Tag Archives: ethics

Canadian Care

Amazon, probably not purely out of kindness, gives some customers access to the most read stories in the Washington Post. Apart from talking to my wife, this is about the only way I learn about what’s happening in the world (mine is a small world after all). I have no idea what Amazon’s metrics are for determining which stories to share, but I was amazed at one focusing on doctors in Canada. The story also appeared in Newsweek and other media sources. Unlike many medical professionals, these Canadian physicians are petitioning the government for lower salaries. They say they already have enough money and other healthcare workers aren’t being paid adequately. Why not share when you have extra? I’ve always thought Canada was far ahead of its southern neighbor in the ethics department, and this about clinches it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for doctors. (You should see how much money I give them!) Nobody wants to go through life with this or that hurting or aching all the time. Most of the doctors I’ve met have been kind and descent people. Seldom as strapped for cash as I am, but then my doctorate is in a more intellectual field; serves me right. What really becomes a star in my personal firmament is that somewhere in this world enamored of capitalism, a privileged class has said, “this isn’t right.” Economists have been warning us for years that unbridled capitalism isn’t sustainable, but that falls on deaf ears in this country. Maybe our political leaders should see an otolaryngologist? Maybe they’ve got some wax build-up in there.

Doctors work hard. They have long hours and have to put up with smelly and messy situations. There’s a reason we have to pay so much to compel them to look where the rest of us are told to avert our eyes. At the same time, every other major developed nation in the world has some form of socialized medicine—it is a basic human right. Everywhere but here. If you drive through New Jersey you can’t help but be taken by the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies that call this state home. There’s gold in them thar hills. As I gaze at them from the highway, my thoughts are driving across the border to a land that’s both affluent and caring. When’s the last time we heard an American entrepreneur say, “I’ve got enough—give the rest to someone else”? When too much is never enough, that’s something it’s going to take a Canadian doctor to treat, I fear.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Breakfast of Champions

In my efforts to become vegan, I’m finding dairy to be the hardest element to replace. I’m reminded of this every morning since the day begins with cereal. Most people don’t realize that cereal for breakfast is largely of religious motivation. The original Kelloggs were Seventh-Day Adventists, and therefore vegetarian. To promote both health and animal-free diets, they gave a big push to the idea the day should start with cereal. It’s a touch dry, however, and water on your flakes leads directly to paste. So I’ve been experimenting with alternate milks. Often I use soy milk, but it has to be the right brand. Some of the offerings on the market have that oily aftertaste characteristic of soy beans. Not sure of the legality of hemp milk these days, I recently tried oat. Oat milk should taste like oats, i.e., it shouldn’t have much taste at all.

The moral crisis came as I poured it into my oatmeal. You see, there’s a biblical injunction to cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. This is the reason meat and dairy can’t be mixed in kosher settings. Scholars debate the basic concept behind this regulation. Like eating a bird and its eggs, some suggest, this depletes nature and should be avoided. At least one generation should have a chance to avoid exploitation. At least until it grows up. But what of the oats and their oat milk? Have I gone too far? What hidden principle am I violating, however unintentional, here? This is the problem with any religious thinking—taken to extremes it begins to break down. Some of the earliest gods, after all, were agricultural deities.

Agribusiness is huge. People gotta eat, right? And it is one of the most massive environmental hazards humans have ever concocted. Industrial farming is the largest producer of methane and the largest user of potable water, by far. Keeping animals for our food is literally destroying our planet. Religions, interestingly, quite often concern themselves with eating habits. It’s strange how most of them in this country are silent regarding what is obviously an ethical issue. After all, we adapted to the cereal for breakfast lifestyle because of religious conviction. It’s difficult to change eating habits. That’s my current struggle. I could pour the oat milk over corn flakes, I suppose. But then again, the Bible forbids mixing fabrics from different plants. What’s an aspiring vegan to do?

Milkweed and Honey

I’ve never thought of bugs as an ethical concern. Well, not directly anyway. I had some truly frightening encounters with insects and arachnids as a child, so I tended to avoid bugs when I could. At times, I hesitate to admit, I took advantage of my size and smooched them. I did, however, mature out of that. Many years ago I stopped killing bugs that got inside, choosing instead to favor capture and release. I’d trap them in one of a variety of empty peanut-butter jars we kept around the house expressly for that purpose. The imprisoned intruder is then escorted outside and released. It seemed the only fair way to handle the situation—I don’t believe in exploiting size, and hating things with too many legs is prejudicial. Then I heard that insects are dying out.

Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Instead of bringing glee, this instilled a kind of panic. According to a story in the Washington Post, scientists have noted a 75% drop in bug biomass over the past several years. Stop and think about that. Insects contribute so much to our lives that we barely pay them any mind. Everything from pollination to breaking down decomposing organic matter, bugs do it. We need our insects. As with most things these days, it seems that we humans are the likely culprits. We destroy habitat, we spread pesticides everywhere, we try to take all kinds of land and make it in our own image. And we’ve sacrificed our insects along the way. As the article states—driving around country lanes on a summer night doesn’t bring up the windshield splatter that it used to. I stopped to think about that. It seems to be true.

The tiny members of the animal kingdom do a tremendous amount of work. I know they’re not doing it for us, but the things they do we don’t have to—and oftentimes can’t—do. All fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. Honey has been the main place where some of this shortage has been felt most directly. Bees have been disappearing. So have monarch butterflies. The fact is, we can’t live in a world without bugs. This does make it an ethical issue. If we’re going to claim dominion over all things we have no right to overlook the smallest creatures. Sure, they can, well, bug you. They fly in your face or bite you while you’re sleeping. They’re only doing what they evolved to do. I don’t mean to bug you about it, but we need to look after the minuscule and vulnerable among us.

Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.