Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A couple of NYTimes pieces renew the old take on cowardice

A couple of intriguing pieces on ethics have appeared in the New York Times recently. One of these, by Chris Walsh, is “The Soul of Cowardice”, Nov. 9, link here. The term today is usually reserved to characterize psychopaths who cop out on life with rampages or acts of violence.  But it used to be used to refer to, as my mother called it, “getting out of things” that others winding stepping up to, for the good of everyone.  Consider how that must to play out in the days we had male-only conscription (Vietnam).  We don’t talk about it that way much now, and younger adults have sometimes never heard of this.
And also in the Sunday paper, Kate Murphy writes about “The Ethics of Infection: Bowling with Ebola and our duty to prevent transmission of disease”.  I’ve covered this in detail on the issues blog, and there’s been a big controversy over whether people who might be exposed to a dangerous disease but who are not (yet, at least) sick themselves have a duty to sacrifice contact with others (and income) to protect others from speculative risk and the fear of others.  Ebola presents one scenario;  bird flu or SARS could present another in the future, and in the past we’ve had nasty scuffles from the right wing on AIDS (especially in Texas in the early 1980s).  As I’ve noted, with military personnel or health care workers to travel to known danger, a period of isolation and compensation for it can be built into the assignment in advance (and now will be).  It’s when people get caught up in this with an unanticipated coindicence that there is a moral problem.  Some accidental contacts of Craig Spencer and earlier Amber Vison (and some others) make that point, as do the facts that nurses working in a Texas hospital were never given a chance to prepare for the danger they would face.  People in these situations won’t be compensated if penned down by government;  are they supposed to find social capital in the “go fund me” movement?

Kate Murphy writes (p. 5, Sunday Review), link “Americans also value toughness and the ability to work through physical adversity without thinking how they might end up weakening other members of the team,” and them compares us to Asian limits on individual choice.
Indeed, it seems like the existence of enemies, of natural processes that can impose adversity unpredictably (that is disasters, which man’s conduct can make more or less likely), and even bad luck, all put some limits on hyperindividualism.  Even John Galt depends on good fortune sometimes.  Christopher Nolan talked about this quandary a lot in his script of “Interstellar”.  

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