Everyone has moral obligations (And we’re talking about them way too much)

eth1by Daniel A. Kaufman

“The most disturbing aspect of ‘morality’ seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation… There is something quite facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to ‘believe’ in something, like to assuage our private guilt in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that… But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to with ‘morality.’ Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.” —Joan Didion [1]

Applied Ethics has been largely a blessing to philosophy, having reinvigorated a philosophical discipline that had somewhat run aground on metatheory, while also providing philosophy with a new basis on which to demonstrate its relevance, within an increasingly inhospitable Academy.

But there also have been some rather substantial downsides. We are increasingly inclined to examine every dimension of human life and activity through a stiff moral lens — applied ethics rarely takes up the softer, more nuanced normative concepts that one finds in, say, virtue theory, favoring instead the hard, black and white language of obligation — and more often than not, the lens is either Utilitarian or Kantian, which means that the approach is maximally black and white, un-nuanced, and abstract. These are not the subtle morals of a W.D. Ross, in which prima facie duties jockey for position, in an ever-shifting context that makes different demands, in different circumstances, in which even overridden duties continue to exert an influence, and where practical reason and judgment are constantly engaged [2]. No, this is the morality of pleasure/pain units and categorical imperatives and of easy charges of immorality and great opportunities for moral posturing.

It is thus that a number of our most eminent moralists have turned every schoolkid’s lunch into a moral disaster; every hard-earned dime spent on entertainment into an unconscionable disregard for the poor; every cent devoted to the education of one’s children into an outrageous deprivation of a more deserving stranger. Not too long ago, one would have simply dismissed such people as jerks and told them to shut up, but today, we give them chairs at Princeton and cushy gigs at NYU, and praise them as the consciences of our civilization. (One could devote a paper in itself to the level of moral insecurity that must obtain for an entire culture to lionize these sorts of nags and scolds, in the way we have done.)

This ubiquitous and crude moral attention has created in many quarters an unpleasant, morally hectoring atmosphere, which, I believe, is more likely to turn people off of their duties than to encourage their embrace. The late Bernard Williams, the greatest moral philosopher since the Second World War, concurred and said, regarding this brand of moralizing:

“Some … writers aim to increase a sense of indeterminate guilt in their readers. Peter Singer is an example, and in his book Practical Ethics, he is evidently more interested in producing that effect than he is in the theoretical basis for it, which gets very cursory treatment. As moral persuasion, this kind of tactic is likely to be counterproductive and to lead to a defensive and resentful contraction of concern. This can be seen in research and, at the present time, all around us.” [3]

This counterproductiveness is due, in part, to the fact that few people really like “moral saints,” whom Susan Wolff described as those whose single-minded pursuit of moral virtue and conformity to moral obligation dominate and “crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.” [4] In part it is because we are all aware that no one really is a moral saint and because most of us find being lectured by hypocrites irritating. And in part it is due to the fact that most of us understand that in real life — as opposed to artificial thought experiments — we are confronted with many types of obligations and many varieties of value, all of which have their appropriate place and time, the identification of which is difficult and resistant to formulaic treatment, which is why it requires a lifetime to get right.

I say all of this by way of an introduction to my discussion of Dan Tippens’ piece, because what he is doing is decidedly not in this vein. Well, 99% not. Dan’s essay is thoughtful, his motivations for writing it are personal and heartfelt, and the essay is completely lacking in anything resembling moral hectoring or posturing. It is, in many ways, an ideal example of the genre. And it is for this reason that the sense in which it is 1% like the sort of Applied Ethics I’ve just described stands out so much.

That 1% is the part in which we view far too many things, too often, through a moral lens. I love Dan’s essay, and I love the place from which it comes in his heart. I just wish that it wasn’t an essay on moral obligation and duty. Let me be very clear on this point. My objection is not to our conceiving of and interacting with our loved ones, at the end of their lives, through what we might broadly call, an ethical framework, which can include everything from the virtues to the humane sentiments. No, my criticism here is to the application of the much narrower framework of moral obligation and duty, which is the typical province of Applied Ethics and is the subject of Dan’s essay.

In the context of our interactions with the terminally ill, the moral framework is clunky and ill-fitting. Dan suggests that terminally ill people, even when in hospice, retain their “societal duties,” by which he means things like “the obligation to work against global warming and growing inequality.” These examples are taken from Oliver Sacks’ recent article in the New York Times, on the subject of his own terminal illness, but Sacks, sensibly, mentions such obligations, only to set them aside, comfortable in the knowledge that his role in such things is over — “No time for anything inessential” is how he (rightly) thinks of them — and they are in the capable hands of the next generation [5]. Dan, however, uses them to show that the taskmaster of obligation never relents, even when a person is on his way to the grave.

“Perhaps … terminal patients have a moral obligation to improve the retention rates of hospice volunteers,” Dan speculates, reflecting a more than fair concern for the tremendously difficult, often miserable job that those who care for the terminally ill take on. Surely, we would hope that patients in such care would be appreciative and generous to those who care for them. But terrible pain and the fear of imminent death are almost unimaginable burdens for those who are not themselves experiencing them and undoubtedly, those who are most likely to stumble with regard to how they treat their caregivers are the ones suffering the greatest levels of such pain and fears. What purpose is served by insisting that they have a “moral duty” to be nice, because otherwise the number of people willing to work hospice may decline? The very suggestion sounds weird and the sort of action that normally would follow, should one fail to obey it, seems sadistic. Dan tries to mitigate this by claiming that while terminally ill people have full moral standing, they are “not fully culpable,” but this does little to assuage the overwhelming sense that the moral frame of reference is, here, terribly misapplied.

A significant part of Dan’s motivation is a concern for the dignity of the dying. Traditionally, this concern is manifested in a number of protocols that govern how caregivers treat those in end-of-life care: making sure that people are not left lying in their own urine and feces; ensuring that staff treat their elderly wards with respect; and protecting against all manner of what is commonly known as “elder abuse.” But Dan’s concern is different. His worry is that the dignity of dying people is undermined, when we no longer hold them morally accountable: “Treating the terminally ill as beings who aren’t capable of robust moral competences is like treating them as young children,” he writes.

Well, yes. Certainly, people who are near the end of their lives continue to carry moral responsibilities, but my issue, here, is with how often we want to invoke such responsibilities and in what contexts. Undoubtedly, a geriatric Bonny and Clyde, on a final tear through town, would be deserving of condemnation, and (perhaps more realistically) we would want to express our disapproval of and discipline the nursing home tenant who insists on being “fresh” with female residents and members of staff. But this is not the sort of thing that Dan has in mind. Rather, his concern is with a failure to include the terminally ill in “moral activities,” because doing so somehow diminishes their standing or status, and it is to this that I object.

For one thing, I am wary of the concept of “dignity” at play here. It strikes me as largely a matter of appearances and would seem to involve not a small amount of play-acting. Depending on how “terminal” a person we are talking about, the fact is that they really are done with respect to the sorts of activities we’ve been discussing. Global warming, inequality, and even the paucity of hospice workers are systemic, pervasive, long-term problems, and the idea that the average person, with a few months left to live, is going to have any sort of substantial effect on any of them is a fiction. If the concern, then, is with whether there is some appearance of involvement in causes, then one could easily argue that great flurries of moral activity at the end of life are entirely counterproductive. After all, who is less dignified, in this sense of appearances — the person who is comfortable with their age and condition and who gracefully passes on the “cause-torch” to those who will follow him, or the person who continues to push and push, despite its practical uselessness, all in some effort to portray moral vigor? Indeed, I would argue that there is some similarity between the sort of thing that Dan is describing and the elderly person who refuses to age gracefully — to cede the territory of beauty and sexual attractiveness to those who are his juniors — which is anything but dignified.

But this really is the least of my problems with Dan’s desire to “moralize” the terminally ill. My biggest issue is that the focus on obligation and duty actually diminishes our interactions with our loved ones, in their final weeks and months, because it renders this final, precious portion of life less personal, less intimate, and ultimately, less significant. Some philosophers may think that the moral framework represents the highest, noblest level at which human beings interact with one another, but this only represents the extent to which even (or perhaps, especially) very smart people can fall under the grip of a theory, to the exclusion of common experience and common sense.

To confront something through the moral frame of reference is to do so at a distance. On most accounts, like those of the Utilitarian and the Kantian, moral obligation and duty are abstract — they are determinable by reason, generalizable as principles, and applicable by way of criteria. Our interactions with others through this framework is consequently procedural and by design, impersonal. The moral point of view, in the duty and obligation game, is that of the Impartial Observer, not of the friend, the lover, the brother, or the son.

For this reason, it should be employed sparingly and with a great attention to context. It may be the case that we ought to be kinder to animals, but if we begin treating this as a categorical moral imperative, to be applied to every fishing trip taken with a son or daughter, every intimate meal eaten with a lover, and every Fourth of July barbecue shared with family and friends, then not only are we going to have to engage in an awful lot of moral condemnation of an awful lot of people, but we are going to miss all of the things about these sorts of activities and experiences that make them the very material out of which our relationships with friends and loved ones are formed.

The same is true — even more so — of our interactions with the terminally ill, who, more often than not, will be our fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, siblings, and friends. The weeks and months we have left with them are precious and should be spent intimately and unaffectedly. They are hardly a time for — as Joan Didion put it in my opening quote — “ad hoc committees and agitprop.” The best parts of Dan Tippens’ essay are found in those places where his feelings for the subject come through — in his reminiscences of his father’s terminal illness and his decision to volunteer as a hospice worker himself — and I find myself thinking about the incredible memoir he might write; one in which he would be free to connect his moral feelings and thoughts with his personal experiences, unfettered by the clunky apparatus of formal moral philosophy.

_____

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy. His new blog is Apophenia.

[1] Joan Didion, “On Morality,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), pp. 162-163.

[2] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930).

[3] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Routledge, 2006), p. 234, fn. 7.

[4] Susan Wolff, “Moral Saints, “ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No 8 (1982), p. 421.

[5] Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” The New York Times, February 19, 2015.

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76 thoughts on “Everyone has moral obligations (And we’re talking about them way too much)

  1. Hi Labnut,

    I’ve been thinking about your comment to Occam’s Beard:

    Occam’s Beard,
    “Religion died and is being replaced by Reason but we haven’t figured out how to get the feeling (motivation, sincerity) into the formula.
    Love = mc^2 doesn’t compute.”

    You are mainly right. Some observations:
    1. No, religion has not died. It has been diminished but it will never die, as we have seen in China and Russia.
    2. Getting the motivation into morality is the essential problem. There are several solutions:
    a) Catholicism. That works for me.
    b) Buddhism. That works for Ejwinner.
    c) Stoicism. That works for Massimo.
    d) The Jewish faith. That works for Aravis.
    e) Virtue ethics. This enriches Catholicism and is the basis for Stoicism.
    f) Add your own variety of faith.

    But what does not work is moral consequentialism. It is a cold calculus that lacks motivating power.
    All of these solutions have a single, deadly enemy, a culture of consumerism that celebrates hedonism and narcissism. That, combined with a self serving form of moral consequentialism, is the real enemy and it is winning ground

    It has taken a bit of time to truly fathom how differently we see things. The two features that stand out the most is your advocacy of faith, and then your disapproval of hedonism. But instead of us engaging in debates to make the other look stupid in public, I wonder if a somewhat more constructive path might be taken? For my part I feel no animosity to those of faith, and even see this as a great tool to promote eudaimonia for some, and certainly the terminally ill. But how indeed might I demonstrate to you that people with my own path of non-faith and hedonism, can produce decent citizens as well?

    The crucial point to acknowledge, I think, is that you and I offer speculation regarding entirely different realms of existence. While you seem to be concerned about morality, and thus how we can make ourselves behave in more civil ways with each other, my own ideas do not concern morality whatsoever. The following is a scenario to demonstrate where I’m coming from:

    Let’s imagine that scientists today had very compelling evidence that the general tenants of Catholicism were true — here perhaps God sends an undisputed envoy every year to make certain that we understand a Heaven or Hell destiny based upon our mortal behavior. Even here there would be the question of “What exactly is it that God has created?” This would interest me even as a devout Catholic. Would you not agree that whatever it is that created the human, happiness does seem to be good for it, while unhappiness seems bad?

    You might then ask why I don’t go off and bother the scientists with my ideas? If only I could! The problem is that they don’t yet even speculate on the nature of good/bad.

    I see that you’re out of comments for this one, though I’m always here:

    thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  2. Massimo and Dan K,

    (I’m quoting and responding to Massimo here but my response also relates, in part at least, to my earlier exchange with Dan K.)

    >”I believe they have laid out an exemplary dialogue of how intellectual conversations should go. Not only that, but they focused on something of very practical import, instead of “going” meta.”

    >”Talk of rights and, therefore, duties is a bit too Kantian for my taste. Even Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, famously referred to the idea of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts.” So rights (and duties) are, naturalistically, simply legal and cultural agreement with make with each other about how to behave in a society.”

    >”Part of the problem is that real life is much more complicated than the rule-based approach implied by talk of rights/duties is, which is why I prefer the character-based, situational ethics that emerges from the virtue ethical tradition.”

    I’m concerned about two dichotomies that have been set up in this discussion and to some extent in SciSal ethics discussions generally. These are:

    [1] practical ethics versus “going meta,” and
    [2] virtue ethics versus “the framework of moral obligations.”

    While these dichotomies are more or less assumed to be common sense here, and to some extent play a structuring role in “how the conversation should go,” I think they represent, with certain qualifications, false substantive philosophical positions, and related ones.

    As a general point, I don’t see the the primary object of philosophical ethics as historic ethical theorizing. Rather, I see the primary object as our common ethical language, wherein historical ethical theorizing represents attempts to interpret this language. As an illustration of the significance of this, it makes no more sense to dismiss “talk of rights and duties” as “too Kantian” as it does to dismiss talk of numbers as too Pythagorean. Kant didn’t invent rights and duties; he merely gave a (possibly wrong) view about them. Generally, rights and duties are an ancient part of our ethical language, and as such are more fundamental than their historic philosophical interpretations, religious interpretations, and legal appropriations. They remain a vital part of our present ethical language, and, as such, an ethical philosophy that ignores them is incomplete and likely to be lop-sided.

    (continued below)

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  3. (continuation)

    Taking dichotomy [2] first, it was essentially the assumption of this dichotomy that I was concerned with in my earlier comment about Dan K’s essay. More precisely, my concern was that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to divide ethical language into parts and to say we should talk about one part instead of another. This is especially the case when this philosophical move is undefended beyond an expression of distaste for the social manifestations of the unfavored part of ethical language.

    That said, I don’t find Dan K’s position unreasonable; my concern with more with mode of argument, and with certain assumptions present regarding dichotomy [2]; namely the suggestion that thought about virtue, or whatever Dan K prefers, and thought about moral obligations are separate areas of thought as opposed to systemically related. An argument I would have found more favorable would have been one to effect that we need a fuller discussion of ethics on relevant matters; one that goes beyond rights and duties as opposed to one that diminishes them as a societal malady.

    Speaking more generally about dichotomy [2], and this relates to my point above about the primary object of philosophical ethics being ethical language as opposed to historic theory, I would agree that the virtues are an important part of ethics. I would disagree, however, that a focus on the virtues excuses an ethical thinker from concern with rights and duties and other parts of ethical language. That Aristotle was relative quite on rights and duties doesn’t mean such quietude is philosophically sound. I might argue in fact that one’s understanding of the virtues is bound to be limited, if not false, if one doesn’t consider their inter-relations with other parts of ethical language, such as rights and duties and ethical rights and wrongs. The notion that rights and duties represent a mere way of talking, one philosophically insignificant, suggests, in my view, not just a questionable view of ethics but a questionable view of philosophy, i.e. one not sufficiently concerned with language.

    Regarding dichotomy [1], while I agree that discussions shouldn’t jump ship from the topic, I find the order not to “go meta” questionable. Due to the systemic nature of ethical language, it is quite easy for a discussion of even a practical ethical question to loop through the meta. In fact such a loop might be necessary to arriving at an intelligent view on a practical question. Given this, an order to “stay practical” might effectively be an order to keep the conversation simplistic. So my suggestion for the order would be to stay on topic with the understanding that sometimes one can “go meta” from practical questions while staying on topic.

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  4. Phil H wrote:

    Dan K seems to me to be making the equivalent, but opposite criticism: he is telling those who didn’t withdraw, those who campaigned until the very end, that they were wrong. That in fact, their status as being soon-to-die meant that they were released from the campaign to which they had been dedicated; that they ought to be doing something more self-oriented, less public spirited. (Because they may still have private obligations, but, if I understand Dan K’s argument, they no longer have obligations to social action; therefore they ought to follow their private obligations exclusively.)

    ————————————————————————

    I am certainly not telling anyone that they are wrong.

    Do I find the notion of campaigning from one’s hospice bed weird? Yes. Am I making any brief against someone who wants to do this? Absolutely not. People should spend their last months, weeks, moments the way they want.

    There are any number of public “causes” that I am involved in. My last months, weeks, moments, on the earth, however, will be spent on those with whom I share intimate relationships.

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  5. Paul:

    Bernard Williams makes a pretty strong distinction between moral theory and the other areas of what is more broadly called Ethics and expressed some pretty strong doubts about the coherence/fruitfulness of the former. (This is largely what his book “Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy” is about.) I tend to agree with him.

    The question is not the existence of a language of obligation or its entrenchment. Rather, it is about the systematic approach to this framework taken by most moral theories and especially by Utilitarianism and Kantianism. It is also about the notion — advanced by these theories — that moral obligation are always overriding of all obligations and values. This is why a Peter Singer will tell me that I am morally wrong for attending a family barbecue, because my moral obligation to the chicken overrides the value of sharing this experience with family and friends.

    If I have to choose a moral theory, it will be along the lines of that proposed by W.D. Ross, in “The Right and the Good.” There, Ross suggests that we have a number of “prima facie” duties that arise from our myriad relationships with other people, but that our *actual* duty will always be the result of our consideration — and deliberation over — those duties, in context. Once we do that, the other prima facie duties are temporarily “overridden,” but continue to operate in the background. For example, my duty to keep my promise to meet you for lunch may be overridden by an emergency, but it continues to operate, insofar as I might then be obligated to make it up to you, somehow.

    Ultimately, what our prima facie duties are is a matter of common sense and experience — Ross is an ethical intuitionist, which means that he thinks duties are directly experienced, rather than derived (as Mill and Kant believed). The arguments for ethical intuitionism come largely from H.A. Prichard’s essay, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake,” which articulates some of the most devastating criticisms of Utilitarianism and Kantianism that I have encountered — criticisms that have never been successfully met. Ross also has some pretty tough criticisms of Mill and Kant in “The Right and the Good.”

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  6. Aravis aka Dan K

    So now we see what this has really all been about: barbecued chicken ; )

    More seriously, though I’ve studied a lot of ethics in a formal context, my perspective on the subject now is what might be called “philo-literary,” wherein ethics is a set of words with uses, meanings, and interrelations, and ethical understanding is a matter of understanding how these words work. Bernard Williams may be right about what’s suitable for moral theory, but philosophical ethical understanding is, I think, broader than moral theory. I find it hard to think of any ethical words that are uninteresting or unrelated to the others.

    As you may know and agree, fiction can be a philosophical mode of ethical inquiry in its own right. While fiction writers must think a lot about the meanings of words, perhaps fiction’s more unique value is that in a sense it builds contextually nuanced models of concrete ethical life wherein the systematicity of ethical concern is more apparent. While the insight gained from this may be of limited value to explicit moral theory, I think it does represent philosophical ethical understanding.

    With regard to this, I have often wondered why Wittgenstein was not more interested in fiction given that it seems somewhat congenial to his view of philosophizing, or at least an interesting use of language. Do you have thoughts on this? (If this question is too much of a stray from the topic, and you’re interested in saying something about it, I’m at pmpaolini.z@gmail.com.)

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  7. I want to speak more on the whole issue of “moral obligations.”

    First, regular readers both here, and back on RS, may remember that I’ve said I’m an anti-systemetician. Ethics is a great illustrator.

    Everyday folks, pace Dan Dennett, have a folk philosophy as well as a folk psychology. That’s very true on ethical issues. Per my previous comment, they view “moral obligations” in terms of relationships to others (sociology) and to self (psychology). “Moral obligations” are efforts to fulfill moral (or pseudo-moral, per my last comment) social relationships. Liam notes moral actors.

    I say and see much of this in the light of 1960s-70s humanistic psychologies.

    For example, John thinks: “Yeah, it’s Uncle Bob, and I know I don’t really like him, but he is 70, he’s just 200 miles away, and I haven’t seen him for 4 years. I’ll go up there next weekend.” That’s a moral (or more likely, pseudo-moral, a psychological relief of guilt-tripping) obligation, in a transactional/relational point of view.

    This gets back to Dan-K’s favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein.

    We need to clarify language. We need to clarify definitions.

    And, more. We need to clarify, and find agreement, on what our starting points for making many definitions are.

    And, call it anti-systematic or whatever, but per a favorite philosopher of mine, Hume, we need to lean heavy on the induction and light on the deduction when we do this.

    (You know, Massimo, there’s a launching point for a whole essay about transactional or relational philosophy, or folk philosophy, or one of both of these issues specifically related to values formation, etc. Indeed, when you talked about “cultural agreement” on ethics, you went right up that alley. Just hinting a bit. Folk philosophy. Transactional ethics. Ideas to have essayed!)

    I think Dan-T partially addresses this, when he references virtue ethics AND consequentialism. Per Labnut’s comment, kind of like mine, about ethical “boxes,” I don’t know if Dan-T would consider further reframing his argument in terms of relationships rather than schools of ethical thought, or not. That said, I consider virtue ethics as much a box as either deontological or consequentalist ethics, at least unless a person is prepared to go Cynic on virtue ethics and insist this is MY flourishing, not YOURS. Phil H gets at this while noting that it’s an open question as to what other “societal obligations” a terminally ill person faces. My answer is, only the ones he or she finds conducive, after legal obligations which would harm others by their breaking, to one’s personal integrity. (Note that one caveat: If, at 18, or 88, you want to smoke a doobie or pay someone for sex, have at it!)

    Virtue ethics, when carried too far, risks becoming the tyranny of the democratic or sociological majoritarianism.

    Deontological ethics, when carried too far, risks becoming the tyranny of authoritarians.

    Consequentialism, when carried too far, risks becoming the tyranny of Hobbes’ “warre of all against all.”

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  8. Paul: I don’t know that Wittgenstein wasn’t interested in fiction. Certainly his work in what we call ‘aesthetics’ was minimal — as was his work in ethics — but that does not mean that he was not interested in the subject matter. Indeed, if you pick up the collection titled “Culture and Value,” he has a lot of interesting things to say about literature, music, and even religion.

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  9. Hi Massimo,

    Dan T. did quote Sacks approvingly, but he differed from Sacks on that specific point, as Aravis/Dan K. points out.

    That’s still not how I read Dan T’s remarks (though obviously I’m open to correction from Dan). Sacks stated that he “still cares deeply” about things like global warming, but feels “detached” because he can no longer do much about it. On matters where he can still act, he feels “a sudden clear focus … There is no time for anything inessential”.

    Dan T. suggests that such patients still have “moral obligations”, but fewer of them an account of diminished capacity to act, though they still pertain where the patient can reasonably act. Coupled with later clarifications about what he meant by “obligations”, this seems entirely in line with Sacks’s remarks.

    Thus I don’t see that Dan T. differed from Sacks, except perhaps in the wordings he used. And it follows that — interpreting as I did — Dan T’s article doesn’t actually differ from Dan K’s much at all.

    I also agree with Dan K’s distaste for certain highly categorical and absolutist theories of morality, and indeed I agree with labnut’s, Paul Paolini’s and Socratic’s remarks about various moral theories being only part of the story, and not things to be over-interpreted. I’m also rather baffled that anyone would want to discuss using ethical language, but without considering what the words actually meant to be relevant, but maybe that’s just me.

    Hi ejwinner,

    Coel: nice try; largely irrelevant.

    I appreciate your appreciation, but my initial post was intended to be and indeed was directly relevant to the differences between the two Dan’s essays.

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  10. Hi Coel,

    re Sacks: I was interpreting Sacks as saying that he doesn’t think he has societal obligations anymore – that these things are out of his hands. This is what I was disagreeing with, and I tried to illustrate and defend one societal obligation that terminal patients have, but I claimed other societal obligations remain as well.
    Dan K argues that terminal patients don’t have societal obligations anymore, e.g “Depending on how “terminal” a person we are talking about, the fact is that they really are done with respect to the sorts of activities we’ve been discussing. Global warming, inequality, and even the paucity of hospice workers…”

    In other words, Dan-K and I do disagree.

    I could be wrong in my interpretation of Sacks, but I don’t think it matters too much. I was just using his quote as a springboard to a larger discussion. I think what will matter most is just recognizing where Dan K and I disagree. I tried to explicitly articulate this in an earlier comment:

    https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/everyone-has-moral-obligations-and-were-talking-about-them-way-too-much/comment-page-1/#comment-14749

    The reason it may not be clear where Dan K and I disagree is because Dan K was mostly disagreeing with me in a somewhat “meta” manner (though not in the sense of talking about realism vs. anti-realism). He only directly addressed a couple of my points, e.g my point about dignity, which could have made it hard to see where we disagree.

    He was taking issue with an implicit assumption I seemed to have, which is that the context of situations doesn’t effect one’s moral obligations or our need to invoke the language of moral obligations. He suggests that in certain contexts, moral obligations shouldn’t enter into the picture – like in the case of terminal patients (with the exception of people like the “geriatric bonnie and clyde.”). The reason for this is that invoking moral obligations takes away from other things which are valuable to us – such as intimacy with one’s loved ones toward the end of one’s life. For confirmation that this is one thing he was arguing, see this passage:
    ____________________________________________
    “The moral point of view, in the duty and obligation game, is that of the Impartial Observer, not of the friend, the lover, the brother, or the son.

    For this reason, it should be employed sparingly and with a great attention to context. It may be the case that we ought to be kinder to animals, but if we begin treating this as a categorical moral imperative, to be applied to every fishing trip taken with a son or daughter, every intimate meal eaten with a lover, and every Fourth of July barbecue shared with family and friends, then not only are we going to have to engage in an awful lot of moral condemnation of an awful lot of people, but we are going to miss all of the things about these sorts of activities and experiences that make them the very material out of which our relationships with friends and loved ones are formed.”
    ____________________________________________

    My further clarifications (basically a mini-essay) were an attempt to respond to Dan-K by suggesting that the context surrounding terminal patients still is one where we should invoke the language of moral obligations, *even if* we endorse his context-dependency view. I did this by suggesting that intimacy is actually fostered if we invoke obligations, and so is dignity.

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  11. Dan, this whole problem of care, part of which you raise so well in your essay, is a minefield of moral judgments for all the participants and the larger community. Modern caring for (what are literally) hopeless cases, though undeniably humane in intent, does not ensure good quality of living. It will absorb very considerable amounts from limited communal resources including costly equipment and dedicated expert staffing, whether paid or voluntary. Not least are problems of finding and keeping adequate competent staffing levels. It is all very well to say that providing good hospice care for anyone who needs it is desirable but is it realistically attainable in terms of human resource as well as financial ones?

    You seem to have upset some by using loaded words like duty and obligation: what about replacing them with “moral dimension”?
    A new-born baby has little if any moral dimension: it is self-helplessly dependent on other humans to keep it fit and well. Nevertheless, it comes equipped with its own unique set of naturally-selected characteristics ranging from reflexes to emotions and includes evolved basic human moral codings. Slowly, as the infant develops awareness and personal memories, it begins to learn to interact by conscious reason with other life and the nature of its evolved emotions and moral codings can and will be developed, and probably modified to a greater or lesser extent, by nurture, the cultural ambience and experiences it has during its lifetime.

    Towards the end of a life, the process can go into reverse, possibly suffering much deterioration in all faculties including the ability to interact with, and have consideration for, others. This can see the person become once again almost like a baby, entirely dependent, reduced to helplessness and incapable of helping others or even having much meaningful interest in their surroundings. Intolerable discomfort or loss of mental competence, sufficient to require a totally-cared-for regime, will leave little room for conscious moral intentions on the patient’s part, though of course plenty in the carers’ behaviour.

    This can also happen at an earlier time in life when a condition, though dire, is curable and the helplessness will pass. Only when the condition is an incurable one that it can be totally debilitating, but where the condition, though “terminal”, is less extreme in its effects, then patients are able to behave more normally and retain a moral dimension to their behaviour: in these circumstances they should be rightly credited with and given as much autonomy as possible.

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  12. Hi Daniel Tippens,

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading the “mini essay” that you’ve provided above in these comments: (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/everyone-has-moral-obligations-and-were-talking-about-them-way-too-much/comment-page-1/#comment-14782).

    For your first question, “1) what should *our* attitude be toward terminal patients, such that their dignity is upheld?”, you have argued that moral obligation is essential. I would agree that moral obligation could help promote patient dignity, though I believe by means of a much larger dynamic which I’ll now discuss.

    A reasonably cognitive terminal patient should naturally have various insecurities regarding their situation. Even if you’re able to dress yourself, wipe your own butt, and so on, others may still at least look at you from the diminished position of “pity.” This should generally feel negative to a person who is used to being looked up to. Thus one might now state, “You can go to hell master Tippens with your damn pitty! I’ll kick your ass!” So my point is that while leaving standard moral obligations in tact may indeed help a person feel somewhat less pitiful, this is not the most essential aspect of what’s happening. Responsibility may suggest that a person does still have some measure of social respect, though it’s the sensation of respect itself that should be the crucial dynamic, not a requirement that social judgmentation occur for transgressions.

    Then your other question was: “2) what does *our* attitude have to do with generating a moral obligation *for terminal patients?*” Here you quoted the wonderful definition that Massimo provided for morality, and thus if it’s generally agreed in society that moral obligations do remain for the terminally ill, then that’s just the way it is. One problem here of course is that this *isn’t* generally agreed upon. Apparently some, or perhaps many, do believe that they are entitled to ignore social customs simply because they are dying. Of course this hasn’t impacted SusanR, and I do hope that becoming terminal wouldn’t change my own attitude very much. Nevertheless apparently it has been your experience that the majority of these subjects do at least seem quite ungrateful. Why? Well perhaps because they believe that terminality DOES grant them a free pass? Or perhaps as mentioned above, because they don’t feel respected? But regardless of why so many terminal subjects are not grateful, would things improve if more publicity were provided to suggest that it is indeed our moral obligation to be grateful to those who provide such charity? Yes perhaps the selfless don’t get enough publicity for what they do, though I must observe that whether on the evening news or in general commercials, those who profess charity do seem to get a good bit of air time!

    I haven’t actually decided which essay I agree with more, though I must say that I find Daniel Kauffman’s line that we talk about morality far too much, to be the best point of all!

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  13. Hi dantip,

    I was interpreting Sacks as saying that he doesn’t think he has societal obligations anymore -– that these things are out of his hands. This is what I was disagreeing with, …

    I suggest that none of the three of you (Sacks, Dan and Dan) would expect a terminal patient to be obligated to act on “the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality” for obvious and good reasons of practicality.

    However, all three of you would still have expectations about the patient’s interactions with those around them, family, friends and carers. That’s why I was suggesting that there was not much difference between you (and that the language used perhaps obscured that).

    [Dan K] was taking issue with an implicit assumption I seemed to have, which is that the context of situations doesn’t effect one’s moral obligations …

    If that’s what you did mean, and if you really were suggesting that Sacks still had societal obligations regarding things like global warming, then I completely agree with Dan K’s criticism.*

    But I didn’t interpret your original that way, since your main “obligation” example concerned personal interactions with volunteers, and you seemed to excuse such patients obligations of the global-warming type for obvious reasons (you explicitly said they have “fewer obligations”).

    In other words, if we were to take any specific “obligation” then, de facto, all three of you might agree. I’m thus sticking to my original suggestion that the main differences between the three essays are more apparent than real and are largely caused by the unhelpful interjection of moral-theory language. Of the three pieces I’d most identify with that by Oliver Sacks, which doesn’t use such language.

    [*Though if the terminal patient were someone with $50 billion in the bank, we would presumably not consider them “detached” and “excused” from the wider obligations owing to their ongoing and very real capability to act.]

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  14. Hi coel,

    Unfortunately I think I would mostly be re-quoting/ restating things I said both in the essay and in the comments thread if I were to respond to you adequately, but I can’t do that as I have company in town.

    However I will say that if your ultimate intuitions lie with Dan-k that’s understandable, plenty of others have gone that route as well 🙂

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  15. Hi, Dan K. Thanks for your answer.

    I have a real problem with the idea of doing ethics seriously, but at the same time “certainly not telling anyone that they are wrong.” Isn’t it a peculiarly ivory-tower, ineffectual conception of ethics that one can take a clear position, and yet never ever be condemning other people?

    This conception also seems to imply a very simplistic view of human moral reckoning, as in your paragraph on harming animals: “if we begin treating [kindness to animals] as a categorical moral imperative, to be applied to every fishing trip taken with a son or daughter…then not only are we going to have to engage in an awful lot of moral condemnation…we are going to miss all of the things about these sorts of activities and experiences that make them the very material out of which our relationships with friends and loved ones are formed.”

    I refute it thus by counterexample: I’m a vegetarian; I condemn every fisherman and steak eater; I do not fail to see the joys of human relationships. It sounds like you think that if I see killing animals as immoral, then I must see every activity which involves killing animals as of no value. But that’s not how anyone I know thinks. People are mostly very comfortable seeing in tones of grey – or not even grey, just the co-existence of black and white. Moral evil doesn’t drive out moral good; nor vice-versa.

    Anyway, back to the matter in hand: “There are any number of public “causes” that I am involved in. My last months, weeks, moments, on the earth, however, will be spent on those with whom I share intimate relationships.”

    I think we’re all comfortable with the notion that for emotional reasons, one might well choose to spend one’s last year (say) on personal relationships. But you argued a bit more than that: you say, “What purpose is served by insisting that they have a “moral duty”…the moral frame of reference is, here, terribly misapplied.” So, I wanted to ask if you were able to elaborate on exactly how it is that the “moral frame of reference” falls away? You say you are engaged in public causes – do you feel that you have a moral duty to those causes? If you do, then what is going to happen on the day when you are diagnosed with a terminal illness? (Apologies for the indelicacy of the question!)

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  16. Phil H. wrote:

    This conception also seems to imply a very simplistic view of human moral reckoning, as in your paragraph on harming animals: “if we begin treating [kindness to animals] as a categorical moral imperative, to be applied to every fishing trip taken with a son or daughter…then not only are we going to have to engage in an awful lot of moral condemnation…we are going to miss all of the things about these sorts of activities and experiences that make them the very material out of which our relationships with friends and loved ones are formed.”

    I refute it thus by counterexample: I’m a vegetarian; I condemn every fisherman and steak eater; I do not fail to see the joys of human relationships. It sounds like you think that if I see killing animals as immoral, then I must see every activity which involves killing animals as of no value. But that’s not how anyone I know thinks. People are mostly very comfortable seeing in tones of grey – or not even grey, just the co-existence of black and white. Moral evil doesn’t drive out moral good; nor vice-versa.

    ——————————————————–

    Seems to me like you’re the one engaged in simplistic moral reckoning and black and white thinking, not me.

    And by the way “refute” doesn’t mean what you seem to think it does.

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  17. This thread (narrative) about obligations and duties gets wider and wider with each go around. Is there any limit (constraint) to what would be applicable? Is there any way to cut though the fog without going meta? How useful is it to stay practical by excluding a meta-perspective?

    The postmodernist narrative is that narrative as a source of knowledge is dead, and they have a point. Is there any reason to believe that these stories that we tell ourselves will ever find an agreed upon insight that would change the way we see ourselves and others?

    The common man and woman, when thinking about their obligations and duties in a particular situation, asks two questions: what does that person expect from me, and what do I owe that person? Would anyone consult a textbook, or would they rather consult their feelings about a particular circumstance?

    The truth is that each and every one of us comes preloaded with a vast amount of information, conscious and unconscious, congenital and acquired, that is brought to bear and will determine a decision: membership of a number of communities, e.g. family, fiends, culture, etc. Individuals also have a unique but relatively fixed personality, which goes a long way towards predetermining their decision. There are more community orientated personalities (allocentric) or more self-centered (idiocentric) ones. Their feelings are partially out of their conscious control. A monolithic prescription of obligations and duties is therefore bound to fail.

    So yes, people probably do pay a lot of attention to the stories about right or wrong that filter through society. Philosophizing is one way in which the narrative can be enhanced and clarified. The conversation should be as open and rigorous as the participants can handle.

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  18. Phil H:

    A few more points:

    1. As indicated in my essay — and in the reference to Williams — I don’t accept identifcation of the moral framework with the much broader framework of ethics. The framework of obligation and duty is a narrow framework within that larger ethical framework.

    2. With regard to how your appeal to “how anyone I know thinks,” I am reminded of the somewhat apocryphal Pauline Kael quote, in which she responded with incredulity to Nixon’s presidential victory, “I can’t believe Nixon won. No one I know voted for him.” And given that you “condemn every fisherman and steak eater,” I might gently suggest that it is you who is on the far-out fringe of opinion and values, not me. *Every* fisherman? Grandpa and his little grandson out on the lake? *Every* steak eater? My wife, daughter, and I at dinner? Do you go up to people and tell them this? Do you park yourself at fishing holes and try to prevent Grandpa and junior from going fishing?

    It is exactly this sort of attitude that motivated the remarks you highlight. In order to accept the Singerian line — which you repeat here — one has to believe that every schoolkid’s lunch is a moral catastrophe and every Fourth of July barbecue is a holocaust, which means that hundreds of millions of people are moral cretins. As far as I am concerned, this is a reductio ad aburdum (not to mention obnoxious). Hence my value pluralism; hence my view that the moral frame of reference should be rarely and sparingly invoked; and hence my appreciation for the points made by Joan Didion in the quoted passage at the beginning, points that really need to be repeated often, in today’s hyper-moralizing culture. I understand that you really, really, really wish that I wouldn’t cook my grandmother’s Paprikas Csirke recipe and eat it with my family, but we’re going to do it anyway, and your wishing that we wouldn’t doesn’t make our doing so “immoral.” (See Didion’s point re: confusing wants with oughts.)

    3. As for causes, the overwhelming majority of them will long outlive us. It takes an impressive level of moral narcisissm to think that one is so essential to them that one cannot step away and leave them to others, especially when one is on one’s way to one’s final resting place. So, yes, I feel all sorts of obligations to my community — I serve on the Board of my synagogue and chaired a recent search to find a new Rabbi; I have volunteered to cater weddings and Bar Mitzvahs gratis, for congregants who could not afford to hire caterers; in the past, I have been involved in political activism, in the area of educational reform; etc. — and yes, I will be perfectly satisfied, in my final months, to step away from all such things and focus on those with whom I am intimately connected, without a single doubt or regret.

    I don’t think that makes me weird. I don’t think this makes me ivory-towerish. Indeed, I think it makes me quite boringly normal.

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  19. Re: the Kael quote, Dan K. What do you mean by “somewhat apocryphal”? Do you mean to say “possibly apocryphal”? Or that you are paraphrasing? Or will “apocryphal” suffice? Just curious about this construction.

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  20. Hi, Dan K.

    Yeah, you’ve repeated your position, but I don’t think you really addressed my question. I wish you had elaborated a bit more.
    “I feel all sorts of obligations to my community…and yes, I will be perfectly satisfied, in my final months, to step away from all such things…”
    Sure, but again, this is a lesser claim than the one you made in the essay: that the moral framework will no longer apply. I certainly don’t think there is anything wrong with the course of action you have outlined; but nor do I think that the moral framework will disappear. I was hoping you would say why you think it does.

    Let’s say I have a twin brother. We both believe it is our moral duty to help the homeless, so we volunteer together at the local shelter. On Monday, I am diagnosed with cancer, and I have one year to live.
    As I understand your claim, when it comes time for us to go to the shelter next week. My brother Phineas is still under the same moral obligation, but my moral obligation has changed. This is where we disagree. As I see it, my circumstances have changed, and that might cause me to make different (moral) choices. But I don’t see why the homeless issue has changed, or why my relationship to homeless people has changed or disappeared.

    I have a feeling that your answer is that I never had a moral obligation to volunteer at the shelter in the first place. If that’s right, then you’re not really arguing that there’s a change in moral status, is that right?

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  21. And here’s my last. These are responses to specific points in your last post.

    “Do you go up to people and tell them this? Do you park yourself at fishing holes and try to prevent Grandpa and junior from going fishing?”
    I don’t recognise this view of what moral condemnation is. Do you think murder is wrong? Do you park yourself at courtrooms and tell all the murderers there exactly what you think of them? No, of course not. Does the fact that you don’t go and tell murderers that they are wrong mean that you condone murder? Obviously not.
    Recognising a particular kind of action as morally wrong – even condemning it – does not require that we go and morally exhort every person who commits that action.

    “…one has to believe that every schoolkid’s lunch is a moral catastrophe…”
    No, one could have a sense of scale. The Holocaust was a holocaust. Murder is moral depravity. Killing animals humanely is a fairly minor sin.

    “…which means that hundreds of millions of people are moral cretins. As far as I am concerned, this is a reductio ad aburdum…”
    Until very recently in human history, torture was standard practice. The death penalty was regarded as obviously necessary. Homosexuality was almost universally abhorred. Women were relegated to the status of property in many, many cultures. Widespread moral cretinism is obviously possible, so your reductio doesn’t work.

    “I understand that you really, really, really wish that I wouldn’t cook my grandmother’s Paprikas Csirke recipe…”
    You presume too much. I have very little engagement with your cooking. Chances are you will have done five things much worse than eating meat during the day – most of us do. I have a vague general wish that people would stop eating meat, and I sometimes talk about it, because it’s one of the most achievable of moral goals. Much more achievable than, for example, ending war, which would be an infinitely greater moral good. As would stopping people lying, or ending racial prejudice. I try to lend my voice to those conversations sometimes, too, but those are much tougher nuts.

    “…your wishing that we wouldn’t doesn’t make our doing so “immoral.””
    No, the fact that it involves killing beings with some level of awareness makes it immoral.

    Look, if you disagree with the/my arguments for vegetarianism, that’s fine. I might be wrong that it is immoral to kill animals (for the minimal utility of eating them). But my being wrong about vegetarianism doesn’t constitute a reason why morality cannot exist.

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  22. @ Phil H:

    “Sure, but again, this is a lesser claim than the one you made in the essay: that the moral framework will no longer apply. I certainly don’t think there is anything wrong with the course of action you have outlined; but nor do I think that the moral framework will disappear. I was hoping you would say why you think it does.”

    From Aravis:

    “The question is not the existence of a language of obligation or its entrenchment. Rather, it is about the systematic approach to this framework taken by most moral theories and especially by Utilitarianism and Kantianism. It is also about the notion — advanced by these theories — that moral obligation are always overriding of all obligations and values. This is why a Peter Singer will tell me that I am morally wrong for attending a family barbecue, because my moral obligation to the chicken overrides the value of sharing this experience with family and friends.

    If I have to choose a moral theory, it will be along the lines of that proposed by W.D. Ross, in “The Right and the Good.” There, Ross suggests that we have a number of “prima facie” duties that arise from our myriad relationships with other people, but that our *actual* duty will always be the result of our consideration — and deliberation over — those duties, in context. Once we do that, the other prima facie duties are temporarily “overridden,” but continue to operate in the background. For example, my duty to keep my promise to meet you for lunch may be overridden by an emergency, but it continues to operate, insofar as I might then be obligated to make it up to you, somehow.

    Ultimately, what our prima facie duties are is a matter of common sense and experience — Ross is an ethical intuitionist, which means that he thinks duties are directly experienced, rather than derived (as Mill and Kant believed).”

    Again, Aravis:

    “I am certainly not telling anyone that they are wrong.

    Do I find the notion of campaigning from one’s hospice bed weird? Yes. Am I making any brief against someone who wants to do this? Absolutely not. People should spend their last months, weeks, moments the way they want.”

    _______________________________
    Part of what I think you, Phil H., might want to ask yourself is why the terribly, terribly, urgent sense of a moral framework on your part? Part of Pritchard’s answer (in the article referenced by Aravis/Dan K. and which I would strongly second *everyone* reading- it’s easily available online) is that the framework functions in part as a mechanism whereby we try and convince ourselves to do what we know intuitively is correct but what we resist for a variety of reasons. In other words, it’s a post-facto justification mechanism (reminds one of Dan Sperber’s recent Argumentative Theory of Reasoning).

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  23. Cont’d:

    Beyond this, Dan K. made very clear that the operative moral framework keeps us at a distance from others for the sake of maintaining the Impartial Observer’s view:

    “Our interactions with others through this framework is consequently procedural and by design, impersonal. The moral point of view, in the duty and obligation game, is that of the Impartial Observer, not of the friend, the lover, the brother, or the son.”

    Thus, it devalues these for the sake of some sort of transcendent moral algorithm. To borrow Levinas’ language, it sacrifices the infinite, warm beauty of the personal relation with another human being for the cold totality of an abstract moral framework. Notice what happens to Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s great novella: when he realizes he’s dying and the procedural life he’s led is revealed for what it is, he sees he has nothing else, no intimate personal relationships, no human beings to connect with, except for his caregiver Gerasim, who helps him see what’s most important. That doesn’t mean that one is necessarily *wrong* for pursuing whatever part of the moral framework of obligation one feels one can on one’s deathbed. But to think that this is the most important thing (or to circumscribe one’s relations with one’s loved ones within it), in that context, devalues our personal relations with others, which are *always* prior (as both Heidegger and Wittgenstein understood) and not only prior, but most important. To think otherwise misunderstands what being a human being is, in terms of our finitude and the primary and constitutive nature of our relations with others.

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  24. As students, we were brought up on Talcott Parson’s and the sociology of the “sick role”. It isn’t quite so useful for the hospice situation, as its main duties for the patient include seeking out appropriate help and working hard to get better. Nevertheless, there are papers in the medical sociology literature that might be relevant to Dan T:

    eg Illness as moral occasion: restoring agency to ill people
    http://hea.sagepub.com/content/1/2/131.short

    Most of the writing on the “dying role” seems to be limited to intrinsic or family-centred moral issues, eg accept the necessity of care by others and not fight against it. The “good death” is just as much for the relatives and onlookers to “the drama” in that sense.

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  25. Phil H.:

    “‘Do you go up to people and tell them this? Do you park yourself at fishing holes and try to prevent Grandpa and junior from going fishing?’

    I don’t recognise this view of what moral condemnation is. Do you think murder is wrong? Do you park yourself at courtrooms and tell all the murderers there exactly what you think of them? No, of course not. Does the fact that you don’t go and tell murderers that they are wrong mean that you condone murder? Obviously not.
    Recognising a particular kind of action as morally wrong – even condemning it – does not require that we go and morally exhort every person who commits that action.”
    ________________________________
    We do condemn murderers- that’s why the legal system re: such actions and the subsequent prosecution of the perpetrators exists. The implications of your argument are that we should haul grandpa into court too…for fly fishing for trout with his grandson, on the grounds that salmonids have rights. Good luck with that.

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