Medical materialism and the infamous violinist

Midterm reports roll on, in Bioethics, to their conclusion today. Last time Austin asked if we are an overmedicated society, answering with  Ivan Oransky’s TEDMED talk and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Short answer is yes, of course we are. We’re overmedicated, overprescribed, overreliant on nonmedical and corporate players in the healthcare system (drugmakers, insurers et al), overneglected by political players who don’t lead and don’t address these issues,  overconfident in the power of docs to dispense magic bullets for every condition.

The human condition itself, with its normal range of emotional states reflecting the up-and-down circumstances of living, has been medicalized. But unless you’re afflicted by congenital and incurable illness, or you’re Schopenhauer or Eeyore, your life is not cataloged is the DSM. Your every experience is not a symptom. William James called this attitude “medical materialism,” and he was right to call it too simple-minded.

Cassie also reported last time, on the human right to life itself and on the abortion issue. She took a hard line and bit the bullet, declaring a pregnant woman’s right to life no more urgent or compelling or established than that of the unborn life within her, no matter the circumstances of conception or  the predictable prospects for life of her progeny. She was unimpressed by Judith Jarvis Thomson‘s notorious violinist thought-experiment, which Alexander posed for us.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?

More to point, is this really a good analogy for abortion? Generations of ethicists have now debated and differed over this preposterous scenario. I’ll just say what I said in class: in difficult circumstances the “right to life” is a tough call. We don’t want uninformed politicians, opinionated medical professionals, or overconfident ethicists making it.

And that’s all I want to say about that.

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One Response to “Medical materialism and the infamous violinist”

  1. The Wisdom of Life Says:

    I could not agree more that we do not have the wit to support our certainty and much less to elevate that unfounded wit into the “law” of the land. Personally I am pro life leaning with a great degree of uncertainty and all sorts of caveats, one of which is I could never make that decision for someone else. Politically I am absolutely pro choice because I recognize I haven’t got much of a clue at all.

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