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The perplexing, appalling, heartbreaking Terri Shiavo case brings very modestly to mind Socrates’s injunction that the proper study of philosophy is man. Perhaps the great Socrates could make the study of man a useful endeavor, but if the Schiavo case is any example, most of the rest of us don’t seem up to the task.

But there is nothing new in recognizing man’s heroic inadequacies. Consider the first stanza of the Christian Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope’s The Proper Study of Mankind :

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man. Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest, In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer, Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err, Alike in ignorance, his reason such, Whether he thinks too little, or too much: Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d; Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d; Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

I would say that pretty neatly sums up the human handling of the Schiavo matter. It seems that every contrivance of man has fallen short on behalf of the helpless Terri Schiavo.

The law, that vital foundation of our civilization, seems incapable of getting to justice of any sort in this sad case. If it is justice to end her life, the law has so developed, that a painless injection would be illegal, while the only legal method — starvation and dehydration to death — would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment if it were inflicted on a convicted mass murderer.

If it is justice to find a caring relative to take care of her, the law is debarred from reaching out to the waiting, loving arms of her parents and brother — being obliged to honor the primary relationship of marriage over the secondary relationship of parenthood — despite the doubts as to the wandering spouse’s sincerity of concern.

If it is justice to leave to science to determine the certainty of her permanent unconsciousness, then science has failed to respond decisively to that call. Perhaps in a few years the science of the brain will advance sufficiently to tell a doctor precisely of what a human brain is aware.

But even if science arrives at that knowledge, moral ambiguity will remain, because such knowledge of the precise geography of brain functions will make practicable the substitution of defective gray matter with micro computer elements. And that capacity will raise the ethical question of whether cyborgs should be permitted.

Already a few quadriplegics are being outfitted on an experimental basis with mechanical computer devices to give them a very limited ability to think their way around their defective nervous system and, by mere thought, will certain limited physical movements.

It seems that the smarter we get, the more morally confused we get. A hundred years ago, at least we could distinguish between life and death: When a human stopped breathing he was dead. Both science and law were clear.

But as we got more clever, we came up with the concept of a person being brain dead, while science kept the non-brain part of the human minimally functioning. So the law ruled brain deadedness to be the equivalent of total death. But to act on that assertion a human agency had to intercede to commit the coup de grace: the pulling of the plug. And that raised, for some, an ethical issue.

Now science has come up with another gradation of near death: permanent vegetative status — not quite brain dead, but almost. This condition, to the untrained eye at least, looks distressingly like consciousness. And, inevitably more ethical red flags get raised. It is a tribute to the moral flame that still flickers in most of us, that while it may be called vegetative, the extinguishing of that entity’s life seems different in kind from disposing of a head of lettuce.

Without over playing the “slippery slope leading to Hitlerian conclusions” argument, it does seem that as science advances, and the law lumbers awkwardly behind it, even decent people are likely to be thrown into ever larger zones of moral confusion.

If mankind only studies man — if we untether ourselves from the absolute injunction of our god to honor all human life — we are very likely to further morally defile ourselves and our civilization, even with the very best of decent intentions.