Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Extreme Measures"

Below is text from a recent discussion forum for the Philosophy through Film class I am teaching this term. It's centered on the 1996 film Extreme Measures, which among other ethical themes, presents a clever variant on certain famous thought experiments that exert pressure on consequentialist/utilitarian modes of thinking. A key scene:

And the whole blam durned thing:

And now the forum text:

Assume that the premise of Extreme Measures is true, that there is substantial progress being made in spinal chord regeneration, and the only way forward is to make use of human subjects as they do in the film, cutting the nerve chord and attempting to regrow using the drugs they are perfecting. Now consider two scenarios, one more like the film, the other not:

1. Suppose you are part of the research team at TriPhase, and you have a loved one that stands to benefit from successful completion of the research. Also suppose that there is absolutely no risk of being discovered in the way that happens in the film. NO WAY. I mean it: NO WAY.

The team leader, Dr. Myrick gathers the group and proposes the use of street people with no surviving family members, once again, just as is presented in the film.

Suppose it is guaranteed that within 5 years of using such subjects the research will succeed. Suppose that TriPhase will need approximately 100 to 200 subjects for the first 2.5 years, and another 1 to 200 the next 2.5 years.

Make a case that Triphase should go ahead with this plan.

Make a case that it cannot go through with this plan.

Now that you have made both cases, how do you personally come down on the issue? Yea or Nay?

How would you justify your vote to Triphase, potential beneficiaries of the research, your loved one and the general public?

Which case is stronger?

2. Same as above, except Triphase has no intention of using homeless/family-less street people, but volunteers. They advertise, fully informing the public of the benefits, and the risks for subjects. Suppose they amass a pool of 400 applicants that are willing. Now, because they are using human subjects, they must acquire permission from one governmental regulatory body. Suppose they petition this entity explaining the benefits and risks, as well as making it very clear that the would be subjects have been fully informed and consented, knowing the risk of paralysis or death. You may even imagine volunteers testify, and help make the case.

You are on that regulatory board, and must vote yea or nay. But first you must argue your positions. Then you vote.

How would you argue your case (yea or nay) to the others on the board. How would you justify your vote to Triphase, the volunteers, potential beneficiaries of the research, and the general public? Be sure to answer all of these questions.

More on the Role of Reason in Moral Life..

With a cool post title to boot. Apropos of this post from a few days ago, the always very interesting ancient Greek philosophy inspired blog "Politics of Well-Being" makes similar points with far fewer words:
We should remind ourselves that ancient philosophers didn’t say we were all born free, rational, moral and unified selves. They said we might perhaps become so, but only after years and years of training in mindfulness, self-examination, deliberative reasoning and impulse control. Most of us won’t put ourselves through this training, and will remain in a state of “civil war”, as Plato put it, with the multiple parts of our psyche constantly competing for power.
It seems to me that modern psychology and neuroscience, far from challenging the basic assumptions of ancient philosophy, are actually affirming them. We’re not born free, rational, moral and unified creatures. On the contrary, we’re a riot of competing unconscious impulses. But we might perhaps be able to become slightly more free, more rational, more self-controlled and more moral through philosophical training. And in that ‘more’ lies all our hope for freedom, dignity, and happiness.
Yeah...What he said.