Thought for the Evening: Perversion in the Context of Humanitarian Traditions
All humanitarian traditions, like medicine, law, and clerical ministry, are by their nature oriented to human common good. These traditions involve using many skills and instrumentalities in order to provide some care for human beings as such. These skills and instrumentalities, however, do not have the humanitarian end of the tradition as their own immediate ends, and this creates the possibility of a perverse use of the skills and instrumentalities of a humanitarian tradition for non-humanitarian ends. Recognizing and understanding these perversions seems to be of considerable importance to many ethical problems, so it seems worthwhile to try to be more clear about what perversion of medicine, etc., is. All human obligation is tied to human common good; since humanitarian traditions are among the major cooperative means for creating, developing, and protecting good shared in common, their integrity is directly related to moral life.
'Perversion' by its nature indicates an inconsistency of a particular kind. Roughly, we can say that,
(1) Given that humanitarian traditions have for their ends some major aspect of human common good,
(2) where some skill or instrumentality has as its natural context such a humanitarian tradition,
(3) it is impossible for it to be good for this skill or instrumentality to be used in a way in itself contrary to the end of the humanitarian tradition.
(This is analogous to the sense of perversion used in so-called perverted faculty arguments. See Edward Feser, "In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument," Neo-Scholastic Essays, St. Augustine's Press [South Bend, IN: 2015] pp. 378-415.)
'Natural context' here is sometimes straightforward and sometimes more tricky. The most obvious case of a medical skill being used within the humanitarian tradition of medicine as its natural context is the case of its being used by a doctor acting as a doctor. Since medicine is a very large tradition, we would obviously have analogous cases for nurses, pharmacists, medical technicians, and the like. More difficult are cases in which we have someone with medical skills who is not explicitly working as a doctor or whatever else may be relevant. In such cases I'm inclined to think that the origination of the skill within the humanitarian tradition is enough to make the humanitarian tradition its natural context, but there are bound to be gray areas and difficult lines on this point, and very little study as been done in what it means (for instance) for a medical skill to be medical if it's used by someone not intending to use it medically. Nonetheless, we should not let such potential marginal ambiguities disguise the fact that the central cases are quite clear. A pharmacist acting in his role as a pharmacist, using his knowledge of pharmaceuticals and his skill as a pharmacist in compounding drugs to poison people is engaged in a perverse action, a perversion of his skills, within the humanitarian tradition of medicine.
Perversions are not simply failures, nor are they accidental misfires; if a pharmacist accidentally poisons someone, this may, if avoidable, be a sign of incompetence, but it is not a perversion of the skill. If we think of the whole set of skills, practices, methods, and instruments and the like that are formed to serve the ends of medicine as 'the medical panoply', medical perversion is the deliberate use of the medical panoply in ways that are inconsistent with the ends of medicine it has been proposed to serve. This also makes it different from mere repurposing -- if we use a skill in a new way, it's not the original purpose of the skill that is relevant but the ends of medicine that are the standard that have to be met. If the new purposes to which the skill are put are still consistent with the ends of medicine, it is not a perverse use of the skill but simply a new development of it.
Medicine provides the clearest and most obvious cases, as it often does in talking about humanitarian traditions due to its age, relatively consistent history, and complexity, but the same kind of reasoning would also apply to law and spiritual ministry; some (although not all) of the gravest immoralities associated with these are perversions of skills, practices, etc., whose natural context is these humanitarian traditions. The account also extends to kinds of humanitarian traditions that are spottier than these three big ones -- cases where the humanitarian tradition is sometimes more virtual than actual, where consistent maintenance of them as humanitarian traditions has sometimes failed, like education or journalism or politics; the primary difference is that they will have more of the marginal cases noted above. Where professions grow up within humanitarian traditions (which is common), the professional ethics associated with each profession will often be greatly concerned with avoiding perversions within the context of that humanitarian tradition, and the moral growth of a profession is often related to its development of means to limit, correct, and avoid ways in which professional means can be perverted to ends inconsistent with the humanitarian tradition.
Previous Evening Notes on Humanitarian Traditions
- Humanitarian Traditions
- Prima Facie Duties and Humanitarian Traditions
- Humanitarian Traditions and Cliental Privilege
Various Links of Interest
* Russell Sparkes talks about G. K. Chesterton's fight against the eugenics movement. (ht)
* Andreas Kapsner, The Stories of Logics (PDF)
* Jonathan Greig, Nicholas of Methone and Thomas Aquinas on Participation in Their Critiques of Proclus' Elements of Theology, Proposition 23
* Gregory DiPippo on Raphael's Transfiguration of Christ
* Agnes Callard reflects on the relation between aesthetics and ethics.
* Michael Pakaluk and Catherine Ruth Pakaluk discuss the Gospel of Mark. Michael Pakaluk's recent translation of the Gospel, The Memoirs of St. Peter, is quite good.
* The original watercolors for The Little Prince
Maria Edgeworth, Belinda
Augustine, The Trinity