Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Ethic of Hope?

Deciding in Hope

            A number of philosophers and theologians have suggested that we need to think in terms of an “ethic of hope”—Gabriel Marcel, Jurgen Moltmann, N.T. Wright, Jonathan Lear, and others.  There is a great deal of diversity among these writers; they understand hope in differing ways and though they all think hope is important to ethics, they do so in different ways.  I want to focus in this essay on the underlying idea, that there is some way in which hope should influence or control our moral decision-making.
            We need to think about the structure of hope rather than the content of hope we might find in some religion or ideology.  Hope concerns something (1) future, that is (2) desired, and that is (3) possible, neither certain nor impossible.  Any philosopher or theologian who writes about an “ethic of hope” must imply that in some way such things (future, desired, possible things) should influence or control moral decision-making.
            As I pointed out in an earlier essay (“Hope as Passion and Virtue”), the natural passion of hope focuses on future desired possible things.  But the objects of hope as a natural passion may be morally neutral (e.g. my hope that the Mariners win the pennant) or even morally impermissible (e.g. Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor’s wife).  Therefore, any “ethic of hope” must supplement the basic structure of hope with moral content.  If it is true that hope should influence or control our moral decision-making, it must be a kind of hope that is directed toward morally praiseworthy ends.  I will not try to say what constitutes moral praiseworthiness in this essay; that is a huge topic for another time.
            So far, then: hope for any possible “ethic of hope” must concern something future, desired, possible, and morally praiseworthy.
            The central question for any “ethic of hope” is this: how should things hoped for influence moral decision-making?  Those who urge an “ethic of hope” must think there is some positive answer to this question.   In general, deciding in hope would mean deciding to act in some way to achieve the thing hoped for (or at the minimum to act in some way that does not prevent the thing hoped for).   An ethic of hope means deciding in ways congruent with things hoped for.
In some cases, perhaps, hope may require certain decisions; hope may create moral obligation.  In other cases, hope’s effect may not be so stringent; perhaps hope is only one factor among many, and the moral agent would need to balance acting out of hope against acting out of other concerns.
The root challenge to any ethic of hope calls itself “realism.”  In this context, the “realist” warns that we can easily make bad decisions—morally blameworthy decisions—by acting in ways congruent with hope.  For example, suppose a cancer patient’s family and caregivers hope that chemotherapy will kill the cancer and achieve a cure.  There are many ways to act congruently with this hope: scheduling chemo treatments, imagining life in remission, speaking confidently with friends about the disease, making plans for next year’s vacation, and so on.  Suppose the cancer patient’s family discouraged her from making funeral plans or writing a will.  Such actions (and non-actions) might be congruent with the hope that the chemotherapy will achieve a cure.  And the realist would object that such actions (and non-actions) are morally wrong.  The patient’s family has let hope deceive them about the real probability of cure, and this self-deception can cause great mischief. 
Against any robust “ethic of hope,” the realist protests that we must not let wishful thinking keep us from pursuing the limited goods that we can actually achieve.
Adrienne Martin, a philosopher whose thought has been influenced by her work on a cancer ward, defends hope by saying that persons can act in hope while at the same time holding “back up plans.”  The cancer patient and her family may “incorporate” (Martin’s term) hope into their lives in many ways and still prepare for the possibility that their hope will not come to pass.  The patient and her family may hope for a cure and prepare for death.
In many cases, Martin’s advice seems right.  I can plan to take students on a study trip some months from now, and also plan for a substitute if my wife’s disease prevents me from leaving her at that time.  We incorporate hope into our thinking, feeling, and planning, but we also have back-up plans.
Martin’s strategy will not work in every case, if there are genuine forced choice situations in life.  Suppose I think candidate A is the best choice for the office, but I also believe that candidate B is more likely to win, and further, I believe candidate C, running neck-and-neck in the polls with B, is completely unfit for office.  I hope that A will win.  I believe B is more likely to win than A.  I desperately fear that C will win.  In voting it seems I must act in accord with my hope that A win by voting for A, or act in accord with my fear that C will win by voting for B.  It seems I must choose between my hope and my back-up plan.
Are there other, more important, forced choice situations in life?  Consider hopes concerning the after-life.  Socrates argued in Apology that there were two options to consider: either death brings annihilation of the person so that we simply cease to exist, or death introduces us to an afterlife where we can interact with other dead people.  It seems that Socrates hoped for the second possibility, but he was content if the first turned out to be true.  Neither option interfered with Socrates’ determination to practice philosophy as long as he lived.  The strategy of “hope plus back-up plan” seemed to work for Socrates.
But what if Socrates was wrong about the options?  A Christian might console himself that either his hope of resurrection life will come true or, as the materialists affirm, there will be no afterlife at all.  That’s fine, as long as those are the only possibilities.  But suppose Islam is true.  In that case, Christian resurrection and life in the Kingdom of God is one possibility; but so is eternal punishment if the Christian has obstinately refused to believe the word of the Prophet.
The “realist” may have strange advice in this case.  The realist says we need to act according to the best odds.  If forced to choose between Christianity and Islam, throw your lot with the one that seems most likely true.  Of course, many “realists” are also secularists; they would advise against believing any religion.  But then one might ask, what is the secularist’s back-up plan?  If the truth of atheism isn’t 100% sure, it seems the secularist ought to prepare for the possibility that his hope (that there is no afterlife) fails.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


The Last Walk (Part 5)

            Cancer complicates life.  Daily activities take longer.  Every visit to the bath presents danger of falling.  The caregiver wants to intervene, to protect against injury.  But the patient needs to do as much for herself as she can, to maintain strength, balance, mental agility, etc.  In addition to such little complications, there are some big ones.  We have to adjust on the fly.
            For example, on September 10 I drove Karen to visit Tim and Tia, our son and daughter-in-law, who live in Kennewick.  Karen had been looking forward to this trip for weeks.  The next day, Sunday, Karen felt sick, with flu symptoms.  She didn’t want to expose Jakobi, our grandson, so she asked Tim to drive her home. 
            We suspect Karen’s symptoms came from having a flu shot.  It’s wise, of course for her to have a flu shot; influenza can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.  The down side of inoculation is that people often get mild flu symptoms—but for cancer patients, mild symptoms aren’t so mild. 
Karen called me when she and Tim set out.  I drove east and met Tim and Karen in the tiny town of Rufus, and from there I brought her home.  So the planned week with Tim and Tia amounted to one night.  And for Karen the drive home was thoroughly unpleasant.
            Another big adjustment: Janie, my sister-in-law, took Karen for her third chemo treatment yesterday.  For a number of reasons Dr. G judged her too weak to receive it.  Chemotherapy hits the body hard; the hope is that in doing so it hits the cancer harder.  Given Karen’s lethargy, mental confusion, dehydration, and other factors, Dr. G said he would not administer the drugs.  She was given I.V. hydration, which helped perk her up, and Dr. G recommended that we ask the home health service to move her to palliative care.
            Palliative care, I’ve learned, is a more intense version of home health care.  (As I type this, we’re waiting for the nurse’s visit.)  According to Dr. G, patients under palliative care often improve.  He’s counting on that, hoping that Karen will be stronger and more alert in two weeks so she can get chemo.
            Now when I first heard “palliative care or maybe hospice care” (Janie’s phrase on the phone when she told me) my mind latched onto the word “hospice,” and I assumed the doctor’s advice meant Karen and Phil’s last walk would soon end.  A later conversation with a home health care supervisor reassured me.  It is not unreasonable to expect good results from palliative care.  If Karen gets stronger, she may have more chemotherapy.  If she gets chemotherapy, it may significantly extend her life.
            So now we live in an uncertain space.  Will Karen be ready for chemo in two weeks?  Is the chemo actually working against the cancer?  Tim and Tia plan to come to Newberg soon; will Karen be alert to enjoy their visit?
            Cancer brings long term uncertainties too, some of which we can prepare for—reviewing and revising legal documents, buying a burial niche, arranging for cremation, etc.  There’s a lot of detail work to get ready to die!  Yet every conversation is peppered with “if” or “someday” or “eventually.”  So much we don’t know; we don’t even know that Karen will die before me, and the documents must reflect that possibility.
            When you think about it, cancer only reveals something that is true of every life.  We all live in uncertain space.  The vibrantly healthy college students in my classroom eagerly make plans for the weekend, the holidays, or their careers after graduation.  God bless them—I hope their plans bear fruit as they expect.  But the truth is that we do not know what tomorrow will bring.  Three weeks, three months, or three years: cancer makes our uncertain space plain to Karen and me.  What we can be sure of is how we face the uncertainty.  I will love Karen to the end, no matter what.  Because of the gospel of Christ, we hope for resurrection, no matter what.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Discrete Events and Narrative Lives (Part 4)

            In part three of this series, I promised to return to the problem of personal identity “next week.”  That was three weeks ago.  The accidents of life get in the way of our plans; instead of writing about narrative the last two weeks, I added essays to The Last Walk.  Only now do I return to my topic: narrative, personal identity, and morality.
            Notice how this episode illustrates, in a minor way, the complexity of the questions we are considering.  “I” announced my “intention” of accomplishing some “action” (publishing a blog post, in this case).  Today I offer an explanation as to why I didn’t do what I announced. 
Philosophers ponder mysteries in that sequence: What constitutes a person?  What are intentional states (of anything, but especially of persons)?  What distinguishes an action of a person from other events in the world?  For which actions or failures to act should persons supply explanations or apologies?
            There’s no way I’m going to sort out all these questions in a single essay.   Philosophy of Mind is a jungle of interrelated questions.  I just want to tame a little corner of the jungle.
            The skeptical worry, remember, is the thought that we should regard our personal narratives as fictions.  A number of undeniable facts motivate the skeptical worry.  First, we know that discrete events (such as the outcome of particular at-bats) are largely unaffected by the stories we tell about them (e.g. Allen Average is having a good day batting).  Second, we know that our memories of past events, including events in our personal lives, are often objectively inaccurate.  Third, at best our memories of our lives comprise a tiny minority of the events that make up our past.  Fourth, we know that events can greatly change persons’ character; we say with some measure of truth that so-and-so is not the same person she was at some prior time.  Therefore, the skeptical worry says, we should not put much stock in our personal narratives; perhaps we should think of ourselves as “strong poets” (Richard Rorty’s suggestion) who regularly invent or reinvent ourselves by recasting our stories.
            In spite of all this I will argue for a narrative understanding of personhood.  I think the following claims are all true.  First: a person’s life gains identity by means of narrative.  It is by story that one event connects meaningfully with another; without narrative the events in our lives are just one damn thing after another.  Second: only a narrative personal identity can ground and explain significant moral duties.  Third: human beings are capable of deceiving themselves about almost everything, including their narrative based identity, so it is possible for persons to achieve better or worse understandings of themselves.  Fourth: the true story of any person’s life can only be discerned against the backdrop of a true story of the world in which that person lives.  Against those philosophers who proclaim the death of meta-narrative, I think we need meta-narrative.  (Notice: the so-called death of meta-narrative is usually presented as a story.)  If the great story of Christ is true, I can only rightly understand my story as part of his story.
            As I said, there is no way I can defend all these assertions in one essay.  I will offer a few remarks in support of the second claim, that only a narrative personal identity can ground and explain significant moral duties.
            Consider two episodes from my life.  In 1977 in a marriage ceremony, I promised Karen that I would be a loving and faithful husband for the rest of our lives together.  In 1989, a judge explained to a little boy, Jamie Bolles, that because of the paper she was signing he would be James Keith Smith, and he would be a “forever” part of our family.  At the time of the judge’s decree, Karen and I promised to James that we would love him and care for him no matter what.  Considered dispassionately, these are not unusual events.  Thousands of adoptions are finalized every year in this country, and marriages are even more frequent.
            Promises are central to marriages and adoptions.  Like me, in many cases the people who make such promises live for many years after making the promise.  Life happens.  People change.  Surely there is some sense of the phrase in which it is true to say: I am not that person anymore.  Yet I think—and I think most people would agree—that the promise made then has moral import now.  There is a sense in which the promise commands me; it lays obligation on me.  The promise limits my life, because I made it.  I, a person living decades after the promise, am morally constrained by that promise because I am the person who made it.
            I am not saying that marriage promises or adoption promises create iron laws with no exceptions.  I know people who divorced.  I know of disrupted adoptions.  I have no interest in condemning such people or adding to their pain.  There are situations of tragic moral choice.  But I point out that one reason such tragedies are tragic is that persons think they must break promises.  They feel they must, morally must, do one thing, and yet they feel they must not do that thing.  Promises do not simply lose their moral force simply because time has passed and I am a new person.
            My argument is simple.  We have a pretty clear moral intuition that marriage promises and adoption promises create obligations for those who make them.  The only way this intuition can be right is if there is such a thing as personal identity over time.  That is: it is right to do this thing now, because I promised I would—even if the promise was made decades ago by a very different “me.”  The best way to describe personal identity is through narrative.  I make sense of my life by the story I live.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Back Home

The Last Walk 4

Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope,
patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

            Paul’s words present a stiff challenge.  Are Karen and I joyful, patient, faithful?  Hm.  On the last point, many friends have assured us they are praying for Karen and me on our last walk.  Prayer is a facet of human solidarity, and we are grateful for our friends’ prayers.  A week ago I asked friends to pray that Karen could come home.
            Who would have guessed that a kidney stone could be good news?  On Thursday, Dr. B operated on Karen’s right kidney, removing the stone and placing a stent in her ureter.  (Dr. B calls himself the plumbing doctor; he’s an urologist, not to be confused with a nephrologist, the kidney expert.  In Karen’s case, they both are part of a team, of which Dr G, the oncologist, is head.  I’m learning lots of new vocabulary.)
Karen’s body chemistry and mental functioning began improving immediately after surgery.  During a two-hour visit later Thursday, I witnessed her voice strengthening and her mind clearing.  Friday afternoon, when I checked phone messages after class, Jennie, our daughter-in-law, said not to go to the hospital.  My sister-in-law Janie had taken Karen home already.
In the five days since then we’ve been learning to balance pain meds.  If she takes too little, Karen’s pain spikes, especially if she “does” anything—stand up, dress herself, walk a few steps, etc.  Call this Scylla.  On the other hand, if we overdo the meds (or give one too soon after the other) the drugs hammer her cognitive abilities.  That’s Charybdis.  Like Odysseus, we try to navigate between the monster and the whirlpool.  Of course, Karen faces complications that Odysseus could never have imagined.  For example, after kidney surgery patients sometimes experience sudden, uncontrollable bladder function.  That stage has passed, thank God; but we had a series of adventures last Friday night!
Karen was scheduled for a chemo treatment Tuesday, but Dr. G postponed it.  It’s more important to achieve balance on pain meds.  There is clinical evidence that good pain control improves the efficacy of chemotherapy, he says.  Karen is learning to judge her pain state more precisely; learning to take the “break-through” meds before pain increases.  We’re getting better at pain management, so much so that Karen called Tim and Tia (son and daughter-in-law) to confirm her plan to visit them next week.  It’s her decision to make, so I will drive to Kennewick on two successive Saturdays, delivering her on the first and retrieving her the next.  I expect lots of pictures of Jakobi.  Meanwhile, we have had visits from home health care and home health physical therapy.
That’s a lot of prayers answered in only a week.  “…faithful in prayer” sounds like good advice.