Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What Medical Ethics has to Offer the Larger Field of Moral and Political Philosophy

Jobs, the economy,The debt crisis, foreign affairs in the Middle East, and immigration will all be significant issues in 2012 and in the next presidential election. My initial blogs, however, have addressed more fundamental problems about our ability to understand and convey to others our values and the nature of our government. Our primary moral concept is not freedom and our government is not just a democracy.

Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Lincoln all considered the primary moral concept of our government to be equality.
Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, and Lincoln all considered the primary moral concept of our government to be equality. The great reformers such as the women suffragettes and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not throw out the moral assertion that “all men are created equal,” but argued based on that principle that we should do a better job of living up to it. Our government is also a constitutional democracy and as such it incorporates both a quantitative procedural aspect of equality by voting on most issues with “one person — one vote.” Our Constitution with the Bill of Rights, however, also contains “higher law” substantive concepts of equality which limit the powers of government and protect individual freedoms and human rights against the possible abuses of simple majority rule. These were also ratified as part of our Constitution. Yet, for the last thirty years there has been almost no mention by academics, the media, or our government of equality understood as a respect for human dignity and our government has been almost always described as a democracy rather than as a constitutional democracy. In both domestic politics and foreign affairs language counts for it helps to shape the climate of opinion. In The Moral Foundations of United States Constitutional Democracy: An Analytical and Historical Inquiry into the Primary Moral Concept of Equality this position is explained and supported.

Medical ethics are also based on a moral assertion of a respect for life understood as a respect for human dignity and our common humanity. Medical ethics also understand human nature to be multi-dimensional with four principles which include autonomy, justice, non-malevolence, and beneficence. The four principle thus include individual (human rights), social (communitarian), logical (utilitarian), and metaphysical (deontological) perspectives.

Not only do medical ethics help us to better understand the primary moral assertion of the “self-evident” concept of equality as both a self-affirmation and an affirmation of our common humanity, but they also provide a very good explanation of the balance of powers in our constitution and our government. This position is explained in the essay What Medical Ethics has to Offer the Larger Fields of Moral and Political Philosophy.

Thomas Jefferson’s wrote the Declaration of Independence in the manner of Euclidian geometry. It’s first moral assertion that “all men are created equal” thus put everything that followed including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in that moral context. A universal moral sense or conscience was for Jefferson a basis of our common humanity and natural equality. Like a muscle of the body, this moral sense has to be developed by exercise, but for Jefferson it was a basis for our common humanity and this included women, American Indians, and blacks. It was what made persons capable of government by consent.

Slavery was the tragic flaw in the founding of our government. Jefferson was a slaveholder and this cannot be dismissed as only a concession to the society in which he lived. It was in his own self-interest and it allowed him to live an aristocratic lifestyle. He thus contributed to this tragedy. Yet, he understood the moral bankruptcy of slavery, its moral incompatibility with democratic government, and the need for its eventual abolition.

Jefferson wrote, “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” Fisher Ames, an early congressman from Massachusetts, wrote on the other hand that “I have heard it remarked that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion they have not reasoned themselves into” The introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy is helpful for understanding many of the nuances and defining ideas of practical moral and political philosophy. A multi-dimensional understanding of human nature brings some coherence to moral and political philosophy. What is important is that the moral concept of equality understood as a respect for human dignity and our common humanity has at least the capacity for accommodation in a pluralistic global community.

Those who approach moral issues from the perspective of human rights, justice, a utilitarian greatest good for the greatest number, or from a metaphysical perspective such as the Golden Rule should all recognize that the underlying principle for each perspectives is that of equality and a respect for human dignity. Those who view politics only from the perspective of power should understand that to place oneself outside of a moral system logically implies that others can do so as well. We should have learned something from the tragedies of the Twentieth Century.

A relevant article from the far center: We grow weary of politics, but politics keeps the planet alive. by Charles Krauthammer