face some challenges?  The cause of the universe cannot be morally indifferent in the way that the laws of physics are indifferent, since whatever caused the universe must be the author of the laws of physics. But why would a being cause the universe and its laws to exist? If this being acted freely, then it presumably acted for a reason. To act for a reason is to act for a goal that one judges to be good. A creator acting before there is a world and causing that world to be can only be acting for the sake of some good, and (before anything else is) that good can only be itself. If we conceive of the causing of the universe as a free act of an agent, then, we cannot conceive of it as being morally indifferent.

On the other hand, we might view the cause of the universe as operating by a kind of necessary emanation, not a free act of creation or initiation. The problem with this is that the universe does not seem necessary. It seems, rather, to be one of many possible universes. It seems shot through with contingency. It does not have to be the way it is. This suggests that the first cause of the universe made something like a free choice of this universe and its laws and not some other. We are back, then to the question of why it acted at all, and this leads away from the thesis that it is morally indifferent.

Hume is right to point out the difficulties in the notion of a perfect God who creates an imperfect universe, but his solution of a morally indifferent creator has its own problems.

A fundamental puzzle in the philosophy of love concerns the question, how does love begin?  Here’s what I mean.  It seems that love demands two desires, the desire to put the beloved’s needs ahead of my own (self-sacrifice), as well as the desire that the beloved love me in return or at least acknowledge my love in the appropriate way (reciprocity).  I submit that the two requirements of self-sacrifice and reciprocity are fundamental to all kinds of loving relationships, whether romantic relationships, friendships, or familial relationships.  But is it possible to express both desires at the same time?  If not, then it seems that we can never begin to love because we will be stuck in an impossible situation where we must desire that another love us in return, while at the same time denying that desire by sacrificing our own needs for the beloved’s, giving without expecting return.  Philosophers and theologians have typically offered three different solutions to the puzzle, although I submit that none of them are satisfying.


One way to solve the problem of how love begins is simply to deny that love truly requires self-sacrifice.  On this view love is a sophisticated form of self-love.  This approach solves the puzzle by claiming that love does not require an absolute sacrifice of oneself and one’s projects for another.  Love just doesn’t demand that I put another’s needs absolutely ahead of my own.  The contemporary moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt defends this position in The Reasons of Love.


Another solution to the conundrum is to deny that reciprocity is a legitimate part of love.  The Swedish-Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren argues for this position in Agape and Eros.  According to Nygren, true love should only be identified with self-sacrificial agape and any love that looks for reciprocity is hopelessly confused and selfish.  So, he solves the puzzle of love only by denying that love should involve the desire to be loved in return.


C.S. Lewis represents a third possible solution to the puzzle of love.   In The Four Loves, Lewis recognizes both self-sacrificial love, what he calls gift-love, and love that desires reciprocity, which he terms need-love.  However, as is indicated in the distinct terms that he gives to them, Lewis believes gift-love and need-love are two different kinds of love that spring from two fundamentally different impulses.  Lewis recognizes that both loves are a good and necessary part of every relationship, but he insists that they are two different emotion-virtues.  Thus, he solves the puzzle of how love begins by dividing love into self-sacrificial love and need-love that desires reciprocity.  But might there be another alternative to these three positions, one that maintains the dual demand of self-sacrifice and the desire for reciprocity, yet one that maintains the unity of love?


I would like to suggest that a compelling alternative solution to the puzzle can be found in Jean-Luc Marion’s recent work The Erotic Phenomenon.  (It can also be found in Augustine and in the Augustinian tradition generally, but that’s a topic for another day.)  Marion’s solution to the puzzle rests on his distinction between expecting reciprocity and hoping for reciprocity.  To expect to be loved in return means that I demand it.  If I expect to be loved in return, then I can never begin to love because I have not met the requirement of self-sacrifice.  I only decide to “love” when I have absolute certainty that my love will be reciprocated, so there is no risk.  On the other hand, Marion argues that hope for reciprocity is something entirely different.  When I hope for love I am not demanding it; I don’t have total assurance that my love will be returned.  I take the risk to love, sacrificing myself for the sake of the beloved, while maintaining the hope that the beloved will return my love.  I still desire reciprocity, but I do not demand it.  Thus, the puzzle of love has been solved because the demands of self-sacrifice and reciprocity have both been met.  I submit that Marion’s solution is a preferable alternative to the three solutions offered above because it acknowledges the necessary place of both reciprocity and self-sacrifice, as well us giving us a unified account of love.

Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.


Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.


But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.


The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.


Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.

Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.

Our society is increasingly sensitive to the ways in which hateful speech can lead to violent actions or discrimination against people based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national background. This is a good thing: we all have a moral obligation to be courteous and respectful in the way we talk to and about each other. In speech as in all other actions, we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Moreover, hateful stereotypes can indeed foment discrimination or even violence (witness the Matthew Shepard tragedy).

However, the category of impermissible speech seems to be widening all the time, and this can pose some problems for freedom of speech and inquiry. Consider some examples. The mother of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who took his own life after being secretly filmed in an intimate act with a man, has recently left her evangelical Christian church because that church teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong. She now believes that such teaching helps to create the homophobia that drove her son to suicide. In Canada, where hate speech is illegal, some Christian pastors have been prosecuted merely for condemning homosexual activity from the pulpit. Some Christian theologians, seeking to overcome centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, have called for Christian churches to stop teaching that Jews ought to convert to Christianity or that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism as a religion. Many people today who criticize Islam are attacked as Islamophobes, since a negative opinion of Islam could lead to discrimination against Muslims. Pro-life activists are sometimes blamed for attacks on abortion clinics or providers, merely because they condemn abortion.

Such thinking seems to take mere moral or religious disagreements and elevate them to the level of impermissible speech. The reasoning seems to be that certain moral or religious judgments have been associated with hateful, violent, or discriminatory actions in the past, so such judgments must now be abandoned to avoid such abuses. I see four problems with this reasoning.

First, moral and religious disagreement is an irreducible aspect of the human condition. Such disagreements are not going to end anytime soon.

Second, the problem is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way the conflicting positions are expressed. One can express a principled opposition to homosexual activity, for example, using language that is restrained, respectful, and non-abusive, or one can express it in abusive or hateful ways. The latter is wrong; the former is not. We should focus on educating people to express their differing moral and religious beliefs in language that is as fair and as respectful and as courteous as possible. But surely it is utopian to tell them to stop disagreeing at all.

Third, the range of beliefs that have been associated with violent, abusive, or intolerant behavior is huge. Atheism was part of the official ideology of Communist countries that brutally persecuted religious believers for decades. Should we tell atheists to abandon atheism because of the crimes of some other atheists? Adolf Hitler and the Nazis incorporated Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetic theory into their racist ideology. Should we tell biologists to stop teaching these theories because they have been associated with a violent and repressive political movement? The language of universal human rights was an integral part of the French Revolution, which led to the Reign of Terror and the imperialism and tyranny of Napoleon. Should we abandon any talk of universal human rights for this reason?

Fourthly and finally, there is a self-referential logical problem with telling people to abandon moral or religious positions that have been associated with violence or intolerance or discrimination. Not long ago a gay-rights-activist shot a security guard at the office of an anti-gay-marriage organization in a Washington DC suburb of Virginia. If moral opposition to gay marriage or gay sex is wrong because it has been associated with violence against gays in some times and places, must we now say that a pro-gay-rights position is wrong for the same reason? Is everyone thus morally obliged simply to stop talking about gay marriage, the moral status of gay sex, or the dangers of homophobia? This is a reductio ad absurdum of the failure to distinguish between mere moral or religious disagreement, on the one hand, and truly hateful speech, on the other.

            There have been many advances in recent years in the human genome project, which studies the gene sequence of humans.  For the most part, these advances have great promise for humankind, especially in the early detection and curing of diseases.  The tools for genetic research are becoming more and more sophisticated; genome sequencing is becoming less expensive and more available. Further, researchers examining the DNA of cells are able to find things that they had not expected to find things for which they were not even looking.  But a problem has arisen.  Donors and research organizations sign legal documents that stipulate that the donors are to remain anonymous and are not to be contacted for any reason.  This has resulted in an interesting ethical dilemma for the researchers.  Here are two examples.


At the Center for Translational Pathology at the University of Michigan, a researcher found something unexpected.  He noticed that a man with cancer, a subject in one of his studies, had the genes of the virus that causes AIDS.  Only further testing could tell if the man actually had AIDS.  But there was a problem: the man had donated his cells on condition that he remain anonymous and that he not be contacted by the Center no matter what.  Because of the non-disclosure agreement signed by both the subject and the Center, neither the researcher nor anyone else at the Center could contact the man and inform him of what had been discovered and advise him to seek appropriate treatment.


Another case is fraught with even more serious consequences.  A young woman, in whose family there was a strong history of breast cancer, signed up for a study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health that was trying to find cancer genes that, when mutated, greatly increased the risk of breast cancer.  The woman, who was aware of her family history and fearful of her risk of contracting breast cancer, had, previous to donating her cells for this research project, decided to undergo surgery to have her breasts removed prophylactically.  When she consented to donate cells for the study, she clearly indicated that she did not want to be contacted by the researchers, whom she had told of her plan for the surgery during her initial screening process for donors.  The research ultimately showed that the woman did not have her family’s breast cancer gene, but the researchers were legally barred from informing her of the discovery and thus preventing her from proceeding with the now completely unnecessary double mastectomy.


Dr. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, has said: “We are living in an awkward interval where our ability to capture information often exceeds our ability to know what to do with it.”


Here are some thoughts on this issue.


  1. The NIH and similar medical research organizations are in the business of improving the standards of health and physical well-being of the general public.  Their findings are used to develop and advance our knowledge of those procedures and practices and products that can ensure the health of the people.  Even though these organizations are not in the business of treating people for medical conditions, the results of their work directly affect treatment.
  2. The consciences of the researchers ought not to be weighed down by their discoveries when, as the above situations indicate, the donor really needs to be informed of these discoveries in order to make a more informed decision about obtaining medical attention or  reviewing a medical decision than he/she might have without that information.  In other words, the burden of the decision for medical treatment or not ought to rest with the donor.  It is unfair to force the researcher in a situation where he/she would violate legal documents and agreements when the health and/or life of a donor is potentially at stake.
  3. It would seem a commonplace to assert that the privacy right of a donor discovered to have a condition or disease that is a potential general health threat (bubonic plague, for example) ought to be informed of this in spite of the privacy right because that right should not be held higher than the right of the general public to a healthy environment and information about potentially harmful and/or lethal situations.  That donor must seek medical treatment whether voluntarily or not, and the general public needs to be informed in general terms about the threat.  Privacy rights, then, clearly have limits within the context of the commonweal.
  4. While someone who voluntarily participates in such research programs as conducted by the NIH and other organizations does indeed have a right to privacy and anonymity, and certainly these research organizations ought to respect that right of the person as an individual.  However this standard operating procedure only to the extent that the welfare of the general public is not jeopardized.  Further these organizations might have other obligations to the donor who is not only an individual but also a member of the general public which these organizations are established to serve.  Thus the NIH and other organizations need to create documents for their donors that will enable the organization to inform a donor of any medical information that is learned about that donor during the time of the research that pertains to the donor’s individual health.  Then it would be up to the donor to determine what course of action to take: ignore the information, act on it, wait it out.
  5. If whatever is discovered has ramifications for the health of the general public, the research organization, in addition to contacting the donor, ought to inform the appropriate government agencies about the threat posed by the situation.  Any individual who does not wish to abide by the stipulations in these documents ought not to be accepted as a donor for research purposes.


What do you think?  How would you advise the NIH and other research organizations on this issue?

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