Sunday, February 05, 2006

Rik's Rikical responses

Mainly for Julie (who's having a particularly bad newsday), some responses from me to the questions I posed a couple of days ago.

None of the questions I asked were trick questions. But I did ask four of the questions twice. The reason I did that is to try and show how ethics is not hard-and-fast - there can never be right/wrong answers to any of these questions, just better/worse answers for you and the people around you. Changing the context of the question can - and in my case occasionally does - change the answer.

But then, I have no shame.

First question (Qs 1 and 6): the deadly plague carrier. On the surface, the answer to this question is simply one of public safety: the person must be turned in to the authorities to prevent further deaths. When Typhoid Mary was released after her first incarceration she chose not to keep to her side of the release bargain and eventually went back to preparing food for others - resulting in further deaths and a second incarceration for poor Mary.

But then, should we be allowed to lock people away just because they are a potential risk to society? Should prison be used as a form of prevention alongside its more traditional uses as punishment and rehabilitation?

My answer to both questions would be no. But I would urge the person to seek medical treatment - which could end up in their isolation. But that would be their ethical dilema, not mine.

This question became very real for many people in the mid 1980s with the spread of HIV/AIDS. In those early days there was huge pressure in the UK for people diagnosed with AIDS to be removed from the general population, isolated in holiday camps or islands. Margaret Thatcher - in one of the few acts of hers for which I have deep respect - decided against such a policy and instead instigated a massive publicity campaign to raise awareness of the disease and support responsibility by everyone through the use of safer sex. We live in a much better, more adult and responsible society because Maggie chose to give people the information rather than remove the danger from our midst. Other countries - for instance Cuba - chose the opposite route. I have no idea what the consequences of that decision were on Cuban society, though their HIV rate remains low.

Now, what happens if we re-run the questions, but this time replace the words "deadly plague carrier" with "intolerant Muslim extremist". Would my answer be the same? Yes, and I find it shameful that my government believes differently, that my government believes that it is acting in my interests to remove the danger of "Islamic" extremists by incarcerating them rather than teaching us all about why they are a threat and how we can take action to keep ourselves safe against their poisonous, un-Islamic ideas.

Second question (Qs 2 and 7): untold riches discovered in a suitcase. This is a question about civic responsibility. I tried to frame the question to make it clear that the money is the result of illegal - and harmful - activity. Do I take the money and keep quiet? Or should I report the find to the authorities so they can conduct an investigation and (hopefully) catch the people involved in organised crime.

My answer is no. I would not take the money. Rather I'd go shoplifting for the food I needed.

Why? Well, my reasoning is twofold, and both reasons are about danger and safety. In the first instance, organised crime is a cancer within the body of society. The victims of organised crime are usually the poorer, more disadvantaged communities. Old people in East London still say that whatever else you could say about Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the streets were safer when they ruled the roost. Well, they might have felt safer, but that safety came at a price: compliance with the wishes of the gangsters, who felt they could do whatever they liked to whoever they liked. Rule by the bully.

I don't like bullies. Shop 'em to the Plods.

The other reason is very personal. I would not like to be hunted down by gangsters because I stole their suitcase. I would not like to put people I love in such danger simply because of my greed. An anonymous tipoff to the police solves that problem, for me at least.

Third question (Qs 3 and 8): abandoned on the rubbish tip. This question, for me at least, uncovers how cowardly I could be. Here we are presented with either an abandoned, damaged kitten or an abandoned, damaged child. What should I do?

My father would have had no problem. The child would have been dragged to the authorities, while the kitten would have been put out of its misery by breaking its neck. I would probably rely on the authorities to handle both discoveries.

Yet this is clearly an issue of dodged responsibility. What if there are no "authorities" to turn to? Could I kill a kitten? Could I leave a child to its own fate? Could I be bothered to intervene?

This is going to sound horrible, but I don't think at this moment in time I could bring myself to intervene in the life of the kitten or the child. I don't know how to intervene. Nobody has ever taught me the most humane way to kill a kitten. Nobody has taught me how to reach out to an abandoned child, how to offer care and support to that child rather than just kidnapping him or her and supplying "help" whether they want it from me or not. I've been protected from the harsh realities of life by the society I live in, because that society has chosen to specialise the dirty, nasty jobs to certain categories of workers - policemen, vets, care workers. It works for me now, this division of responsibilities, this specialisation of work within the ant nest. But what happens when society collapses? Will I be able to survive?

Well, we're not living in a nest of ants yet. I can still learn how to reach out to lost children. I can still learn how to kill kittens efficiently with minimal pain. I could learn how to survive. But I'm not there yet.

Fourth question (Q4 and 9): valuing the environment. Or alternatively, how green is my commitment?

When it comes to the environment, I'm pragmatic rather than romantic or economic. Environmentalism is, I feel, a Good Thing which raises very clear and honest questions about how we fit in with the rest of the planet. On the other hand, environmentalists (and I'm being deliberately stereotypical here) can be utterly irrational about things, can get their order of priorities deeply wrong, can miss the point of the argument completely while they are busy worshipping at the green alter of Mother Gaia.

My own personal beliefs are very strong in this area. Humanity is part of nature. We have not separated ourselves from nature. Villages, towns and cities are no more an abomination against nature than the giant anthills across the African savannah or the beaver dams in the American forests. We build and adapt our environment to meet our needs, just as every other living creature on this planet builds and adapts their local environment to meet their particular needs.

Humanity also pollutes. So does every other organism that has ever created protein from DNA on this planet. If you want the example of pollution par excellence, then look no further than the humble anaerobic bacteria. These are the bastards who managed to massively pollute our atmosphere with oxygen billions of years ago. A gas so highly reactive and dangerous that it managed to wipe out almost all life from the planet, leaving just a few poor, weak organisms capable of eking out an existence in the fumes. From which decended most of the life we see around us today.

So as you can see, when it comes to the environmental stuff, I'm pretty laid back. Yes, there's too many people living on the planet. But the planet can solve this problem for us: more individuals, less food. More individuals, more hosts for parasites and diseases (AIDS, SARS, 'flu, haemorrhagic fevers, etc, etc, etc). Climate change? Well, apart from the recent ice ages the planet has never been this cold before. And species incapable of changing and adapting to evolving climatic conditions don't really deserve any sympathy, in my view. We're not living in a museum, for fucks sake.

Even so, I don't see the need to destroy the environment gratuitously. I recycle my waste as much as I can. I do not drive a car and always use public transport where possible. When I was younger I'd walk to most places I'd have to be - I can walk over 5 miles in an hour. I don't go out of my way to buy organic food, but I do go out of my way to buy Fair Trade food. And I am starting to check where the goods I buy originate from - the carbon footprint stuff. See, you don't need to be evangelical to care about the environment.

So, back to the questions in hand. Should the newts die to build a new factory? No. The quid-pro-quo offered by the developers in my question seems poorly thought out. Why does the road need to go through the newt's pond? What alternative routes are there for the road? Are there alternatives to the road - canals, or railways, or donkeys? And why are they explicitly tying the promise of jobs to the destruction of the pond? How genuine and long-lasting is this offer of jobs? You haven't even interviewed me yet, nor my family - all you're supplying is a promise of work. Sorry, boys and girls, but this is one poorly concieved and developed plan. Go back. Do some proper work. Come back with better plans. Until then, the newt lives.

But should the newt die to cure my cancerous friend? Yes, it should. Sorry, but in the scheme of things the life of a loved one ranks, for me, higher than the life of a newt - or a puppy. My brother is diabetic. He survives through daily injections of insulin. Discovering the connection between insulin and diabetes required some rather unpleasant experiments on dogs and puppies. Puppies died to find a way for my brother to live.

It would be nice - preferable even - if the newtskin could be examined, if a way could be found to synthesise the cancer-busting chemicals. This is one of the triumphs of the pharmaceutical industry (and one of the reasons I prefer not to demonise them for refusing to sell drugs cheaply to the third world as soon as campaigners demand such action). But such things take time and if time is not on my friend's side? Goodbye, Mr Newt, and thank you for playing.

Two more questions to go. These two are a lot easier for me to answer.

Question 5: the christmas present. Sometimes it may seem that you're doing a child a kindness, when really you're setting yourself up for unintended consequences. My grandmother most probably thought she was doing my mother a kindness when she hired the doll for a day. Yet the effect on my mother of losing that doll on Boxing Day, seeing it returned to the shop as if she was being punished, was profound. When my partner and I bought her a doll like that original doll - some 65 years after the event - she wept. The anger she felt against her mother for doing such a cruel thing to her was immediate, strong and fresh even after so many years.

So, no. I'd go out and buy a cheaper present for the kid - one they can keep. One that belonged to them.

And lastly, question 10: the deadly analgesic. I should have cast this question in terms of the deeply loved one dying. But my answer would be the same: give me the drug.

I can understand the need for a vigorous debate on the ethics of euthanasia. I can see the arguments both for and against assisted suicide. But they don't really concern me because I settled the question in my mind a long time ago in favour of passive euthanasia. This is the withdrawing of treatment for a disease or condition, but continuing the treatment of pain. Hospices are increasingly good at treating pain, so that people can get themselves a dignified death. I like hospices, and fully intend to die in one when my time comes.

Active euthanasia? Well, that's basically asking someone to help you kill yourself. I don't think I have the right to demand such a service from anyone - especially not from people who love me. And anti-euthanasia? I'm sorry, but what right has the state got to meddle in my death? The government can have my fucking taxes, but my death will be my own!

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