Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ethics and Molarity

Nope, that’s no typo. That’s my clever little play on words, right there. I guess it’s not funny if I have to explain it, though….

Anyway, let’s get straight to the point. In my science classes, which this semester includes General Zoology (also known as Invertebrate Biology) and General Chemistry II, I’m often confronted with moral and ethical issues that at times trouble me. They’re minor situations that give me that tingling feeling that “something’s not quite right,” and while I don’t lose any sleep over them, I do find myself occasionally worrying about them.

I’ll write first about the smaller issue—the one I can control but often choose not to—the one that makes me feel like a bad person. See, in Gen Chem lab we’re expected to complete various experiments according to the lab manual. Unfortunately, the instructions are cryptic (or even inaccurate) and the teacher isn’t much help at all (half the time he’s either sleeping in his office, getting himself a coffee, or otherwise MIA). Students are expected to complete the procedure flawlessly, however, obtaining “perfect” results and then writing laboratory reports about them. Sounds simple, but things never go according to plan. Chemicals react when they aren’t supposed to, or for whatever reason our ethanol solution doesn’t boil at the expected temperature. What’s a student to do? When we ask for assistance, we don’t receive any meaningful advice, and we can’t move on until we complete this portion of our task. We are graded only on our attendance and our assignments, and even those are participation only. So….we forge results. I justify it by saying that “it doesn’t matter anyway” and “we wouldn’t learn anything from this, even if we were doing it correctly” and “he won’t read it” and “it’s not affecting my grade positively, so what’s the big deal?” All of these are valid and true. I’ve got a good point, I think, and although appeals to popularity are never good, it’s true that everyone is doing it, so why can’t I? Still, nagging doubts surround me. It’s not a good feeling.

Now for the Zoology portion. Let me preface this by saying that I’m a pretty sentimental sap, and if anything is “cute,” well, I won’t want to hurt it. Cute applies to more than just fuzzy animals, too—I find paramecia adorable (Lookit the way they scurry around with all their little cilia and eat the yeast! Awww!) and I have a high respect for all forms of life. I think anything remotely animal-like should be treated humanely and with respect (that applies to everything except ticks, mosquitoes, and flies, just to clarify). So when the professor tell us to take the live earthworms, pin them down at either end, slit them open, and extract their seminal vesicles while they’re still squirming, it’s not squeamishness that turns my stomach. It’s the knowledge that this little creature is capable of feeling pain. Can’t we at least kill it first? The worst part is that it’s all completely unnecessary—all we were looking for were the lifecycles of various parasites within the sperm, and this is much more easily accomplished with prepared slides. Nothing could be gained from this exercise: it simply wasn’t beneficial, even as a learning experience.

I did bring myself to kill the termite to examine the Trichonympha within its gut. I thought I do the deed quickly and humanely, so I grabbed its thorax with the tweezers and tore its head off. Alas, the body and head continued twitching and squirming for the full 10 minutes while I examined the slide. They were still thrashing when I rinsed them down the sink. Ugh.

Heck, I even feel bad when we rid ourselves of the unicellular flagellated algae by washing them down the drain. They move and kick around so happily in the droplet of water under the microscope. The stress of moving to city water surely kills them. Yes, I realize that I’m being an idiot with all this anthropomorphizing. Little microscopic organisms like that have no sensory or nervous system, and they certainly aren’t sentient beings—just automatons. But after flipping through the lab manual and seeing that we end up killing frogs just to examine the parasites that live in their lungs—I think I’ll have to be a conscientious objector to something as pointless, stupid, and cruel as that.

When the specimens come preserved, I have no qualms about cutting them open. It can be interesting and entertaining to view all of the internal organs and structures. I (almost) enjoyed the cat dissection we did my junior year of high school (although I made my lab partners swap the calico kitty they had chosen for a slightly-more-anonymous tabby). This was a worthwhile exercise because it actually taught something, and at least I was one step removed from the killing process (admittedly it was a shock to cut open the cat’s stomach and see a large quantity of undigested Meow Mix X’s and O’s).

I dunno. I just can’t condone teaching kids in school that it’s perfectly acceptable to take advantage of living things for nothing more than convenience or in the name of “education” when videos and slides would serve just as well—nay, better. I don’t know how I’ll make it through vet school, given the unethical horror stories I’ve heard about the upper level classes….

Pictured, by the way, is a hydra. Isn’t it magnificent in its simplistic yet perfectly formed splendor?


Mark said...

What a good Buddhist you'd make. Seriously.
There's a tough line to figure out here. Dr. Ess helped me out by putting it in these terms:
You've gotta figure out who/what you think is in your "moral community." Another way of saying that is asking the question, "Who/what deserves rights and why?" That's a tough question. Took me a whole semester to even begin to come up with an answer, and my answer is still changing.
From there it's about figuring out how to make your actions sync up with what you think is valuable, another tough step.
Does that make any sense?

Mozart said...

Perfect sense. Unfortunately for me, though, my moral compass has a rather inconstant pole. The issue that I'm currently focusing on is necessary vs. unnecessary evils. It's not that I believe we don't have the right to harm anything--as general principles, I have no problem with medical research on animals or eating meat or what-have-you. I still think that every effort should be made to make the treatment humane, of course. But as long as the result is something that is good or beneficial, however, I think it's justifiable. When there's no positive outcome, or when nothing can be gained or learned from it--such as my oh-so-pointless "experiments" in Zoology, that's when I take a real issue with it and deem it "wrong."

Mark said...

You, my friend, have just laid the groundwork for utilitarian ethics (whether you know it or not). You should check out Peter Singer. He's your modern go-to guy for that system.

I'm not much of a utilitarian (though it IS the initial reason I went vegetarian my freshman year). There are a lot of holes with the lines of thought. You almost need a meta-ethical system to lay down first before you can throw down any pure utilitarianism.

For example, if we want to say that cases where there are necessary evils in the world and they're acceptable as long as the good outweighs the bad, then we should allow slavery. It's an instance where one out of every ten people, say, ends up unhappy, but that's outweighed by the other nine who are happier than they were before. You see what I mean?

I'd rather go for something that I feel like is a more holistic system like virtue ethics, but that's just me.

Mozart said...

Point taken. Consequentialism (is that right? is that what you're referring to, only another word for it?) isn't the ideal philosophy, to be sure. The construction of ethical frameworks is tricky business, though, and it seems to be that the easiest and most basic way to start is through consequentialist means (well, save for blindly accepting the teachings of authority, maybe). And I do think, at times, you've pretty much got to follow some sort of ends-justifying-the-means or the most-good-for-the-greatest-number philosophy, unless you really are striving for what most people would consider an unreachable ideal (that is, 'Never Harm Another' or 'Never Do Wrong').

Charles said...

It may also be helpful to consider the following -
1) Mark's more than correct to point out that consequentialism quickly becomes unworkable (in the examples I use in Values, it works pretty well only under tightly specified conditions - including warfare; otherwise, all the problems Mark has pointed to (and more) threaten to make it dissolve under your ethical feet, just when you really need a decision.
This is to say, though, you want to keep it in your "ethical toolkit" - your collection of ethical decision-making frameworks; it's not an either/or between consequentialism and deontology.
2) to look at either deontology or virtue ethics as "what most people would consider an unreachable ideal" - and use that as a reason to reject them - is problematic in at least two ways.
One is cultural. The U.S. (and the U.K., where modern utilitarianism was born) are deeply shaped by consequentialism - it's the ethical waters in which most of us swim, and until you've been out of the U.S. in different cultures, it's hard to see consequentialism as anything other than some sort of universal environment. If it were such a thing, then, yes, differing from it would be more difficult. But still, it might be the right thing to do. Remember the fallacy of appeal to the majority? Just because the majority ("the many") believe something is right does not, of course, make it so. Elst we'd still have slavery, no voting rights (or education, for that matter) for women, etc.
(And: all of this consequentialism is reinforced by living in a consumer society - i.e., one whose primary models are economic, driven by cost-benefit sorts of thinking, etc.)
Maybe Plato was right, and these moralities - deontology and virtue ethics - will always only be the moralities of the few, never the many. BUT: remember that for the modern democratic liberal state - we assume the rational capacity for self-rule among the many, and, not accidentally, as Madison pointed out, that means also we assume the _virtue_ or excellence of the many, not the few. To give up on deontology and virtue ethics because they are not the morality of the many around us in our particular society may be also to give up on the possibility of the modern liberal democratic state. (Remember that authoritarian regimes are required to keep those driven solely by appetite and self-interest under control ...)
2) Happily, people in other cultures swim in different ethical waters - broadly, the Germanic cultures, including the Scandinavian countries we so dearly love to live and work in, are much more deeply driven by deontological ways of approaching ethics (thanks, in part, to an education system that much more overtly stresses critical thinking for adolescents, along with their taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions).
This is not to say that they are right and we are wrong (watch out for false dichotomies) - but it is to say that consequentialism is not, your current experience to the contrary, the morality of the many absolutely, but only the morality of the many within a specific culture and time. Hence, going against that particular flow might make more sense than if consequentialism were some absolute.

In short, i don't think the claim that deontology (or virtue ethics, for that matter) are indeed "what most people would consider an unreachable ideal". To be sure, it's no surprise that it appears that way to you now - but this is, as Mark also knows now from first-hand experience - yet one more reason why swimming in different cultural waters for a while, at least, is so good for the soul ...

hope this makes sense and is of some help!
- dr. e

Robin said...

the essence here is intention.

if your intention of killing is murder or for your own benefits, then some soul searching is needed.

if your intention is for the benefits for others, the is very different..

intention, my friend, is important.

for instance, telling lies is normally negative, but when u do it to help someone else out of compassion and a rational thought, lying can be transformed into something wholesome.