Moral Theories and the Really Hard Problem

Today in Bioethics we consider the application of various traditional ethical theories to the problems of life and health. And death of course, it should always be understood in this field. That’s our modest subject-matter: everything, pretty much, as it all relates to the maintenance and flourishing of the human organism, its conditions of continuance and growth, and its environs.

Slightly more precisely: we’ll distinguish consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics as represented by (for example) Utilitarians, Kantians, and Aristotelians. We’ll look at libertarian and communitarian views. We’ll talk about J.S. Mill’s harm principle, and try to imagine what non-self-regarding harm might possibly accrue in the beckoning and foreboding future  to the potential subjects of new biotechnologies like cloning, germline modification, and all that goes under the catch-all umbrella of “enhancement.”

Finally, we’ll ponder the principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice.

And, oh yeah, we’ll have our first group discussions. It’s a full plate.

Same for Atheism & Philosophy class. We’re still dipping for non-coercive insight and wisdom into Anthony Grayling’s Good Book (A Humanist Bible), as we’ll do every day. The point is to find compass-points of meaningful living that have been charted through centuries of non-theistic reflection on the natural human condition.

And today we bring a new voice into our conversation. Owen Flanagan’s Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World begins by noting that if consciousness is a tough nut to crack (he actually thinks it not so hard as it’s been cracked up to be), conscious meaning is tougher. Consciousness clearly exists, it “flows like a stream while I live.” But real meaning? A real and credible sense of purposiveness, flourishing, and fulfillment for finite creatures whose lives are as fleeting as fireflies, in the cosmic scale of things? Is it even possible, for those who’re convinced (as humanists are) that life is a naturally-terminal condition?

I’m going out on the limb with Flanagan to predict that we’ll answer affirmatively, but with eyes wide open to the reality of our transitory situation on earth. We’re here, life’s happening, and so far as we can possibly know, there’s nowhere else to go. Meaning has to be here and now, in the ambit of our winking existence, or it’s nowhere.

Fortunately “here” is a big place, light years wide and (by the fantastical reckoning of some contemporary cosmological speculators) even longer.  Maybe longer than the knowable universe, but still on the plane of nature. Lucky us, so much to explore as we grow up in the universe and open our eyes to its natural wonders!

I also want to endorse Flanagan’s recommendation that we be joyful explorers, and optimistic realists. “Life can be precious and funny. And one doesn’t have to embrace fantastical stories – unbecoming to historically mature beings- about our nature and prospects to make it so.” Can we get an Amen?

From Professor Dawkins we can, for sure. “To live at all is miracle enough.” Isn’t it?

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it? Unweaving the Rainbow

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