Monday, March 2, 2009

The Culture of Medicine

Recently, I have been struck by medical doctors who wish to impose their views regarding the legitimate treatment of the human person in medicine. One problem is that the body is reduced to a machine and only certain people should receive treatment. We have forgotten that doctors are technicians, not philosophers, and applying the methodology one would use to decide whether to repair or junk a car does not correspond to the dignity of the person. From my experience, and I have several medical doctors among my siblings, their knowledge of the integrity of the human person is poor. In fact, it is frequently formed by our popular culture (which John Paul II called the Culture of Death). So we have a situation where people with good math skills who are generally recognized as intelligent are in a position to make life and death decisions (or at least recommendations) when they have no basis for doing so. We have to acknowledge that although doctors are well-intentioned, they do not always have the fundamental interests of the human person at heart. Having knowledge of medical techniques does not imply that a professional is competent to judge when this technology should be used. This confusion is common in our culture.

Walker Percy lamented the fact that common Americans dismiss their own experience and follow the opinions of experts who are able to impose a worldview on our culture. We trust bright people even when their suggestions go against our experience. This is a problem and a signal that our culture is in decline. Think about what this means for democratic systems. The ideas and concerns of ordinary citizens can routinely be dismissed. This is particularly problematic in the areas of medicine where doctors are asked to make decisions affecting the most vulnerable elements of society. We employ reasoning that was equally bad when it was practiced in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is always wrong to deprive a person of food and water, this is an ordinary means that cannot be rejected under any circumstance. Human life is a treasure that must be preserved regardless of costs. The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary treatment is valid, however this norm is not practiced in our culture at large. When we do not question experts or judge claims through our experience, we are helping to facilitate the culture of death. We must not be afraid to question doctors. It is not easy, but otherwise we risk losing what is most valuable.

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