Accepting the courage to live: A response to William Safire
William Safire approaches one of the most profound points now at issue in human discourse in his July 10th opinion piece on Laleh and Ladan Bijani, cojoined twins who died trying to achieve the fullness that their personal circumstances had denied them. He then slides off into a tangent leaving the reader unfulfilled.
The real issue is individualism versus collectivism as the best tool for driving human choice.
As Americans who have just celebrated the anniversary of a Revolution that asserted the right of individuals to choose against the most traditional form of collectivism, monarchy, we should remember the courage of two women who accepted their risks and chose to reject the limitations of the known, reaching instead for a future that offered them more scope.
They understood the step they chose. In characterizing this as a step into the realm of neuroethics Mr. Safire missteps and falls off the cliff into irrelevancy.
This was not about the potentials of brain enhancement; it was a life style choice predicated on the essential self-ownership of the individual.
The issue was the individual’s right of self-determination. It was their lives and their choice. Mr. Safire’s piece assumed the right of the State to limit individual choice.
That presumption should be at issue. We should be questioning how well this entrenched form of centralized control and choice limitation has served us.
Each of us must consider new choices made available through technological advancement when and if they become available. Responsible professionals need to consider the guidelines they will use to determine if they wish to offer those highly specialized and risky services to potential clients. But there is a long distance between rehabilitation and brain augmentation and this was the shoal on which Mr. Safire floundered.
Treatments to alleviate conditions that diminish the quality of an individual’s life are rehabilitation. The technological developments Mr. Safire cited will broaden the options now available. They are not life style choices but rehabilitative options. Such options belong firmly in the informed hands of individuals. Mr. Safire’s reliance on ‘professionals’ is ill placed.
Understanding the complexities of the human mind through neurobiology will give individuals the ability to make better decisions when confronted by real circumstances. Here science provides tools, new to us, but in a short time taken for granted. The history of medical science does not lend the thoughtful observer to rely on their judgment without strong reservations. When it is your own life or the life of someone you love you are most careful.
Mr. Safire’s comments relating this to medical ethics brings into focus the tendency for professionals to assume the right to decide life-impacting questions for individuals while at the same time seeking to limit their liability for making such busy-body decisions. They generally hide this tendency behind elevated rhetoric, such as supplied by Mr. Safire.
Their means for enforcing their power to choose for others is the State. This always-encroaching form of collectivism denies individuals the right to choose for themselves.
The books written by Antonio Damasio give new form to the relationship between human emotion and logic, entirely rebooting the historical presumptions that divided these two formats for decision-making. All of his books should be on the You-Really-Oughta-Read-This List. He is redefining the philosophical underpinnings of several disciplines simultaneously. Ethics, the economics of human behavioral strategies, will be only one of the things immeasurably impacted.
Human liberty, that subtle weaving of choice and accountability, is the tool that lies behind all human progress. Someone takes a risk, whether it is for revolution or an operation to give him or her a fuller future. Their choice gives each of us valuable input we immediately use, taking note of their success or failure.
In this way we reduce our transaction costs, watching as others stamp down the first grassy steps through unknown wilderness towards better worlds. There is no gene for conscience but it is time we asked ourselves why we tolerate what does not work. Individual choice works; Collectivism does not. If you wouldn’t trust a Congressman to watch your child why should they mandate our medical choices or dictate our energy sources?
It would have been a far sadder fate if Laleh and Ladan Bijani had not been able to choose. One hundred years ago they would have faced the wall of impossibility. They died having exercised their right to really live. We speak of spending our lives, recognizing in those words the temporary nature of human existence. The right choice may empower the soul, even as it kills us. This is the epitaph of all revolutionaries, including Laleh and Ladan.