Citation(2005) 17 SAcLJ 534
Published date01 December 2005
Date01 December 2005

Part 4: Meaning and Truth

Part 1 of this article reviewed the overlapping domains of law and morality, and examined the question whether law ought to have a moral content. Part 2 carried a discussion of the definition of good, and the primary sources of morality. In Part 3 bioethical considerations were discussed in greater and more fundamental contexts such as the question of the sanctity of life. This fourth, and concluding, part focuses on the importance of critical thinking not only on the objects of our thought but also on the apparition of thought itself. “What exactly do we know, how do we know it, and what is truth?” are some of the questions concerning human knowledge and understanding that will be examined here. But this is a vast area of study that traverses epistemology, philosophy of language, linguistics, the nature of mind and consciousness; consequently, the issues discussed are just some of the basic ones in the respective fields. The main purpose of this part is to indicate the close connections that these areas of learning have in relation to each other, as well as to the questions posed.

But ask not Bodies doomed to die,

To what abode they go;

Since Knowledge is but sorrows Spy,

It is not safe to know.1

I. Introduction

1 It has been said of John Dewey2 that he had hoped to bring truth and the pretensions of philosophers down to earth; that he believed that “access to truth could not be a special prerogative of philosophy, and that truth must have essential connections with human interests”.3 In spite of that noble aim, there are so many simple and direct issues on which we

cannot agree as to what is the right or ethical turn. Why is that so? Why is it that despite efforts by people like John Dewey, truth, the cornerstone of the universal good that we all seek, remains so diffused to the ordinary man, and appears to remain entrenched in the province of philosophers? What might be an even more insidious threat to the knowledge and truth, is the inability of “brand-name” philosophers to reach any sort of coherent structure or direction, or at least, to simplify their theses for the general public’s understanding. Whether that situation will improve if we all begin to think seriously and more deeply about it may itself be an interesting philosophical issue, but for the purposes of this essay I shall assume that it does. I shall dip into some of the major themes and selected issues of some of the “brand-name” philosophers because they are points and issues that deserve serious contemplation. Simon Blackburn, who was the thinker who applied the term “brand-name” philosophers to Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, and Rorty, among others, is a much respected philosopher, himself fast becoming a “brand-name” for his continuing effort in carrying on the Dewey dream. Dewey and Blackburn realise that although professional philosophy is extremely daunting, literate people (in the simple sense of having the ability to read and write), too often surrender themselves to indolence and apathy in regard to thinking. Dogmatism and stipulations are all, it seems, sufficient to get by in a world where the problems of today require no lasting solution because they would be (it appears) quickly replaced by a different set of problems tomorrow only to suffer the same fate of neglect. It is tempting to forsake the discipline of rational thinking because it is much easier to form superficial conclusions (and sing along with jingoism). The modern-age fondness for hype and for the exaggerations of bluster leaves us with little time and inclination to the critical exercise of dissecting and disembowelling falsehood and exposing its empty innards. While we can assume that truth is what we all seek, we ought always to be mindful of the Nietzschean questions mark.4 In this concluding part of my essay I hope to introduce the basic foundations from which philosophers think about truth and its connections with

ethics and morals,5 and with the modest aim of stimulating critical thinking.

II. Theresa Marie Schiavo

2 Theresa Marie Schiavo was born on 3 December 1963 to Robert and Mary Schindler.6 She married Michael Schiavo, a Catholic, in 1984. The Schindlers were also devout Catholics. On 24 February 1990 (or early morning of 25 February — there was some dispute over the actual time) Theresa Schiavo was rushed to a hospital after her husband found her collapsed in the hallway of their home. She was diagnosed to have suffered a heart attack and attempts to revive her were not successful or, more accurately, partially successful because she remained unconscious. However, her heart continued to beat — for 15 more years. She remained that way, fed through tubes connected to her, until she was pronounced dead on 31 March 2005. A post-mortem was performed the next day and the autopsy report stated that Theresa Marie Schiavo had suffered severe, irreversible brain damage that left that organ discoloured and scarred, shrivelled to half its normal size, and damaged in nearly all its regions, including the one responsible for vision.7 The Schiavo case was a long saga that raised many major disputes of facts, such as, whether Theresa Schiavo was truly in a persistent vegetative state, and even so, did that count as death so that her feeding tubes could be removed. The courts, including the Supreme Court, determined many of those questions, but legal decisions do not necessarily provide the full or final answers. In this part of the essay, I am not concerned about the legal outcome of the disputes settled in the courts in her case. The relevant point of interest in the perspectives of a case like Theresa Schiavo’s concerns the question whether there is any immaculate truth about such things as good and evil, and right and wrong; and if so, how are they reflected in our thinking?

3 Briefly, one of the main controversies of the case concerned the decision by her husband to disconnect the tubes that fed her.8 Her parents

opposed that decision and challenged it in court. That the court ruled in Michael Schiavo’s favour is, again, not the subject of this essay — the judicial decisions (there were many as the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo made several applications to the courts) could have gone against Michael Schiavo and the issues that I raise for this essay would still have been valid. The Schindler and the Schiavo families stood eyeball-to-eyeball each maintaining the moral rectitude of the position they took in respect of the care and control of Theresa Schiavo’s life or existence.9 Her parents insisted at all times that she was still alive and on no account should the feeding tubes be removed from her. That was the position of proponents of pro-life ethics. Her husband relied on medical science to show that his wife was in a persistent vegetative state and permanently so. The courts accepted the medical evidence that in that state, Theresa Schiavo was incapable of any consciousness and was totally deprived of any cognitive thinking. Thus, they accepted that Theresa Schiavo herself would not have desired any continuing medical care, including tube feeding. The lightly submerged inference here was that she would be better off dead since she was already brain dead — the argument of “death with dignity” proponents. The mainstay of Michael Schiavo’s contention was that that was what Theresa Schiavo herself would have wanted.10 That position exemplified the principle of patient autonomy that American law recognised, and preferred over the English “best interests of the patient” approach.11

III. What are we looking for?

4 The Schiavo and Schindler camps had engaged each other in what Prof Laurence Tribe called “a clash of absolutes”.12 It will be seen that the rules of engagement of such moral battles can themselves be vague and irreconcilable. Is there really a plurality of such absolutes, or is there only one universal truth, and if so, how might that be determined? What

does it really mean to be right or, conversely, to be wrong? Many who have thought long and deep about such questions will probably have accepted that a final and comprehensive answer to all these questions is unlikely to be found soon. Yet, it seems, the zeal to press on continues to be stimulated as if prodded by a deeply embedded desire to know, at least, what it is that we should be looking for. In the course of thinking about such questions, it will become apparent that the nature and significance of objectivity will merit consideration in any search for epistemological meanings and truth. People with a deep desire to understand truth and meaning are often left perplexed, not only by the schisms in formal philosophy, science, and psychology, but also by the barrage of “isms” that float in the orbit of philosophy, each claiming itself the source of enlightenment, and deriding others as confused (at best) or erroneous (at worst). Fernández-Armesto echoes their despair:13

Trapped between fundamentalists, who believe they have found truth, and relativists, who refuse to pin it down, the bewildered majority in between continues to hope there is a truth worth looking for, without knowing how to go about it or how to answer the voices from either extreme. We need a new Guide for the Perplexed

The Theresa Schiavo case exemplifies how views of right and wrong, good and evil, lawfulness and unlawfulness can be so intractably irreconcilable, and with each side sincerely believing it had claimed the moral ground.

5 Paradoxically, we might have, to some extent, desensitised ourselves, at some time, or in respect of some issues, from feeling any desire to do the right thing. Sometimes the incident seemed too trivial and morally ambiguous (or so we think) that we ignore it altogether. Is it morally right to disobey a minor parking regulation for a brief moment —eg parking in a no-parking zone for a few minutes? Is morality relevant in such...

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