Stealth ethics

I was recently talking with some students about how to be effective in teaching students how to apply Christian ethics to how they live their lives. They suggested that for a significant number of students it would be most effective if we did not tell them that we were teaching ethics. They thought that there were many students who would think that anything labeled as teaching ethics was something negative or of little interest to them, and they would not choose to be involved. They suggested it would be better to focus on topics of interest to students in their daily lives and incorporate teaching ethics into the discussion of those topics without identifying ethics as the topic. My own label for their idea was “stealth ethics.”

As I thought more about what they had said I began to wonder if it was ethical to teach ethics without openly stating that you were teaching ethics. My wife says I am the only person she knows who thinks about things like that, but I think she just doesn’t know enough ethicists.

My conclusion was that it was possible to do what the students were suggesting in a way that would be ethical and positive. Using the word “ethics” or the word “morality” is not necessary when we teach ethics and morals. Our desire is to get our students to think about why they do the things that they do and to learn to find standards to live by that are based in God’s revealed truth. If they can learn what God has to say about the value of every human life and how to treat every person with love and respect, and place obedience to God and caring for others first before their own desires we will have succeeded in teaching ethics. There will be those students who want to go deeper and understand how to discern Christian ethical values more rigorously and how to express that understanding to those who do not have a Christian foundation. They are a joy to teach. But my desire is that every student would have an understanding of how to live by God’s standards whether they call it ethics or not.

Darwinian Theory and Ethics


In another forum, I recently posted an essay that asked readers to contemplate the message being communicated in PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) slogan “Meat is Murder.” The post generated much stimulating discussion. I found particularly interesting the efforts of some respondents to bring evolutionary theory to bear upon the question of meat-eating, partly because I had just finished reading Rod Preece’s book, Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution: The Historical Status of Animals. In that work, Preece throws cold water on the notion that Darwin’s theory of evolution facilitated the rise of a more compassionate animal ethic. As Preece states (p.359-360),

“The much vaunted claim that increased sensibility to animals was stimulated by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution does not stand up to careful scrutiny. The sensibility has existed in perpetuity, and to the extent that it became more pronounced in the Darwinian age, its consequence was anything but Darwinian. In fact, those whose source of inspiration was quite other than Darwinian displayed a far greater sensibility to animals, at least on the issue of animal experimentaton. [In the preceding chapter, Preece identifies Christians as the chief advocates who brought about change for the better in late nineteenth-century attitudes and practices towards animals]”

As Preece notes (p.347), Darwin defended vivisection at a time when others were denouncing it with great force. Even as he experienced some emotional discomfort over his killing and dissecting of animal subjects, Darwin nonetheless defended animal experimentation, including that which was intended purely for the sake of gaining knowledge, and so too did many of his followers.

Now, one may wish to argue that on the matter of animal ethics, Darwin was simply blind to the ramifications of his theory – that somehow, common descent via natural selection provides the basis for a no-kill stance. Others insist, however, that Darwinian theory provides adequate justification for our making use of animals for food, fiber, etc. As one medical researcher once told me not too long ago, the consequence of evolution is “we won!” and so, as “victors” in the struggle for life, subjugation of other species is our natural right.

The appeal to Darwinian theory by advocates of polar opposite views on the issue of meat-eating raises an important question about the connection between evolution and ethics – specifically, is there one? Can we truly find the basis for ethical judgment in the narrative of “survival of the fittest?” Only, it would seem, if we are content to leave ethics at the level of mere description of what happens in nature. But then we wouldn’t truly be talking about ethics as most seem to understand it – a sense of oughtness that regulates, and even trumps the natural impulse. Preece notes two significant vegetarians and animal advocates, Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, as examples of animal advocates who perceived the inability of Darwinian theory to deliver the moral sense (p.346). As Tolstoy put it, “Darwinism won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance for your actions.”

The problem to which Tolstoy points is often labeled as the “is-ought dilemma.” Uttered almost in passing by David Hume three centuries ago, the is-ought dilemma came to the forefront in discussions of evolutionary ethics through the writings of George Edward Moore, a philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Principia Ethica, Moore spoke of the “naturalistic fallacy” in reference to Herbert Spencer’s attempt to derive ethical principles from an evolutionary narrative. The problem, Moore argued (and Hume before him), is that determinations of value (what is good as opposed to what is bad; i.e. what ought to be pursued) are of an entirely different category than statements about what transpires in nature. To argue that some natural property or process is morally superior entails a categorical shift that requires the importation of values that nature cannot, in and of itself, supply. So, we may make many correct observations about the behavior and biological needs of animals, but those in and of themselves do not yield moral guidance; only when united to the moral presupposition that the animal’s nature ought to be respected, might they come into play.

Ardent Darwinists protest the charge of fallacious reasoning. Among them are E. O. Wilson, who has asserted that there is no dilemma as “ought” is simply an “is” that needs no further justification. Ought, he believed, consists in what our ancestors chose to do and then codify into law (see his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge p.275). More sophisticated is Michael Ruse who has argued that Hume and Moore have it exactly right and that the solution lies in simply giving up the search for an objective basis for ethics. Nature has, Ruse argues, foisted upon the human species a highly effective deception – specifically, an ingrained sense that right and wrong transcend the individual. Morality, he believes, is simply smoke and mirrors that masks the selfish core ‘bequeathed’ by natural selection. (See Ruse’s recent essay  “The Biological Sciences Can Act as a Ground for Ethics,” in Ayala and Arp’s 2009 book,  Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology).

In the end, Wilson and Ruse argue that morality is a purely natural phenomenon – that nature (matter), and nature alone, provides both the basis and content for ethics. I, myself, am quite skeptical of such a proposition, partly because I fail to see how such can treat human freedom and responsibility as anything more than mere illusion. Deep down, we all know that not every natural impulse is to be acted upon. In denying the natural impulse, we bear witness to the fact that we are more than molecules and atoms arranged in space and time for chemistry (matter) cannot break free from the laws of physics (it is, in fact, the predictability of matter that makes science and technological innovation possible). The capacity to contravene the natural impulse derives not from the material but from an immaterial aspect of our nature – what some call “spirit” or “soul.” Apart from this immaterial reality, there is no accounting for the human freedom and moral agency, among other qualities.  If we are purely material beings, then strict determinism is our lot.

There are, in fact, numerous obstacles to naturalistic ethics. One of the more helpful reads along this line is L. Russ Bush’s book, The Advancement: Keeping the Faith in An Evolutionary Age. Whether or not one is sympathetic to the Christian worldview, Bush’s book offers readers a helpful resource as it lays out in clear language the challenges posed in adopting the naturalistic worldview that typically undergirds evolutionary accounts of ethics and morality.

Your thoughts?

The Ideas of the 1%

The Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, Oakland, Atlanta, Chicago, and elsewhere have made headlines the last several weeks.  I don’t really know if only 1% of the populace controls the majority of wealth in America.  But the “1% Hypothesis” makes you think about the influencers in the field of bioethics.  The number of Christian bioethicists influencing American bioethics probably is greater than 1% but it is still small.  When considering bioethical views in the general populace on subjects like abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research, one might make the case that secular bioethics leadership as exemplified by the ASBH, Penn, Stanford, Case Western and others may be a minority view in the U.S. as a whole.   However, whether a minority view or not, these positions drive the practices of American medicine.  For instance, there is no doubt that euthanasia is gaining momentum in the U.S.  This is reflected in the assisted-suicide practices in places like Oregon, Washington, and Montana and the fact that the idea has become commonplace on medical school campuses.  But what are the actual numbers, do you think?  Is 1% calling the shots?

Science and a Christian worldview

Christian bioethics continuously lives at the interface of biotechnology and Christian moral values. Recently some students asked me to talk with them about whether I saw any conflicts between science and a Christian worldview. Their question took me back to the first CBHD bioethics conference that I attended in 2007 and Alvin Plantinga’s talk about that issue. He expressed things that I had understood, but had never heard expressed as well as he expressed them.
Plantinga made it clear that the conflict was not a conflict between Christian thought and science, but a conflict between the philosophy of naturalism and Christianity. He pointed out that many people assume that science, which is a method of acquiring knowledge about the physical world, was identical with philosophical naturalism which says that all that exists and all that we can know is what we can know through the empirical methods of science. However, understanding that science is a proper way to learn about the physical universe does not imply that naturalism is true, and science does not depend on supposing naturalism. In fact Plantinga showed that naturalism forms a very poor foundation for science, because the unguided evolution that must be assumed by the naturalist as the process by which human cognitive processes were formed does not give us reason to believe that those cognitive processes would be reliable sources for truth. (I always knew there was some reason why I liked epistemology.)
It is actually a Christian worldview that provides the foundation that science needs to function. We believe that God has created the universe so that it is rationally understandable and has given human beings the ability to accurately perceive the universe and cognitive faculties that are designed to comprehend truth. Those are the presuppositions needed to expect science to be a valid method for discovering the nature of our universe.
The problem is not that there is a conflict between science and a Christian world view. The problem is why someone without a Christian worldview would think that science is a reliable source of truth.

Death and Dying in the Land of Paradise

My father just turned 85.  He resides with my mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, in an assisted care facility.  As I witness my father’s health gradually deteriorate, I wonder what it must be like to know that death is likely close-at-hand.  He is currently unable to accomplish tasks that I take for granted, such as bending over to pull up his pants, or making it to the bathroom in time.  Yet, even in his current state, it could be much worse.

A recent (October 17) ABC news report presents the story of Jeri Orfali, a promising software executive who, at 56, developed ovarian cancer.  Jeri and her husband of 30 years were living in Hawaii at the time of her death.  The report describes her final days of bearing “excruciating pain that was not helped by palliative care.”  According to her husband, “In the end I could see tumors coming out of her legs and in her neck,” he said. “Her legs were swollen and her stomach was so bloated, the cancer almost burst out of her. She couldn’t get her next breath.”[1]

As a result of the experience, Robert Orfali (the husband) would like Hawaii to legalize physician-assisted suicide.  In fact, apparently it was “legal” in Hawaii as far back as 1909 based on the following stipulation for PAS:

[W]hen a duly licensed physician or osteopathic physician pronounces a person affected with any disease hopeless and beyond recovery and gives a written certificate to that effect to the person affected or the person’s attendant, nothing herein shall forbid any person from giving or furnishing any remedial agent or measure when so requested by or on behalf of the affected person.”

As a result, advocates for PAS believe that it is now time to establish a legalized ‘death with dignity.’  Of course, the movement to support PAS has its critics.  The Catholic Church and other right-to-life groups fear the potential consequences of PAS and call for Hawaiians to resist PAS’s legalization.  Indeed, previous attempts to legalize PAS in Hawaii were overturned (by a narrow margin) through opposition groups.  Thus, there is a significant divide that pits those who fear the negative results of PAS against those who view end-of-life care as insufficient.

Frankly, I struggle with this.  As a Christian, I have strong convictions against taking matters into our own hands; PAS, I believe, is wrong from a biblical/theological standpoint.  Yet we live in a secular society, one that does not necessarily share my beliefs.  I would oppose the legalization of PAS in America, but I base my opposition on the view that God is sovereign over life and death.  Honestly, I can understand why a person without theistic principles would think that PAS should be permitted.

In next week’s blog, I will present some of my theological conclusions about death and dying.  In the meantime, what do you think are some of the strongest arguments against PAS outside of Scripture?

[1] Susan Donaldson James, October 17, 2011.

Managing Patients

Many people remember C.S. Lewis not only as a gifted thinker but also as someone who was very funny.  Funny in a typically British, understated, often-profound way.  When reading That Hideous Strength, the last book of his Space Trilogy, I laughed again and again at his many references to the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.  Yes, you got that right: the N.I.C.E.  This vast array of committees and investigators would finally bring a “really scientific era” to managing society, and eventually all the ills of the country would be deciphered and cured.   And of course building this grand enterprise meant bulldozing a large part of a quiet university town—all for the sake of noble, or at least “nice,” goals.  True, one might have to keep the citizenry in the dark on what actually was going on inside the N.I.C.E., but of course this would be for their benefit.  (“You musn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”)  The book is great commentary on misguided human endeavors and is prescient on many of the bioethics matters of today.  But what is most entertaining is that the N.I.C.E. is indeed alive and well in the United Kingdom: the National Institute for Health Clinical Excellence, a.k.a. NICE.  More on this in a moment.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Germain-Jean Drouais (1784)

During the past five weeks of my Psychiatry Clerkship, I’ve seen that we are often in a position to simply do the best for patients with the little we have.  Many of our patients suffer from life-long substance abuse, others are being monitored because of signs they might harm someone, and others are there at the request of the courts.  It’s easy to fall into a “managing patients” mode of just keeping things from getting out of hand but never really helping the patient recover from his illness.  (Especially when the patio re-modeling keeps some patients from being able to go outside for two weeks.)

One of the populations that figure prominently into “patient management” is that group diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.  NICE has dual concerns of managing resources as well as managing antisocial patients who may cause harm to society in the form of criminal activity, for instance.  NICE working groups have to come up with guidelines for handling these patients.  For instance:

Pharmacological interventions should not be routinely used for the treatment of antisocial personality disorder or associated behaviours of aggression, anger, and impulsivity.  Pharmacological interventions for comorbid mental disorders, in particular depression and anxiety, should be in line with recommendations in the relevant NICE clinical guideline.

Psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, on the other hand, were found to be wise uses of funds in working with these patients.

It is easy to click through a patient roster quickly in order to carry out management guidelines and lose a sense of the human being who is at dis-ease because of an illness.  This is why I think Christian hospitals and places of rest for the mentally ill offer something that our modern health care systems do not: their reason for being is first the healing ministry of Jesus, seeing that the ill become whole.

For more information

Another Promising Result Using Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells

Last Friday it was announced in Medical News Today that researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a means to fix the genetic defect that causes sickle cell disease with the patient’s own stem cells.  According to the announcement, “The corrected stem cells were coaxed into immature red blood cells in a test tube that then turned on a normal version of the gene.”[1]  This does not mean that a clinical application is imminent or that the procedure is safe.  As stated in the original abstract from Blood, the Journal of the American Society of Hematology, “the safety and feasibility of stem cell mobilization in individuals with sickle cell trait (SCT) has not been documented.”  However, the report added that “no untoward adverse events occurred in either group, including sickle cell crises.” [2]

The new treatment could prove to be revolutionary; at present the only existing therapy for sickle cell disease is through bone marrow transplantation.  However, the journal Blood reports that, “many patients are ineligible [for bone marrow transplantation] because of either the lack of a suitable donor or their underlying condition.”  The advantage of “peripheral blood stem cells” (PBSC) from the patient are obvious: patients don’t have to wait for a suitable donor – they are their own source of the stem cells.  The study concludes that, “Products from SCT donors require only minor changes in ex vivo cell processing, allowing for the use of mobilized peripheral blood as a potential source of stem cells for transplantation in sickle cell disease.”  Furthermore, as one researcher stated, “The beauty of iPS cells is that we can grow a lot of them and then coax them into becoming cells of any kind, including red blood cells.”[3]  In short, scientists believe they are now one step closer to successful stem cell therapy for sickle cell disease.

Of course, the word is still out on the success of PBSCs.  But ethicists should applaud any research that is as promising as embryonic stem cell research, but does not require the destruction of human embryos.


[2] There were two separate control groups with eight individuals in each group – one SCT group and one non-SCT group.  In the words of the research team, the study does “not permit the conclusion that G-CSF is completely without such risk. Our study, however, suggests that the risk is limited…”


Scripture and ethics (and transformation)

Christians have a foundation for ethics that can be seen to be more solid that that of others who look to mankind rather than God as their source for ethics.  The most direct way that we access that source of truth in knowing what is right and wrong is scripture. But how do we use the Bible in ethics?  Kyle Fedler in his book, Exploring Christian Ethics, suggests that there are five ways that Christians use the Bible in ethics.  His five ways are:

1)      Laws – finding specific commands in the Bible to follow

2)      Themes or ideas – finding principles to guide how we live

3)      Circumstances – finding a similar situation in scripture

4)      Character imitation – modeling after Biblical examples

5)      Character formation – transforming how we live


When I ask students which of these they think is most important they commonly choose themes or ideas, and I understand why they say that.  When we are searching for what is right to do in the unique issues of modern bioethics, we are commonly dealing with situations that those in biblical times never imagined.  We are able to find scriptural guidance by applying themes or principles we find in the Bible to our current dilemmas.

When they say that, I suggest to them that another one of the ways may be more important.  Frequently our biggest ethical problem is not that we don’t know what is right, but that we don’t do what we already know to be right.  Ethics is not just an academic exercise; it is about how we live.  That is where character formation comes in.

We are bent and broken people who too commonly incline toward what is wrong.  We need to be transformed.  That can happen when we meet in scripture the One who has the power to make all things new.

Machines on the Maternity Ward

I’m going to dovetail on Joe’s post once again.  Today, my girlfriend and I visited the hospital to see her friend’s new baby boy.  The floor was quiet as we got off the elevator.  We must have looked confused because the custodian set his mop down for a second and said, “You have to use the phone.”  Sure enough, next to a set of large double-doors was a red phone.  We picked up the phone.  “Yes, we’d like to see so-and-so.  She is here with her new baby.”  The unseen operator responded with a buzz, and magically the big doors swung open.  The big doors were there for security reasons, and I suppose they work for less than the watchman or the receptionist.  After we surrendered our IDs in exchange for “Visitor” stickers, we found the hum that was the room of the mom and her new son.  Friends and family stirred around taking turns holding the bundle of joy.  There was mom watching on, sitting up in her hospital bed.  And there was the machine–tall, flickering, and looming over the bed.  You see, she was not just the mother here; she was the patient.  I was thankful for the armoire of dark wood in the corner that lent a little softness to the room with its tiny, soft inhabitant.  After a while, the nurse entered and began to rummage around the hospital bed.  Yes!  Hurrah!  She began to untether mom from the IV bag.  Mom said, “Sure is good to get all that stuff off of me.”  Yes, I thought, maybe now she can hold her baby.


In Response to “Of Machines and Men”

I think Joe hit the nail on the head.  One of the reasons I’ve focused on personhood during my short bioethics career is that American physicians are increasingly unable to distinguish between the human being and the biological system.  Some deny altogether the existence of anything beyond the physical body, but others only consider the spirit or the soul to be some sort of esoteric thing about which one might philosophize.  As a result most physicians believe that if they know the medical information, perform the procedure correctly, and achieve a good outcome then they have practiced good medicine.  Tips they can gain from Abraham Verghese about interacting with the patient are icing on the cake.  An inspirational insight from Atul Gawande allows them to be reflective in their spare time.   But really, those kinds of things are for humanities professors or hospital social workers.  In the medical curriculum, we see this value system in ethics teaching that amounts to not much more than instruction on managing emotional responses.   “Use this phrase when talking to a patient about cancer so they will feel this way.”  “When you enter the exam room, perceive the patient’s disposition by examining facial cues and posture.”  If the physician uses a stimulus-response framework for patient interaction, then he has fallen back into the same problem all over again.  That’s why mentorship is so important in medicine: a student “lives life” with the attending physician so as to acquire his way of looking at the world, not just his skills.  That’s why the oaths—Hippocrates, Maimonides, or others—are so important: they emphasize that medicine is a covenant between two people before it’s anything else.  And, most notably, that’s why a medical practice most consistent with Jesus’s healing ministry is one which would still have something to offer if the machine and the lab report were not even there.