Hard Questions, Easy Answers, and the Charge of Intellectual Frivolity

Life sometimes presents us with hard questions, for example how hard should we try to keep a family member alive who has severe brain damage, either through dementia, mental retardation, or accident?    These questions are not theoretical, they are simply slightly abstract formulations of very specific, real problems.  If an incapacitated person has an infection should we cure the infection or let it kill them?  If they are not eating should we install a feeding tube to keep them alive?

A friend of mine, a Hasidic rabbi, once told me that the answer to these questions was simple.  As long as the person has a beating heart that person is of full human value and needs to be saved with all the resources, emotional and financial, one would commit to saving a healthy person.

At the time I was attracted to this position because it seemed to be an example of moral seriousness.  After all the alternative would be to allow less important considerations to weigh on the scale, to allow considerations of convenience for example to trump the sacred value of a human life.  I viewed the issue as one between morality, absolutism and earnestness on one side and relativism and frivolity on the other.

I now think I made a silly mistake.  My friend the rabbi’s view that human life is equivalent with possessing a beating heart was a position of moral seriousness, only if he were correct!  If in fact he is incorrect, it was actually a sign of frivolity.  A consequence of his counsel is to keep a severely brain-damaged family member alive through a feeding tube for no good reason.  It is a decision that sacrifices another person at the altar of either a)one’s intellectual comfort or b)political commitments to a particular faith tradition.

The desire for a simple answer to a simple question is entirely understandable.  But giving in to entirely understandable desires is not a sign of care for others.


4 thoughts on “Hard Questions, Easy Answers, and the Charge of Intellectual Frivolity

  1. My Mother said, The devil is in the details. It’s easy for me. I look at death as retirement and then getting to do something new. Death is just this body ceasing to be necessary for my next adventure.

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