CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE (continued)

We ended last time recognizing the ethical calculus on receiving the Covid-19 vaccine  applies at three levels of reality – individual, proximate, and societal. The simplest of these is the first or reality at the level of the individual where the decision is both simple and less urgent. If your fear of contracting Covid-19 infection, of suffering temporary symptoms (such as loss of smell and taste), of the small risk of hospitalization, and of the even smaller danger of death (say 1 in 200) is less than your concern of unknown but unlikely dangers of the vaccine (not yet seen after hundreds of millions of doses), you might come to the subjectively sound if objectively dubious decision to hold on vaccination. At this level, the best case against vaccination could be made for children and young people who are at least natural risk.

At the level of proximate reality (those around you and with whom you have contact), your ethical responsibility is not to serve as a conduit for direct spread of the virus to other, possibly more vulnerable, persons particularly family and friends. This too is a risk/benefit decision – i.e. the risk of unintended harm to others including their possible death versus your anxiety about an apparently safe vaccine. While to me it seems selfish for you to risk the health of others for unproven fears, a case might be made to delay vaccination if you have limited or no contact with people (other than those already vaccinated) or if you are willing to commit to vigorous protection by double masking, maintaining distance, and limiting interactions to outside. Perhaps phobic persons might justify this approach.

The crux of the ethical issue however is at the level of society. The body of a person infected with Covid-19 produces billions of new copies of the virus. In the copying process errors are made – called mutations – just as would happen if you were to make billions of handwritten copies of a poem or essay. While most of these mutations are harmless, rarely the mutant virus is more infectious or more virulent (likely to kill). In fact a mutant copy of the virus might not be prevented by the vaccines already available and thus could lead to a new epidemic.

Here I would like to point out that most of us have homes, cars, cell phones, food, clothing, medicines, and so forth that we would not have if not for modern civilization. There are tremendous benefits to living in society. In return don’t we have a duty not to be the source of another pandemic? There is no excuse imaginable for declining a generally available, extremely safe vaccine knowing your own body could be the factory for a new, even more deadly virus that could kill millions of your fellow human beings. Therefore, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories must be rejected; all of us have a categorical duty to be vaccinated until the pandemic is over…period. (Sorry!)

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CURRENT EVENTS – VIRTUE AND THE COVID-19 VACCINE

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.” – Albert Camus,  The Plague.

In seven earlier posts1 I addressed some of the philosophical issues attendant to the Covid-19 pandemic just then starting and since dominating 18 months of our lives as a species. Starting in late December of 2020 the first of four vaccines was approved for emergency use by the United States FDA and by similar agencies in most other Western countries (Russia and China have also developed their own vaccines). Without getting into the details of the amazing effectiveness and remarkably limited danger of these vaccines, as a physician who has thoroughly reviewed the clinical trials and FDA panel review and monitored the continuously reported data, I can assure readers that these vaccines are every bit as safe and perhaps more effective than any of the other vaccines they have received during their lifetimes. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are, in my opinion, scientific advances that will lead to Nobel Prize awards within ten years.

Our emphasis today however is on the ethics of a decision to receive or to decline vaccination. Before we address that, a little review is in order. Covid-19 is a member of the coronavirus group which includes some minor longstanding cold viruses. In 2002 a dangerous form, SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared in China, infected about 8000 persons and caused 774 deaths. In 2012 MERS or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome appeared in Saudi Arabia and infected about 2500 patients causing 886 deaths.2 Covid-19 which appeared in China in late 2019 was thus the third of these mutated coronaviruses, but this time was much more infectious striking over 178 million people and killing nearly 4 million worldwide. This translates into about a 2.1% mortality, though it likely lower due to underreporting of mild and asymptomatic cases. However the mortality rate varies dramatically by age from less than one in ten thousand for children to perhaps 10-15% in octogenarians. Full vaccination reduces the number of identifiable cases by 95-99% and essentially prevents all deaths. Minor side effects from the vaccines are common, but serious harm or death are less than one in one million, and to my knowledge, no vaccine related deaths have been attributed to the mRNA vaccines.

So what is the ethical calculus on receiving the vaccine or having your child vaccinated? We have seen virtue in general applies to four levels of reality – internal, proximate, societal, and cosmic – of which the first three pertain here. We will explore these next time.

(continued next post)

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1See Suffering – The COVID-19 Pandemic – Parts I-V on this site 4/8/20, 4/10/20, 4/13/20, 4/15/20, 4/17/20, 4/20/20, and 4/22/20.

2See SARS Basic Fact Sheet and MERS Basic Fact Sheet at www.CDC.gov.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS (continued)

The last term for consideration in our lexicon of purpose is “vocation” which Webster’s dictionary defines two ways: “a strong impulse or inculcation to follow a particular activity or career,” and “a divine call to God’s service or the Christian life.”7 This term seems to split the difference between free choice and divine command and between simple occupation and purposive drive. Because of its ambiguity, I will avoid using the word “vocation” in these discussion.

Now a few clarifications are in order. First there is quite a bit of overlap in all of these terms, for example, the role of teacher on the ground as it were may be the result of feeling called to education and by love of children or young people. Lifework, even the same career , can be highly meaningful to some, but dreary necessity for earning a living to others (consider two differently minded teachers).

Second purpose has two qualities of meaning. There is the logical relationship of a role or activity to its implied goal – i.e. all parents have a role or purpose in raising their child or children. Then there is the reflexive meaning where the parent feels an internal impulse to bring a child into the world and raise it as a component of a more meaningful life. Therein rests a key insight – that our work or activity is purpose-based is a subjective impression rather than implied by the specific activity. In thinking about the meaning of life, it is this subjective essence which is central.

Last, so far we have used the word purpose in the existential sense, either as function at the ground level of an existing entity or as the self-directed goals of human agency. There is perhaps a third context of purpose – the intention of the agent responsible for our existence. At the level of our parent, purpose could be a goal our parent or parents had for us when bringing us into the world. It seems this is most likely equivalent to a role, but if subjectively embraced could become a mission or calling. Nonetheless we still choose to fill their intended purpose or not so the distinction is of limited significance.

Alternatively if we, humans in general and ourselves as individuals in particular, were created by a divine power, the implication is that a fixed purpose was intended. Purpose in this setting remains subjective however – we may choose to see ourselves simply filling a role in divine creation or consciously seek to identify and assume the calling of the creator. The same circumstances apply if we assume there is a self-emerging direction to the universe in which teleology is implied in our existence. We will take on these difficult questions in later blogs.

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7Ibid., page.2129.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS

“Man is made for action, not for idleness or pleasure. A man must not retire into solitude and cut himself off from his fellow men. He must be ever active and do his part in the greater whole.” – Marcus Aurelius

Having defined purpose as we will be using it  as “the desirable result, end, or aim of one’s life,” we next take on similar concepts and parse their use and contribution to the answer we seek.

The closest related word to purpose, it seems to me, is “role,” defined by Webster’s as “proper or customary function.”1 This understanding seems to apply to specific circumstances such as being a parent or being a teacher. The purpose of a parent vis-a-vis parenthood is to fill a specific role in raising one’s children to successful adulthood. Similarly the purpose and the role of a teacher appear to be essentially identical, that is, to instruct students in a particular subject matter. Thus just as the purpose of a car’s brake is its role in slowing or stopping the vehicle, in some contexts human purpose is defined by one’s role in a particular situation.

The second term related to purpose is “calling” which seems best defined by reworking three of Webster’s  meanings of the word into  “a vocation, profession, or trade to which one is summoned or for which one feels a strong impulse of inclination.”2 Connotatively a calling then is identifying a course of lifelong labor that is at least subjectively worthwhile and meaningful. we conclude that while role as purpose is in a sense incidental to one’s circumstances or externally defined, a calling is more internally defined and the result of conscious choice or impulse.

A “mission” can be defined as “an assigned or self-imposed duty or task”3 although the word often refers to faith-based activites as in ‘missionary work.’ Missions are also typically group activities as opposed to the individual context of a calling. For example the choice to be a physician or a clergyman is a calling, while the choice to join others in evangelical work in underserved communities is generally considered a mission. Likewise secular and business organizations have missions to provide excellent products or services or to support a particular goal.

Slightly less suggestive of purpose is the word, “lifework” which can be defined as “the complete or principal work, labor, or task of a lifetime.”4 Callings and missions are often lifeworks, but some lifeworks are less consciously linked to the purpose of one’s life. Within the latter group falls the idea of “career” defined as “an occupation or profession, especially one requiring special training, followed as one’s lifework,”5 and “occupation” which is defined as “a person’s usual or principle work or business especially as a means of earning a living.”6 The difference in nuance of these terms is their implicit focus on work as a social responsibility or as the means to sustain oneself and one’s family rather than as providing a definite purpose for one’s life.

(continued next post)

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1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 1667 – definition 2.

2Ibid., page 298 – definitions 2,3, and 4.

3Ibid., page 1231 – definition 16.

4Ibid., page 1111.

5Ibid., page 315.

6Ibid., page 1339.

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PURPOSE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – INTRODUCTION

“Every single man is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.” –Martin Buber, I and Thou.

 

 

We have seen that a meaningful life starts with the decision to choose a life of virtue or moral excellence. However in all likelihood when you ask yourself what is the meaning of life, you intend a query more akin to “Why am I here?” or “What is the purpose of my life?” Perhaps surprisingly, philosophers speak much more of virtue than they do of purpose. I think that is because the word itself is vague, oversized, or implies an intention of a Creator. Today I wish to introduce this topic by clarifying its use on this site,  sorting through some of the nuances of the idea of purpose as it applies to a meaningful life, and then outlining the course we will follow.

Let’s begin with the definition which we discussed in an earlier post on Teleology1. According to Webster’s, “purpose” is “the reason for which something exists or is done, made, or used; an intended or desired result, end, or aim” or loosely “why” we exist. Now for many things the “why” can be determined, for example the brake on your car exists to stop the vehicle, and this could be determined through careful study by any intelligent being who looked closely enough. The same can be said of the car itself; it exists to transport persons or things from one place to another.

When we look at a human being, asking about the purpose of a part, such as the kidney or liver, also appears to be a coherent question – typically answered by a scientific analysis. However it is unclear whether the question of why a human being in his or her totality exists has a scientific answer and indeed many argue the question lacks coherence at all. We will take this us in a later blog.

With regards to the meaning of life, we deploy a modified version of the second aspect of the dictionary definition so that the question of one’s purpose, we hope, is converted into the more cogent question “What is the desirable result, end, or aim of my life?” It is a reply to this understanding that makes up the majority of this section. Also since any answer refers to conduct, the reader sees the necessity of our prior discussion of ethics and virtue in a final answer. The outline of this section follows:

1.     Introduction

2.    Distinctions of terms

3.    Criterial and Pitfalls

4.    Levels of purpose

5.    Factors in choice

6.    Historicity

7.    Teleology and purpose

8.    Divine purpose

9.    Purpose and virtue

10.    The purpose of humanity

11.  Synopsis and Synthesis

Next time we pick up with the distinction of various terms related to purpose such as role, calling, and mission. Join me then.

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1See Teleology – Definitions of Terms on this site – November 4, 2019

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VIRTUE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNOPSIS (continued)

The third level is societal virtue which is founded on the idea that an excellent human being reciprocates for the benefits of society by fulfilling duties and being of service. My list of reasonable duties is listed in Table 1 of the Appendix, though some readers may want to craft their own. An inventory of duties informs those obligations that are inexcusable no matter the personal sacrifice or inconvenience. Regarding service, a good rule of thumb is that such efforts should contribute to the maximum enrichment of all at the lowest possible opportunity cost always factoring in the categorical imperative that every person be treated as an end and never as a means. Key prerequisites are knowledge of goodness, a moral compass, recognition and acceptance of duty, integrity, discipline, and prudence.

Social virtue by all is vital to the function of a democratic state, but there is much to learn from extraordinary virtue in the forms of the saint, the hero, the great leader, and the sage. Each epitomizes one of the four classical Greek virtues; the saint – temperance, the hero – courage, the leader – justice, and the sage – wisdom. Virtue and human purpose overlap and reinforce each other in their shining examples.

The fourth level of virtue in a fully meaningful life is beyond humanity: Nature, the Earth, science, and the cosmos. A reverence for life and living in harmony with other creatures and with our planet is foundational although there are pragmatic limits on our responsibilities. Thus it appears ethical to limit pests in our immediate environment and to consume animal products. However utilitarian rules and some imperatives apply: for example we should not exploit the environment without considering ecosystems nor intentionally cause the extinction of even disagreeable species.

Cosmic virtue also extends to science where human excellence includes careful study and analysis as the means to truth about the physical world and our interactions with it. Open dialogue and freedom of speech permit the voicing of pseudoscience by persons of lesser virtue, but intelligent, moral individuals must learn to reject it and help others see its fallacies. Meanwhile science and technology must be used for ethical purposes and blocked from evil uses.

The final dimension of cosmic virtue is adoption of the cosmic perspective, a term I borrowed from Neil de Grasse Tyson. For me there are two components; first the external actions of study of the universe including perhaps participation as amateur scientist, searching for extra-terrestrial life as a means to expanding our understanding of the cosmos, and exploration and colonization of space. The other component is internal and includes mirroring the order and benevolence of the universe, enlarging one’s worldview, and recognizing our limited but singular role in the universe and our kinship with all things in existence. We can learn the secrets of the cosmos through the examples of great scientists like Galileo and Einstein or great spiritualists like Laozi or Spinoza.

At the end of the day, virtue at these four levels is not just human excellence, but the defining feature of our species. The attainment of a meaningful life starts with the simple decision to choose a life of virtue – to aim for moral excellence and yes even perfection. It depends more on the choosing than on the succeeding. Think about it!

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VIRTUE AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNOPSIS

“The happiness of mankind is the end of virtue, and truth is the knowledge of the means.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The first stage on the journey to a meaningful life takes place on the highway of virtue. Virtue is human excellence manifested as ideal conduct in the world. The foundation of all virtue occurs at the level of the self – a raw gem with irregular surfaces we cut and polish through our lives to produce a shining jewel.  Its facets are self-discipline, self-knowledge, self-improvement, selflessness, recognition of the true self, self-affirmation, and self-actualization. Once accomplished, virtue at the other levels of reality follows naturally as long as we deliberate our actions carefully and make a habit of performing ethically as Aristotle taught us over 2000 years ago. Eastern philosophy and techniques, religious mysticism, and NeoPlatonism offer methods to perfect our internal being, but be prepared for a long and sometimes frustrating course to this inner bliss.

The second plane of virtue in the meaningful life is in our direct relationship to others. It originates in selflessness, and is fed by temperance, and commitment to ethical behavior in the world. Virtue to others takes on two forms: usual and extraordinary. Each person must learn to live harmoniously with others, adopting appropriate norms of behavior or propriety (etiquette, civil demeanor, respect for others, and wisdom in choosing friends). To this we add justice or fairness and decency in dealing with other people, voluntary obedience to legitimate laws, freely choosing proportionate distribution of goods, and electing to suffer injustice oneself rather than commit injustice (summed up in the aphorism: “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”).

Exceptional virtue on this plane has two forms – heroism and saintliness. Everyday heroism ranges from the common spontaneous acts of accepting risk in the service of others or through deliberate acts. Exceptional heroism involves assuming spectacular risks such as probable harm of death in the service of others or unrelenting determination and personal sacrifice in a great enterprise. Underlying heroism is a philosophical dimension, a personal journey to full power over oneself, a final acceptance of one’s finitude and inevitable death, and the dedication to hopeful action and “living the truth of creation.” The second form of exceptional virtue in this realm is the saint – the religious or secular figure who sacrifices the needs and wants of him or herself for the love of others. For some the practice of such goodness towards others becomes identical to happiness.

(continued next post)

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ULTIMATE VIRTUE

“Revere the ultimate power in the universe … but similarly revere the ultimate power in yourself; this is akin to the other power.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

 

Before we prepare a synopsis of virtue, the first key ingredient of a meaningful life, I would like to pause briefly to consider virtue in the context of ultimate reality. In an earlier blog I defined ultimate reality in as the highest reality inclusive of all being and all ideas or as the logically first being from which all other beings and cosmic law are derived. I also noted that for strict materialists, cosmic reality is ultimate reality and thus virtue for them has been covered in the 41 posts on that subject.

At the end of the day, I would like to ask the reader to entertain the notion that there may be something beyond the physical and mental realm experienced by human beings that fits into what is traditionally called the spiritual realm. Now this should not be an artificial reclassification of a portion of the material world or mental activity, but a genuinely distinct dimension of reality. For theists this dimension includes God, perhaps other divine entities, spirits, mystical experience, miracles, and so forth. Skeptics and physicalists call this superstition, imagination, delusion, suggestion, and even scientifically explainable. For the disbeliever, the leap to deny or discount ultimate reality risks the danger of possibly missing out on the most powerful level of a meaningful life. Thus I suggest we bracket its actuality while we think through what makes for excellence in our conduct with regards to it.

However this does not seem to be the ideal place for a detailed analysis. Rather after considerable thought I believe one’s interaction and experience of ultimate reality fits into its own class and can therefore be rolled up in a future dedicated section. For today, I wish to list some generic approaches to virtue in the realm of the ultimate as listed below.

  1. Identification and definition of the nature of ultimate reality.
  2. Clarifying the linkage with the three other components of the meaningful life – virtue, purpose, and contentment.
  3. Fulfillment of supererogatory duty.
  4. Defining the ideal form(s) of direct interaction with ultimate reality, for example prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
  5. Immersion in the ultimate.

Should one recognize its distinction from the cosmos itself, ultimate reality differs from the others in that virtue, purpose, and contentment coalesce in finding meaning therein. Further details will make up the chapter that follows the next two: Purpose and Contentment. Before we start on them, next time I will present a synopsis on virtue as the first ingredient of the meaningful life.

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COSMIC VIRTUE – CONCLUSION (continued)

Continuing with conclusions on virtue regarding nature beyond animals brings us to ‘land ethics’ with its fundamental tenets: (1) treat Nature as a series of interconnected ecosystems, (2) use evidence-based decision making, (3) balance human needs treating individuals as ends not means, (4) seek natural or organic sources of food (5) learn from Nature by direct observation and scientific means, and (6) recognize the value of myth, symbols, and the lore of elder native peoples. From these we outlined a virtuous course of behavior regarding the environment. Limit human impacts on atmospheric degradation and climate change. Avoid overfishing or consuming overfished species and conserve fresh water by simple practical methods. Preserve soil, recycle non-fuel minerals, and expand renewable energy. Expand or protect nonhuman spaces for animals and future people.

The next dimension of cosmic virtue is the discipline of science. Virtue here is the commitment to study, validate, and filter science in order to extract the most reliable facts about the world. Objectivity is key. Pseudoscience must be identified, rejected, and exposed. Science and technology must be used for ethical purposes and blocked from evil uses. These principles are even more incumbent on experts who in addition ought to clearly distinguish evidence-based facts from unproven theories and opinions.

The final dimension is the cosmos itself where virtue is based on having, in the words of Neil de Grasse Tyson, a ‘cosmic perspective.’ While the philosopher may contemplate metaphysical features of existence, he or she must still acknowledge the truths of astronomy and astrophysics in the pursuit of cosmic virtue and construct an ethical program based thereon. Externally directed or active virtue is study of the universe including perhaps participation as amateur scientist, searching for extra-terrestrial life as a means to expanding our understanding of the cosmos, and space exploration and future colonization appropriately funded preferably as an international effort.

The other aspect of the cosmic perspective is internally directed and includes mirroring the order and benevolence of the universe. By it we enlarge our worldview and increase our appreciation of humanity, other living things, and Earth itself. We uncover a wisdom founded on recognizing our limited but singular role in the universe and our kinship with all of existence. We see its power in the lives and thoughts of Laozi, Galileo, Jane Goodall, and many others. Yes, one can see the greatness of the universe as proof of our smallness and thus our insignificance. But we have a choice; we can also align ourselves with its direction and so hitch a ride on its unimaginable majesty and future. As Laozi tells us, “If you stay at the center [of the Tao] and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.”

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COSMIC VIRTUE – CONCLUSION

“The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” – Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laurate in Physics, 1979.

For most of the last three months we have been immersed in the surprisingly complex area of cosmic virtue in its three dimensions – nature, science, and the universe. Historically philosophy has imposed only limited ethical obligations on humans with regards to this realm, and casual consideration might suggest few duties apply. Deeper contemplation upends that position finding that virtuous behavior or human excellence at the cosmic level is vital in the quest for a meaningful life.

We saw the five guiding principles of ethical action here are (1) attitude or mindset, (2) devotion to truth in one’s beliefs, (3) service and duty, (4) a fundamental code of behavior based on balance of good over evil, and (5) the exhibition of the four classical virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

The virtuous attitude or approach to cosmic reality seems to me to be (1) recognizing that we are fundamentally attached to Nature and should have reverence for it, (2) committing to the understanding, study, and love of science, and (3) having such awe of the universe that we wish to live in harmony with nature and align our lives with the course of the universe.

Using a series of carefully outlined axioms and general principles, we found that virtuous behavior at the level of animals – the first component of Nature – can be defined. The right to limit pests is justified when based on evidence not aesthetic considerations, although never to the point of extinction. Animal euthanasia is ethical for relief of animal suffering but not for mere human convenience. Service animals are reasonable as long as the human benefits clearly exceed the apparent negatives and no unnecessary suffering is permitted. Hunting and fishing are endorsed by the final lawgiver, Nature, as long as for sustenance and also appear reasonable when done to control populations in the absence of sufficient nonhuman predators, although again not to the point of extinction.

Food livestock seems to be an ethical if somewhat unsavory choice as long as there is no unnecessary suffering in raising or slaughter of food animals. Conversely the choice to eat domesticated animals for optimal nutrition obliges one to reciprocate with the greatest contribution possible to the preservation of Nature, and to serve as best one can the trajectory of the universe, so as to mitigate this theoretically avoidable evil.

Recreational animals (e.g. racehorses, zoo animals) represent a borderline case, but may be justified if the entertainment or educational value is maximized and cruelty is minimized. We also recognize that habitat preservation is an unquestionable ethical duty of civilized people.  And finally, limited humane scientific or research use of animals is likely ethical when no  satisfactory alternatives exist and when based on utilitarian criteria.

(continued next post)

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