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Archive for the ‘mental suffering’ Category

Children of Earth: What Children are For, and How We May Use Them

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(Apparently it is polite to note that this article contains “spoilers,” or revelations about the plot of the works discussed, in this case Children of Earth, the third season of a BBC Doctor Who spin-off called Torchwood.)

An alien race known as the 456 comes to earth and demands 10% of earth’s children – or they will destroy the human race.

What do they want with the children? A child previously abducted by the 456 is shown partially dismembered and physically attached to an alien’s body, puppet-like. The child feels no pain and will never die; his eyes gaze out with a vacant, vaguely pleading expression. Why do the aliens do this? The human children produce chemicals that the aliens find pleasurable.

The situation is one of raw horror. A person of normal empathetic capabilities will find it absolutely horrifying for a child to be used in this way – cut up and attached to an alien to live forever as his drug factory. In the television show, a government worker who is informed his children will be among the 10% sacrificed to the alien overlords kills his children (and himself) rather than hand them over to this fate. Many of us might share this reaction.

What if, however, instead of kidnapping existing children, the alien could breed its own human children (in vats, say) for this purpose? Would that be wrong? The answer to this question gives us insight into the morality of creating children under normal circumstances.

One objection to the 456 creating children to use as drug factories is that although the children will not “feel pain,” they will suffer a horrible, endless existence. But horrible by whose standards? If the 456 does not create the children, they won’t exist at all. Isn’t a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all? Can we even compare the two? What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is “too horrible”?

A second objection is that it contemplates using children for very selfish reasons. “Child-as-drug-factory” is about as selfish as you can get in terms of motivation for creating a child. But are ordinary human motivations any less selfish? We do not ordinarily inquire into motives for creating children. Should we?

The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality.

See also The Austrian Basement and Beyond for a similar thought experiment.


Written by Sister Y

June 28, 2010 at 5:17 pm


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One of the most serious ethical reasons offered for preventing a suicide is that the suicide will one day be grateful – that is, that a person’s values change over time. The suicide might wish to die now – might value death, or an end to suffering or experience, above all else – but perhaps once rescued and medicated, or perhaps years from now, the person will value life again, and will be happy to have been saved. Today’s suicide could be tomorrow’s reformed suicide.

Some have modeled human existence as consisting of a set of successive selves, such that we might describe the different values, characteristics, and interests of a person at time t, compared to those of that “same” person at time t-sub-one. Is it permissible, then, for an outsider to forcibly intervene in a person’s action at time t, in the interests of protecting the interests of that person at time t-sub-one?

Certainly, I have heard reports of people attempting suicide, being “rescued,” and eventually being grateful and glad to be alive after the fact. It is often assumed that the status of being grateful in the future is a good reason to intervene with force. But the accident of whether someone at time t-sub-one is, in fact, grateful for the intervention at time t seems like a poor justification for intervening at time t. First, there is a problem with whether the outsider actually has better information than the person at time t. Second, as I alluded to in my earlier post on depressed cognition and value, there is a question as to whether this “better information” might not, in fact, be a different set of values held by the outsider and mentally imposed on the hypothetical person at t-sub-one. Third, even if the outsider really possesses better information than the actor at time t, “better information” is not a complete justification for forcibly intervening in the actions of another. (I know alcohol is bad for you; please hand over that pitcher of Pliny the Elder, thank you very much, it’s for your own good. Give me those garlic fries, too. Very high in fat.) And why would it be appropriate to force the person at time t to suffer unbearably for the benefit of the person at time t-sub-one?

My proposition has two parts: first, those who would forcibly intervene to prevent a suicide are unlikely to have better information than the suicide about his future values; second, even if outsiders have better information than the suicide and can somehow prove that the suicide will be happy in a few years’ time, that still does not justify forcing the person to remain alive.

Written by Sister Y

June 2, 2008 at 9:36 pm

The Primacy of Physical Pain

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Many who do not support a general right to suicide nevertheless allow that a person in extreme physical pain has a right to have that pain alleviated through palliation, even where such palliation could render the person unconscious, cause addiction, or, in some cases, even hasten his death. However, although the technology exists to alleviate the suffering of individuals in extreme mental and emotional pain, no right to palliation for emotional pain is widely recognized. Although drugs such as opiates, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines are very effective at reducing mental suffering, they are seen as being counter-indicated for use in patients who experience so much suffering that they want to die. Where the suffering is extreme physical pain, the risks of addiction, excessive sedation, and even death are seen as slight in comparison to the harm of forcing a patient to experience the pain; however, when the suffering is “merely” mental, addiction, sedation, and the risk of death are suddenly more important than relieving the patient’s suffering. Patients with mental suffering are instead given drugs that do little to relieve their suffering, such as the SSRI antidepressants recently revealed to have no effect beyond that of placebo. The logic is cruel: “You are suffering so much that you want to die; but you can’t have this drug that might relieve your suffering, because you might use it to die. Better for us to force you to suffer needlessly than to allow you to possibly die.”

Where a society forbids its resources to be used to relieve the extreme mental suffering of its citizens, it is especially cruel to also prohibit suicide for those citizens who have been denied palliation.

Written by Sister Y

May 9, 2008 at 8:50 pm