Evisceration is back! (at least partly) Today I return to my discussion of how to save ourselves from ourselves by getting gutless.
Last week I argued that the plague of non-vaccination arises from a failure to consider vaccines in the abstract. Vaccines are so viscerally unpleasant that parents rationalize their instincts to save their children from needle-induced trauma with specious arguments about autism and immunosuppression.
This is perfectly understandable. Any parent who visibly brightens at the prospect of taking his child in to be riddled with needle holes is a candidate for some pretty close scrutiny. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong. Needles may be awfully unpleasant in person, but they aren’t as unpleasant as rabies or even scarlet fever. Considering the two threats in the abstract, a pin-prick with a low probability of side effects vs. a long-feared childhood scourge with a much higher probability of permanent disability or even death, a parent should have no trouble making the right choice. Vaccination is clearly the lesser evil. In the abstract.
All of this allows me to get to my original point (one I never quite reached in last week’s post): There is a moral case for eviscerating ourselves. When we fail to make comparisons abstract, when we allow the personal, visceral impressions yielded by sensory phenomena to rule unchecked, we expose both ourselves and others to undue risk: risk of disease, risk of death, risk of crippling life-long disability. This is a big deal. This means that we are morally obliged to seek thought and behavior patterns that favor abstraction, most especially when we find ourselves in contact with things that cause our stomachs to turn, for it is then that we are most at risk of improperly evaluating threats to our wellbeing.
On the other hand, this does not give us license to enter into the sort of statistical moral philosophy of the rabid Benthamites (see this example for evidence of Utilitarianism gone off the deep end). There is no purely abstract path to fulfilling our moral obligations. We do have to use our gut to make moral judgments. That something “feels wrong” is a significant part of what makes it wrong. How then do we both feel out what is wrong and avoid being misled by the immediacy of those feelings? Can we achieve partial evisceration?
I think we can. The key is abstract experience (Kids call it imagination). It permits us a diluted experience, one in which we can feel fear, horror, delight, and dejection, all powerful emotions, but in this case tempered by the comforting cocoon of sensory reality, in which none of the stimuli for these emotions are really present. (As you likely object, this brings up powerful implications of circumstantial moral-impairment -- what about those who have no such secure cocoon? -- but I must save that for another post.) Thus, it is in the imaginary space that we can perform abstract threat evaluation most accurately, applying the test of experience without being overpowered by the physical presence of danger (or horror).
All of this points to a surprising directive. The world of “Let’s pretend” – Peter Pan (and Captain Hook’s) Never-Neverland -- which our children inhabit daily, may perhaps be one of the most powerful tools for moral decision-making that we possess. Those of us who pride ourselves on pragmatism (and I for one, am proud of mine) would do well to remember that the “real world,” physical experience, exposes us to moral hazards too. If we never allow ourselves to undergo partial eviscercation, the gastric bypass of Neverland, we may invoke a host of demons quite literally beyond our imagination.