From bioethics to medical anthropology to humanities and back: A year in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, where I will be in the future, and how the student fellowship has impacted me. I still hope to contribute to the Bill of Health blog going forward, but as my last official post as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow, I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to everyone at the Petrie-Flom Center, the faculty and staff, the other student fellows, and especially my mentors: Professors I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, and Intisar A. Rabb.

My own project took a few different turns this year. My original proposal was to explore the ways in which bioethics and biomedical issues will play a significant role in reviving the dialectic between secular scholars and religious authority. Ayman Shabana rightly argues that respect for Islamic religious norms is essential for the legitimacy of bioethical standards in the Muslim context, wherein he attributes the legitimating power of these norms—as well as their religious and spiritual underpinnings—to their moral, legal, and communal dimensions. Building off of Shabana’s work, my initial argument held that the relationship between the secular and religious worlds is important because the discourse between the two, although often presumed to be dichotomous, is not necessarily antithetical nor is it impassable. This led me back to the arguments of the venerable philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor whereby, in critiquing the concept of secularism itself along with its historical contexts, furthered my argument and helped me to clarify the significant role that religion plays vis-à-vis categorical issues such as fundamental beliefs and metaphysics. I still maintain this, and it is something I continue to work on, although I decided to take my project in another direction.

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Orcas, Dolphins, and Whales: non-human persons and animal rights

With few exceptions, most cultures put homo sapiens at the center or the apex of creation. Humans, it is generally believed, are distinguished from other animals by our self-awareness and our ability to use tools, to think, reason, and construct meaning and representations about life. The Abrahamic religious traditions are most notable in their anthropocentric vision of human purpose in creation; and although the metaphysics and teleology are sometimes challenged by advances in science and technology, the fact remains that human beings remain the paradigmatic case against which other animals or even artificial intelligence is measured. As a Muslim and a theist, I avow my belief in the unique status of humans; however, as someone who also believes in science and is keenly attuned to the environment, I have a great love for nature and the animal world, and a great desire to protect them.

It is with this, then, that I want to propose to put ethics before metaphysics in considering the moral status of what legal scholars and ethicists call “non-human persons.” In particular, I want to look at cetacean intelligence of orcas, dolphins, and whales to understand the way in which we might classify them as non-human persons which would be given certain rights and protections. Doing so, I argue, would enable us to collapse the bifurcations that influences much of Western thought thereby ushering in a more holistic, ecological and relational approach to ethics and being.

To begin with, I would like to make a distinction clear: I am not claiming that orcas, for example, are morally equivalent to humans, but I am suggesting that we ought to be more cautious with regard to understanding our place in the animal world as a whole, particularly as it relates to the precariousness of life itself. My argument below follows philosophical and ethical reasoning, though this might also be understood in the context of religious texts. The story of Yunus (aka Jonah) and the whale is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In short, Yunus felt discouraged that the people of Nineveh did not heed his call to worship God, and so he left in anger. Being cast into the sea, followed by being swallowed by the whale, was ostensibly punishment for his loss of hope and leaving the city without God’s permission; though on another level the exegetical scholars point to the fact of his supplication “O Lord! There is no god but you: Glory to you: I was indeed wrong” (Qur’an 21:87) as instructive of submitting to God’s will and the significance of humility. Indeed, the Qur’an goes on to say elsewhere: “Had he not been of those who exalt God, he would certainly have remained inside the whale until the Day of Resurrection.” (Qur’an 37:143-144). The whale, on this reading, is integral to the Abrahamic worldview insofar as it is the manifestation of God’s power and dominion over creation, as well as his lesson to human beings to remain humble. Continue reading

Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

By Yusuf Lenfest

Professor Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, rightly identifies depression as a particularly crippling disease insofar as it affects one’s very response mechanisms and modes of coping, namely, experiences of gratitude, joy, pleasure—at bottom, some of the key emotions of resistance and healing. In discussing depression, he provides an overview of the biological and chemical elements, touching on the role of neurotransmitters (epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) in depression, and a summary of the psychological elements (and their relation to the biological); as such, his description focuses primarily on physical and biological explanations. However, to examine depression or any psychological illness in purely physical and biological terms misses a crucial element, namely: human culture, lived experience, and the different modes or methods of social thought. Culture plays a primary role in defining many mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and even the symptoms, intensities, or typologies of depression, according to Arthur Kleinman in his seminal Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine.

Despite these findings, Western biomedicine by and large continues to analyze mental health in clinical and biological terms. This is not insignificant given the statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.- 43.8 million or 18.5% – experiences mental illness in a given year.
  •  Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
  • Just over half (50.6%) of children aged 8-15 received mental health services in the previous year. (National Alliance on Mental Health)

Current trends in medicine suggest that the medical community broadly speaking is ill-equipped to adequately tackle this rising trend, especially with regard to the treatment of diverse patients from various cultures, religions, and social circumstances. To best address the problem, the medical community – both on the level of policy and practice -ought to take steps to understand and treat mental illness more holistically.

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Bioethics in Islam: Principles, Perspectives, Comparisons

An important questions in Islam, recurrent across time and space, is whether Islamic political theory recognizes rights claims against the state as distinct from rights claims against other members of the community. This continues to be an important subject today, intersecting the fields of law, religion, and moral philosophy. The classical tradition is divided on the matter, with the legal theory of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence saying that rights are to be accorded viareligious authority, while the Hanafi school emphasized the universality of the notion of human inviolability (dhimma)—and the innate rights that derive from it—as God-given, universal, and applicable to all societies from the beginning of time.

Whereas in Western law there is generally a separation between law and ethics, in the Islamic tradition, there is more of a dialectical tension between the two: Where religious inwardness is more highly developed, attitude and intention are weighed more heavily, whereas in its absence however formalism and legalism are advanced as the ethical ideal.

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Religion, Health, and Medicine: the Dialectic of Embedded Social Systems

The philosopher in me understands that there are universal principles in logic, mathematics, and in basic scientific tenets such as the law of gravity. Be that as it may, the historian in me recognizes that we inherit epistemologies and ways of thinking from those before us, and from our own historical and cultural contexts. Certain ideas dominate the world; and, while some are indeed universal, especially those based on science, the fact remains that a number of other concepts are only seemingly universal. The concepts of personhood, divinity, self, and even society as we tend to understand them today are largely inherited from a Western, Christian worldview. As these ideas have wrestled with philosophical inquiry throughout history, they have either been decoupled from their origins in religious thought, or they have been secularized and rationalized a la Kantian categorical imperatives or the like—and then disseminated in universities, institutions, cultures, and literatures.

On one level, to speak of the Western world as “secular” is, as the philosopher Charles Taylor notes, to say that “belief in God, or in the transcendent in any form, is contested; it is an option among many; it is therefore fragile; for some people in some milieus, it is very difficult, even ‘weird’” (Taylor: 2011, 49). But on another and much deeper level, this very possibility was only ever tenable on account of two major factors: “First, there had to develop a culture that marks a clear division between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural,’ and second, it had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural” (Taylor, 50). This was only possible because of a unique philosophical climate that actively sought to dislodge the old form of moral order and social “embeddedness” in an attempt to establish a “purely immanent order.” Taylor’s groundbreaking work, A Secular Age argues that secularism is part of a grand narrative in the West and shows that its historical and cultural foundations are in fact thoroughly Christian and European. He pushes back against Max Weber’s secularization thesis that religion diminishes in the modern world and in the wake of increasing developments in science and technology—and instead gives a different account of what secularism might mean: one that has deep implications for morality, politics, and philosophy.

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