Conflict of Autonomy

A 38-year-old father does not want his 18-year-old daughter to have a test done for Huntington’s disease on her fetus. His reason for this is that if the test comes back positive, he will also know that he has Huntington’s which he has carefully thought about in the past and decided he did not want to know. The reason why the daughter wants to have the fetus tested is to avoid bringing a life into this world which has Huntington’s. A conflict of autonomy is clearly present in this case. You have the decision of the daughter to not want a child with Huntington’s versus the decision of the father to maintain ignorance of his condition. What should be done in this situation?

The first step taken in this situation should be to try and activate increased discussion between the father and the daughter in hopes that they may be able to resolve the situation themselves. There are several benefits to this process. It would maintain a strong family bond between the two that might be broken when one of their autonomy is taken away by the other. An increased understanding of the other’s position and the rationale that exists behind there position may also be of benefit in helping to console the individual who has just lost a certain amount of autonomy. Only after serious attempts to reach a consensus have been tried and failed, should the consideration to override autonomy be made.

It will be assumed that is it is morally acceptable to abort the fetus if it is found to have Huntington’s. The reason for this is so that the issue of autonomy can be addressed rather than the ethical dilemma of aborting due to Huntington’s. It is a total dismissal of the case to say that the autonomy of the father should be respected because the autonomous decision of the daughter is morally wrong in the first place and then go on to argue for the immorality of abortions on fetuses with Huntington.

The proper course of action in this situation is to respect the daughter’s autonomy while overriding the autonomy of the father. There are three main reasons for accepting this course of action. The first is that accepting the daughter’s autonomy only potentially affects one life while accepting the father’s potentially affects two. The second reason is based on the amount of life which will be affected by following the autonomy of the father over the daughter. The final reason is that the autonomy of someone should never be allowed to override the autonomy of another when dealing with matters of health.

If the father’s autonomy is accepted it will potentially affect not only the daughter’s life but also the fetus’s life. Thus the autonomy of one individual will be imposed on two lives. If the daughter’s autonomy is followed then only one individual, the father, is being imposed upon. It is reasonable to pick the path which will impose autonomous beliefs on the fewest people. One objection to this might be that in both cases the autonomy of an individual is actually being imposed on two people, the father, and fetus, or the daughter and fetus. To include the fetus in one count and not another, it might be said, cannot be justified. This is not true, however. If one looks at how decisions for extremely young children are made, it will be seen that the values and beliefs of the parent are assumed to be that of the child except on rare occasions.

The autonomy of the father is less important than the daughter’s because it will only affect at most, the next ten years of his life. After ten years pass he will know whether he has Huntington’s or not while the autonomy of the daughter will affect not only many years of her life, but also many years of the fetus’s life. It is utterly selfish of the father to demand that the daughter refrains from testing the fetus so that he may remain in ignorance for only several more years, while the daughter is forced to bring into the world against her wishes someone who may have Huntington’s. The autonomy of one individual cannot be given such force that it overrides two lives for the sake of ignorance, especially when the ignorance that the father cherishes so much will be over shortly regardless.

The father really has no say in this matter. The daughter being pregnant and eighteen years of age is considered an emancipated minor, a child able to make their own medical decisions. When it comes to health issues there needs to be a much stronger reason to override someone’s autonomy in favour of someone else’s, than a desire to remain ignorant. To allow the father’s autonomy to override that of his daughters would be analogous to allowing someone to veto medical research for fear that it may contain results that the person does not want to know. This is unacceptable, as is giving the father veto power over the daughter’s medical decisions.

The autonomy of the daughter should be followed over the autonomy of the father. When dealing with medical decisions the will of the patient is followed, not a third parties desire to stay ignorant. The father’s ignorance will expire in such a short time the amount of life affected by that autonomy is insignificant when compared to the amount of life which will be affected by following the daughter’s autonomy. Furthermore, it is clear that the father’s autonomy will be imposed on two lives, whereas the daughters preferably are imposed upon only one person. As with any conflict, the autonomy of either the daughter or father should only be overridden as a last resort after serious attempts at a compromise have been attempted.

AI and the Drive of the Future

With TESLA being the darling of electronic and self-driving cars, and many following their lead, AI’s role in how we will be driven, no longer drive, is of significant importance. AI itself is in early stages and far from able to analyze the full environment around a car while in motion. Not only is it questionable the environment can be fully processed, but additionally, now attention is being given to decision making aspects affecting the passengers, and pedestrians.

In the article “Building a Moral Machine: Who Decides the Ethics of Self-Driving Cars?” by Thomas Hornigold the topic of how a Moral Machine is programmed is raised. Noted are large survey’s which ask many thousands of respondents what they would do in a given situation. From this, the thinking is that an answer is derived e.g. save the child running after a ball in the streets by swerving into the pole.

For the moment there does not seem to be another method but from this approach, a grand dilemma is created. If we build one Moral Machine e.g. the first truly self-driving car, would build another Moral Machine differently? I think naturally we would not. It would be a job done with no alternative. The study on what the majority would do was completed. This creates the problem that only one moral answer is set in stone.

In my car, I may want it to see things differently based on my morals than the cookie cutter answer that has replaced my view with set guidance. If a passenger says something e.g. a relative offering advice, I clearly do not need to follow it and rather go my own way. What buy-in will there be to bring people onboard with a Moral Machine that does not necessarily reflect their own, and in many instances would not. There is an unfounded presumption here that a Moral Machine will think better for us than our own thoughts. Perhaps, down the road, reality will be that we share what our opinions are and the driving reflects it. For now, I think everyone is in the dark. The truth is though it is likely some form of imposing of values will be necessary and that is troublesome.

Something has to be offered to replace our existing views and values. Perhaps that is safety or another essential human need. If nothing is offered a different course may result which does not accept this new Moral Machine if we are to call it that.

Critical discussion of Mary Ann Warren on The Ethics of Sex Preselection

In the article, The Ethics of Sex Preselection Mary Ann Warren argues for the position that sex preselection is not always a sexist act and thus a complete ban on sex preselection should not be put into place. I believe, however, all that Warren manages to show is that sex pre-selection is not irrational in certain situations, and in this response to her article I will show why her example of sex pre-selection for economic reasons in a sexist society, is, in fact, a form of sexism.

One of Warren’s cases of when sex preselection is not an instance of sexism is when it is done for economic reasons within a sexist society. She presents the case in which a poor mother living in places such as rural Punjab, decides to have a son rather than a daughter. The reason for the mother’s decision is because the society is a sexist one and women traditionally make less money than men and are a greater drain on the family economically since they would have to provide a dowry for her to get married. If the family is too poor to provide a dowry then she would remain living with the family and be a further drain on resources that way. So the mother decides to have a son so that as a family they can increase their economic standing and he will be better able to support the mother in old age. Warren believes that in such a case the preselection by the mother to have a son is not an instance of sexism. Her rationale for this is because the woman is personally blameless, she is merely acting upon the sexism of the society in which she lives in, in an attempt to better their economic status, a rational desire.

Warren defines sexism as “wrongful discrimination on the basis of sex.”[1] Wrongful discrimination according to Warren is discrimination based on false or invidious beliefs about one sex or the other.[2] Even under the very definition, Warren provides of sexism, she fails to adequately show that her example of sex preselection to have a son based on economic reasons is not an act of sexism.

The idea that the woman is using sex preselection merely in response to the sexism of her society to improve her economic status and thus it is not an act of sexism itself, is ridiculous. If you are forced into making a choice which is sexist, the factors behind that choice do not change the fact that it is a sexist choice. There is nothing in the definition of sexism provided by Warren which states that the false or invidious beliefs must be that of the person making the decision. Part of the decision of the mother to have a son is based on the false beliefs of the society which believe that women cannot perform equally in the workforce with men and so the discrimination will still be based on false beliefs which according to Warren’s definition of sexism, indicates sexism. It is not difficult to imagine an analogous example of a situation in which society is pressuring someone into making a clearly sexist choice and yet we do not consider it excusable or non-sexist because of the role in which the society had in pressuring the person. We can imagine a situation in which a man looking to hire a doctor is approached by a woman for the position. He personally believes that women can do just as good a job as men can, but because society has told him women cannot become doctors, he is forced to turn her down. Even though he personally thinks the women could have done as good a job as a man could, her wrongful discrimination based on sex is still at the very base, based on false and invidious beliefs even if they were not the beliefs of the man doing the hiring. The fact that the doctor does not share the same beliefs as the rest of society is irrelevant if the decision is being made within that society, and according to that society false beliefs. This gains support from the fact that when we look at events and attitudes in the past we still assert that many of their actions were sexist. The fact that it was socially acceptable may excuse them at best, but it certainly does not change the fact that what was being done was sexist, just as it does not with the case of a woman preselecting a son in a society in which it is deemed acceptable. Social acceptability is not an indicator at all, of what is and is not sexist.

In response to this Warren could do two things. She could add an ad hoc clause to her definition stating that any wrongful discrimination against someone based on sex due to social pressure does not count as sexism. The problem with such thinking is that it would help to further perpetuate sexism within a sexist society. Warren is taking away individual responsibility. Any sexist act could seemingly be excused on the defense that it has done because of social pressures, and it would be very difficult to ever hold anyone accountable for what is clearly an instance of sexism.

A second response might be an attempt to show that the beliefs in which the decision is based on are true. This is the defense Warren actually uses when citing evidence that men statistically make more money than women. The problem with Warren’s argument here, however, is that showing that something is true and rational, is not enough to show that it is not a case of sexism. She would still have to show that the beliefs are not invidious which would be even harder to show. It seems clear from the fact that there is a large debate on this issue that if someone were to preselect the sex of their child it would cause at least a few people to get angry. Not only does she fail to successfully overcome the invidious part of her definition, but more importantly I believe she also fails to adequately show that the beliefs are true. Providing evidence that men on average make more money than women does not in anyway show that the belief that a daughter would make less money than a son is true. Only time can determine that. It is difficult to not get into epistemological questions about what a true belief is, but it seems reasonable to assume that someone who believes that daughters make less money than sons, could have a daughter which ends up in the small percentage of women who make more than men, thus making the belief, false.

[1] Warren, Mary Ann, The Ethics of Sex Preselection (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 232

[2] ibid pg. 232,233

Researcher in China builds first engineered human

In a stunning first in genetic engineering, a Chinese researcher has engineered a human. This incredible achievement is one of a number of firsts coming from China recently in the area of genetic engineering.

But is all of this at a cost to our morals? Can we allow this path to continue in one region while not in another?

In this globalized era, there is no question whether there should be some form of global oversight to regulate this science. It is not currently being conducted in a manner of speaking which fellow scientists and in particular ethicists can agree with. Why should we agree? Just because it has happened, does not mean we must now accept it.

Let the demonstrations begin.

Whether it is pushing for a new body in the United Nations or a branch from an existing agency, regulations are necessary and to be blunt, behind.

It is now a test of response. No longer is it preparing for the eventuality to come. It has arrived and this new era of evolution has begun.

Mirror Representation as a Supporting Theory for Women’s Empowerment

Mirror representation rests upon the core idea that in a democracy which is representative of the people it must be comprised, mirrored by, a similar proportion of each segment of the population who brought that government into power. Originally used in the United States as a means for African Americans to feel politically empowered with their concerns represented in Congress, it has shown to be an excellent method for including people who otherwise feel, in many instances rightly so, excluded from political decision making. From these beginnings, the idea to expand this form of representation is seen as a possibility for other groups typically excluded such as women and indigenous peoples.

Naturally, the question is why must a seat be given to someone of that minority group rather than another person, can they not represent that minority? Phrased another and not so delicate way, what is it that a white male does not understand after reading about a subject, that someone who is of that minority group does. The answer is that through living and experiencing life as that minority, there is an understanding and knowledge which is derived from being in a specific social environment which brings with it experiential lessons, values, and understanding which cannot sufficiently be replicated through academic study. Thus, if women’s issues are to be covered properly in government those who need to do so must be women. This statement is true for any excluded group in politics.

Criticism though comes in the form of two questions. The first being that at what point can one say that such a person represents a minority. I.e. can a Caucasian woman represent all women including, for instance, African American women or only Caucasian women? Secondly, at what point does a minority not need to be represented. When can we say that in some instances it just is not feasible for all minorities to be represented and that in some instances those who do not share the same experiential social awareness can in fact adequately represent a certain minority?

As the second question/criticism goes into general questions regarding democracy and the balance between the majority and minority in any system of government, it is not too important for this short brief. In addressing the first question though it might shed some light into the latter.

At what point do experiences overlap? I think the easiest way to answer this without sounding as though the criticism should be skipped altogether is to counter it with the idea that it is taking the issue to the absurd in order to undermine progress. While it may be true that different subsections of the female population cannot represent each other, it is certainly clear that they can do so better than someone who is in no manner representative of that group. As the debate over representation of subsections continues it should be enough at this point in time to say or maintain the position that there should be an increase in the representation in politics of those who have the knowledge and understanding coming from an experiential understanding, which others cannot simply study.

This naturally leads one to support the idea or argument that governments which are comprised of a majority of men are fundamentally not representative of women.

Treating Dax Cowart

The Dax Cowart case involves many ethical questions and issues ranging from what role physicians should play, to whether or not in this case the physicians made the right decision in treating Dax, even though it was against his decision. It is the goal of this paper to show that the physicians did, in fact, make the right decision in treating Dax against his decision. This will be done by examining the morally relevant features of the case, showing why the physicians made the right decision, bringing up the strongest objection and replying to it, and finally, how this view fits with another case.

The Dax case began in the summer of 1973 when a propane explosion killed his father and severely burned more than two-thirds of his body leaving him blind and unable to use his hands.[1] He was rushed to a hospital where treatment to save and restore his life began. Even though he was found competent twice, and repeatedly stated that he did not want to be treated, the doctors continued regardless.[2] After switching hospitals once and going through extremely painful disinfectant treatments for a year, Dax was released. It was only after seven years of severe depression and three failed suicide attempts did he manage to start living what he felt was a meaningful and happy life.[3] Currently, he feels as though he is living a happy life and is taking karate, writing poetry, practicing law, and has even scaled a 50-foot utility pole.[4]

The morally relevant facts of this case are that Dax was found competent when making his request for the doctors to stop treatment, that in the end, Dax is happy, and that all throughout his treatment there was a severe lack of information provided to Dax which hindered his decision-making ability. The fact that Dax was found competent is morally relevant because it raises the question of whether or not someone should go against the wishes of a competent person when it only involves the person making the decision. It is safe to say that most people feel that they should have the right to decide what is and is not done to themselves, so long that it does not involve anyone else. This would make it seem like the physicians made the wrong decision, but as it will be shown later, it is possible to agree with this and at the same time agree with the decisions the physicians made.

The second morally relevant issue is that of Dax being happy in the end although it is after seven years of depression. This is relevant because for a paternalist it would, to some degree, show that the physicians made the right decision because it is fringing on fulfilling the thank you test. The thank you test is simply a test that justifies the actions of the physicians based on whether or not the patient is thankful afterward. This, however, will not be used in support for defending the physicians’ actions for two reasons. The first being that Dax, although being very happy currently, states that he would make the same decision again if he was in the same situation which would negate the test.[5] Secondly, it is not the purpose of this paper to defend a hard paternalism. Each case should be looked at as a unique and dynamic case. It would not only be wrong to assume one model of patient-physician relationship should always be used but potentially harmful as well.

The final morally relevant issue in the case was the lack of information provided to Dax. Dax’s decision to have treatment stopped on him, so that he could die, was based on incomplete information and so it may have been the case that he would have chosen to continue with the treatment if he had more information. The crucial element of communication in a patient-physician relationship was missing in this case which was the fault of the physicians, and they were wrong for not providing enough information to him, but it is also due to this communication block that the physicians were justified in treating him. This will now be explained in further detail.

It is important for physicians and patients to have an open line of communication so that any decisions made can be unbiased and a well informed one. In the Dax case, however, there was far too little conversation and not enough effort to give Dax all the relevant information, which was a horrible mistake, that the physicians were guilty of. They were not wrong however in treating a man which was making a clearly biased, uninformed decision. The reason why it is not appropriate to follow the decisions made under such conditions is that it cannot be seen as what a person truly wishes to do. Dax’s unbiased, informed decision, in this case, was actually to proceed with the treatment. When Burt asks Dax if it would be appropriate to say to a patient in the same situation as he was that “You know, the seven years time, it was a hard time. Looked at from the other side, it now feels to be worth it, and it might feel like that to you, too.”[6] Dax agrees and says “That would be the honest way to do it.”[7] What this shows is that Dax feels that the best decision to make in this instance is to proceed with the treatment. The problem here though is that this is all after the fact and unless someone is placed in the same situation twice it would seem that it could be said they are never fully informed which would allow physicians to do what they felt is right. This is not correct, however. So much information to the level of actually going through it once should not be needed to be considered an informed decision. Somewhere in between the total lack of information that was provided to Dax, and a complete understanding of a possible outcome should be sufficient. It could be the case that Dax once going through it once, and is put in the same situation again, would choose not to go through it again, which in fact he also, contradictorily states as well. If Dax was properly informed and unbiased then the doctors should have discontinued treatment, and let him die. Dax, however, was neither, and so the physicians had a duty to continue treating him.

Dax was biased from two factors. The first being the amount of physical pain he was in and secondly the shock he must have been in, from going from a healthy physically able person to the state he was in from the explosion. He states “The immediate issue, the urgent issue, was that my pain was not being taken care of. That was why I wanted to die.”[8] This shows that the most important thing on his mind was the immense pain he was in and trying to have it go away. So it was not the case that he did not want the treatment, he just did not want the pain that went with it. Why is this not enough of a reason to let him die it might be asked? The pain may have been a part of the treatment. A nurse who used to work there would cause pain to the patients and treat them poorly so they had a reason to keep on living, that being to kill her in the end.[9] It seemed to work which may have been what they were trying to do in the Dax case. Eliminating the pain however at the time would not have been enough for Dax to agree with treatment because of his second bias of becoming blind and a cripple. Dax in an initial conversation with Dr. White says “I know that there’s no way that I want to go on as a blind and a cripple.”[10] This shows that before any significant information has been given he already has the view that he does not want to lead the life of a disabled person. Dax later agrees that at the time he was biased and was wrong in thinking that way.[11] This shows that at the time he was making decisions under bias which he willingly admits were wrong decisions.

Not only was Dax making biased decisions at the time but he was making uninformed ones. The physicians did not put enough effort into supplying Dax with information on what is possible after the treatments. This lack of information had a large role in his decision not to accept treatment. “If I felt that I could be rehabilitated to where I could walk and do other things normally, I might have a different feeling about it.”[12] Had the physicians sat down with Dax and talked with him more, they may have gotten him to feel as though he could be fully rehabilitated which, as can be seen from what actually happened, was possible in the end. Dax himself, in fact, agrees that a request to die, without a physician, first fulfilling his duty to inform the patient as best he can, should not be blindly followed.[13] So the question of when the process of informing a patient is done then arises. How long should the patient and physicians discuss possibilities? Dax believes that under severe pain and any other such issue of immediacy the time period for discussion should be short, while if there is no such issue it can be a longer time period.[14] Should it not be the exact opposite though? If someone is under severe pain their thought process should not be considered rational, for the only thing they are really thinking about is the pain itself. If on the other hand, a person is free of such a bias they can easily absorb and evaluate all relevant information in as short as a day or two perhaps. It is clear that whichever time period is taken to be the one that should be used, that some form of time period should exist. It was exactly this time period of discussion and understanding that was missing from the Dax case, and it is because of this that the physicians were correct in their decision to go against Dax’s will and treat him.

The main objection to this view of the case is probably the following. Whether or not a person’s decision is bias or uninformed is irrelevant when the decision only affects the person making the decision. According to Dax true freedom allows us to make wrong choices.[15] Dax also states that there is nothing legal or otherwise that can take the right to control your own body, from a mentally competent person, and give it to another person.[16] Although this objection is the strongest one and is most likely used to defend the position that what the physicians did was wrong, it has problems. To begin with, the idea that nothing can or has taken away the right that people have to do whatever they wish to themselves is just wrong. Many laws exist that state a person does not have the right to do such things as take drugs or drink under a certain age, even though the only person involved is the one making the decision. It could be said that the consumption of drugs is illegal because it is usually bought from someone and therefore does not just affect yourself. This is very true but it would still be illegal for someone to grow or make a drug themselves and then consume it. This would still be illegal and the only person involved is your self. Are there truly any decisions made that do not affect someone else in some form? It is hard to think of one because, in order for it to truly effect only you, you would have to live isolated from all of society and be totally independent. Even if this were the case, it would be irrelevant since no one would be there to disagree with any choice you make.

The hardest case to square the position that, unless a person is unbiased and informed it is up to the physicians to do what they feel is in the best interest of the patient, would be the Paul Brophy case. The reason why it would be the hardest is that of the persistent vegetative state that he is in, which would prohibit him from making any decision at all.[17]  In such cases, it should be those who have been closest to him and knew him the best throughout his life, that make the decision and take on the role of discussing possibilities with the physicians.

[1] “Confronting Death: Who Chooses, Who Controls? A Dialogue between Dax Cowart and Robert Burt,” Hastings Center Report 28, no 1 (1998):14-24. pg. 14

[2] Ibid. pg. 14

[3] Ibid. pg. 17,21

[4] Ibid. pg. 17

[5] Ibid. pg. 18

[6] Ibid. pg. 19

[7] Ibid. pg. 19

[8] Ibid. pg. 17

[9] Ibid. pg. 21-22

[10] Ibid. pg. 15

[11] Ibid. pg. 17

[12] Ibid. pg. 15

[13] Ibid. pg. 18

[14] Ibid. pg. 24

[15] Ibid. pg. 17

[16] Ibid. pg. 16

[17] George J. Annas, “Transferring the Ethical Hot Potato,” Hastings Center Report, February (1987) pg. 20

Accountability. Where is it?

All too often politician’s will say one thing then do something entirely different. The need to get support often leads a politician to make claims which either cannot be supported in real terms or for which there was never a true desire to fulfill. Sometimes these statements are made to a wide and large audience such as the case with the now infamous NHS claim on London buses, again making the news now.

What is wrong? These claims are being made fully knowing that they are invalid. Whether it’s a disastrous and impactful claim like the erroneous bus sign, or to get votes such was the case with Caitlyn Jenner and the LGBTQ community, there should be a mechanism to protect against this, but how?

One thought is to implement a system similar to what companies face with regards to shareholders. Investors routinely hold to account claims made by CEOs and others which bare impact on share prices. Is it not possible to call politicians on their statements in such a manner? No, factually it is possible. That we know is true.

The question remains why call out in one instance e.g. CEOs, and not again in a similar way with politicians?

China’s Dominance in Pushing the Genetic Engineering Envelope

Hello Ethic Nutters,

In the news another first to take note of by China.  Remember just a little earlier this year the cloning of primates, well now Chinese scientists have achieved the birth of baby mice by “two mums and no dad”.

See the following link for the BBC story:

It can be certain, as we witness this technological revolution, a need exists for unified regulations so that private sector profits from this technology are not hindered in one nation while unrestricted in another.


Kierkegaard and the attainment of faith

Upon first reading, it is apparent that Kierkegaard writing Fear and Trembling pseudonymously as Johannes de Silentio, which translates to John of Silence, is dealing with the teleological suspension of the ethical and yet with a great deal more. In this paper, I will examine the purpose of the book, which I take to be an attempt to get people to view faith as something hard to attain, and I will examine why Kierkegaard cannot understand Abraham.

The purpose of writing Fear and Trembling for Kierkegaard was on the surface simply because he enjoys writing and Abraham is someone he admires a great deal. “He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes” (pg7) At the time, it is known that few people indeed actually took the time to read his works. In the preface of Fear and Trembling he is clearly stating that he is writing the book, merely for the joy he gets out of writing. As one reads further into the text, however, there appears to be another possible reason for him to write the book, perhaps a strong reason. This reason is that he wants people to go back to viewing faith as something which is difficult to come by not something which is easy. “Faith is another matter, but no one has the right to lead others to believe that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter since, on the contrary, it is the greatest and most difficult of all.” (pg52) It is clear that Kierkegaard believes that his generation views faith as something relatively easy to obtain and then continue past it, “In our age, everyone is unwilling to stop with faith but goes further.” (pg.7) Kierkegaard denies this is possible, and so what he wants to do is to get people back to the notion that faith is actually something which is extremely hard. This is a direct challenge to the Hegelian belief that through philosophy faith is something which one can transcend. I believe the way in which he does this is analogous to his example of the mother weaning her child off of breast milk. (pg.11) Kierkegaard brings up the example of a mother blackening her breast in order to wean her child off of breast milk in the first of his four Abraham and Isaac scenarios, in order to understand why Abraham in the first scenario turned back to Isaac with a wild gaze. It was to make Isaac have faith, the same way in which a mother does something which she knows the child does not want in order to do what is best for the child in the end. Along these lines Kierkegaard is shocking the reader into a realization that faith is something which is not easy to come by, is not something which someone can go beyond, but rather extremely difficult, and impossible to go beyond.

The difficulty of attaining faith is constant throughout the entire text as is the notion that one cannot go past it. This is never more explicit than when speaking about Abraham the father of faith, his entire obsession, he states “…you got no further than faith.” (pg. 23) He makes it clear in the epilogue why someone cannot go beyond faith, and it is based on the notion that faith is unlike science in which generations can build upon the previous generations, rather each generation starts primitively and cannot go any further than the previous one. “…no generation has learned to love from another, no generation is able to begin at any other point than at the beginning…” (pg.121) He goes on to state that thinking someone could go further than the previous generation is “foolish and idle talk.”

It seems to me however that Kierkegaard is making it appear harder to attain faith than he truly believes it to be. The reason for this is that he begins the epilogue with a case when merchants sank a few cargoes of spices to increase the value. This specifically is not the reason why I believe he is making it seem harder to attain faith than he truly believes but rather his sympathy towards the case. Kierkegaard stating “This was an excusable, perhaps even necessary, deception.” (pg.121) and “Is this the kind of self-deception the present generation needs?” (pg.121) along with his emphasis on the mother weaning the child by blackening her breast all indicate to me that Kierkegaard wrote this book to shock people, by overemphasizing how hard faith is, into realizing they should change their ways, even if they do not realize at the time it is the best thing for them.

Kierkegaard uses the example of Abraham in Fear and Trembling because Abraham has achieved what is extremely difficult, which is having faith. The strange thing about Kierkegaard using Abraham is that he continuously mentions throughout the book that he cannot understand Abraham. “I cannot understand Abraham – I can only admire him.” (pg.112). Even more perplexing perhaps is when at the end of Fear and Trembling when he states, “I, for my part, perhaps can understand Abraham…” (pg.119). All of this can be explained I believe when one takes into consideration the relationship in which the ethical, the universal, and speech all have to one another and why Abraham thus cannot speak.

For Kierkegaard, the ethical is universal because it applies “to everyone…at all times.” (pg.54) As a result of this, it places the universal in the realm of the public. The one thing which connects people to one another in the realm of the public and allows us to share our experiences is our ability to speak to one another, and yet when trying to become a “knight of faith” one must do so as a single individual above the universal so that they may stand in absolute relation to the absolute. (pg. 113) If someone were to speak about their experience they would no longer be a single individual rather they would be in the realm of the universal. “As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” (pg.60). This sheds light onto why Abraham does not speak.

Abraham remains silent out of necessity. Abraham’s experience with God is his own individual experience; he has entered into a private relationship with God in a manner through God’s command to Abraham. The moment Abraham speaks to someone is the moment he would go from the individual private relationship with God to the universal public domain. No one would be able to understand Abraham if he spoke. If he was to explain to me what he was doing in a manner in which I could understand, which Kierkegaard would deny is even possible, he would be sent back to the universal, the public realm because his journey would no longer be done by the single individual in isolation, he would have shared his experience with me. It is not the case that Abraham cannot open his mouth and utter words. To say Abraham cannot speak is really to say that if he were to try and explain his actions there would be no way in which someone else could understand him. “Abraham cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable)…” (pg.115). “Speak he cannot; he speaks no human language…he speaks in a divine language, he speaks in tongues.”(pg.114)

This explains why all throughout the book Kierkegaard states time and again that he cannot understand Abraham. The reason is that Abrahams experience is a unique one, Abraham was in a unique relationship with God, one in which no one else can experience, one in which, because of its uniqueness to specifically Abraham, no one can understand. “Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for thereby it is canceled. Faith is this paradox, and the single individual simply cannot make himself understandable to anyone.”(pg.71) If Kierkegaard could understand Abraham than Abrahams experience would not be in the private realm of the single individual in relation to the absolute, rather it would be in the realm of the public, the universal.

What is one to make however of the fact that Abraham actually does speak at one point to Isaac. After Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb is for the offering, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”(pg.116) Kierkegaard’s reply to this is that Abraham although he was speaking he was doing so in a way in which Isaac, or anyone for that matter, could not understand. Had he told Isaac the truth he would have broken his special relationship with God and moved back into the universal. There is an irony here that relates to the irony and paradox of faith in that Abraham is actually speaking the truth but a truth in which only he can understand. The paradox which is expressed through irony here is what also explains how at the end of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard states he may be able to understand Abraham.

The only thing that can be known is that Abraham was in a paradox and experienced the absurd. The absurd and the paradox are both non-rational, they go against basic human ways of thinking and yet it is this which is necessary for someone to become a “knight of faith”. They must believe in the absurd. Kierkegaard states at one point that it is not that Abraham believes that God will stop him from sacrificing Isaac but that Abraham believes in the absurd in that after sacrificing Isaac he fully expects that God will bring Isaac back to him. It is also in this irony that the use of Johannes de Silentio as a pseudonym can be understood. The only thing Johannes wants to talk about and write is the one thing one cannot.

Expanding on Good

The purpose of this brief is to expand on an earlier post which had within it a definition of Good in its abstraction. A unique definition I thought of while studying in my final year at the University of Toronto.

The definition of Good as thought by me, recently edited for clarity, is the following:

That which generates externalities outside oneself which have a greater tendency to promote positive externalities amongst those experiencing effects from the initial externality than it would promote negative externalities over a given timespan.

What does this mean in the real world though? In the following few sections, I will explain further the definition by way of an example, and share a benefit and constraint of this definition.

An externality is an effect generated by a given cause. My sitting at a desk for two hours has the externality of my legs being sore. Since legs are painful when they are sore, and pain is a negative sensation, this is an example of a negative externality. Another example is when I compliment someone on their nice hat, they feel good. The externality is the recipient feeling good. This is an example of a positive externality.

The definition does not end with a single event however in describing Good. The reason for this is that in existence there is a continuum of events and an action which causes a blip of good feelings or pain in the leg may cause more negative externalities or end up causing tremendous positive externalities if we take our scope of time and lengthen it.

Looking at the two examples just shared, let us continue the examples and see how that sheds light on the definition.

The worker who has just experienced the negative externality of pain in the leg has actually warned his colleagues about staying seated for too long and in fact now what used to be common negative externalities amongst workers, has altogether been eliminated. The externality then which caused an initial negative externality would be defined as Good, within this timeframe. An externality which generated greater positive externalities amongst those experiencing the effects from the initial externality, then negative externalities, over a given timeframe.

The hat wearer received a compliment and decided to leave his girlfriend because of his now enlarged ego. Now the hat wearer’s girlfriend is sad and inconsolable along with her parents who hate to see her this way. The externality then which caused an initial positive externality would be defined as Bad, within this timeframe. An externality which generated greater negative externalities, over a given timeframe.

What is a benefit of this definition and constraints?

A benefit of this definition is that it understands and is rooted in the complexities of life. Would complimenting someone on a nice hat always be Good? For some, it would be because the act generates pleasure in the recipient. As a rule, it might even be seen as good because everyone likes compliments. What Good is, however, I would argue, is more than an instance in time. It is an externality which has had a lasting impact for more than a brief moment in time taking into account all individuals affected. Additionally, Good is not a Rule to prescribe an action based on past indications that it more than not generates pleasure or benefit. It is my opinion that Rules attempt to reproduce an action that was initially found to be Good. That could similarly apply to this definition but what is defined as Good would not be made based on its ability to be formulated into a prescribed Rule.

One constraint is that it could be said that the timespan in determining whether an externality was Good is not fixed. Detractors could say well as of now it is Good, but what if we wait a year and see how it has a further effect on people. In response, proponents could argue in measuring Good, if possible and in fact, I lean on that it cannot be, we must go with what is known to present day while acknowledging it may not always be Good.

To conclude, this is my definition and it is not without the need for further thought and development. Additional examples could further shed light on the definition in practice and I hope that by use of those used a picture of what is meant has been provided while perhaps not a full picture. I hope though it has peaked interest in its use as a viable approach to defining the morality of actions, events, and similar.