It used to be that someone was either dead or alive, no middle ground. Think of ethical problems encountered in the medical field. You’ll quickly notice positive and negative sides to the dilemmas. More importantly you’ll notice that these dilemmas came not from assuming that the natural progression of life and death has its place, but from how technology has created these gray areas in the first place. In its altruistic quest to help, technology has stepped in to bring back from the brink those who have a chance of survival. It has also created entire categories of significant ethical problems.
Neither the benefits nor the dilemmas would exist without technological intervention, but one of my true concerns is that for all the progress made, we are becoming less human.
Short-term Intervention or Long-term Lifestyle?
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a great thing. It is a short-term intervention that gives the injured a fighting chance. Surgeries also are short-term interventions aimed at getting the person back to working order. But what about the body that isn’t fighting, that must stay on a machine that breathes for them?
I have seen a machine that lays down layered cells like bricks to build a 3-D organ, such as a heart. And then the heart contracts, functioning all on its own as it should, so it seems sensible to think we can keep a physical body functioning long after the person is already gone. And this is where most of the ethical issues are encountered. Now that we’ve placed the body on a machine that perpetuates its normal functions, is it right or wrong to take that away? The materialist, meaning the one who does not believe there is a spiritual or metaphysical realm, hangs all hope on sustaining the body. If they are right and there is nothing more than what we see around us, there is no other logical choice but to sacralize the physical universe.
The problem is, there’s only one way to find out whether or not the person is already gone. And it’s irreversible.
Function Versus Life
To me, the presence of the spirit within the person determines whether they are still alive or not; the spirit is the essence of a person. If the spirit is gone, the body still can carry on its functions, but function is not an indicator of life. Function only indicates that the physical body has the ability to continue carrying out the processes it is suited for and has been doing all along. Of course the answer is, “Yes, the body can function as it has been,” because that is precisely the intransitive definition of function: To work or operate in a particular way.
A computer functions, but does not have life. A storm functions, but does not have life. A bypass machine functions, but does not have life. A liver is an organ with a function, but it does not have life. Transplanting an organ does not transplant life; it only grants function to another who is already living. If being alive is not solely due to an organ, it must be due to something else or to several other things. Life is obviously connected to the material world without being inherently bound by function. It seems this distinction between function and life opens the door to deeper questions of the metaphysical.
Material Versus Spiritual
For the materialist, the body becomes sacred because it is all we have. But if the body is incapacitated, what good is it to perpetuate its functions? Like one dealing with numbers rather than human lives, the materialist is left to draw precise lines delineating value from worthlessness in the body’s varying states of function. Historically, governments have stepped in with responses aimed at appeasing the two demi-gods of religious inscrutability and science’s claims, only to produce more ethical dilemmas. Materialism gives no clear answer to what makes us human and what makes us alive.
My Current Thoughts
This is where I presently stand on this issue. The natural progression is from life to death. There may be several short-term interventions — which include surgeries — to give a person a second chance without increasing ethical dilemmas. However, long-term interventions almost always step into the gray. All life is precious, sacred, and valuable. But, believing that there is a spiritual realm as I do, I do not think that this life is all there is or that the body is all we have.
For those believing in a spirit realm, the spiritual life given by God makes the body sacred; all things flow from the primacy of the spirit, which is where the idea of human dignity comes from. Spirit and body together is what makes an individual that person rather than another person, and the presence of a person’s spirit is what I believe makes them alive. It doesn’t make ethical decisions any easier, but you may gain a sense of clarity if they are made with this in mind.