Editorial: Bioethics and the Paradox of the Human Condition

John Kleinsman
Issue 33, April 2011

Humankind and the world we are a part of are defined by paradox; we constantly experience life in ways that highlight the contradictory nature of our existence .

The recent earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan serve to remind us of the fragility of human life in the face of the brutal and amoral forces of 'Mother Nature'. Photographic images of the devastating aftermath are permanently etched into our minds as we watched, appalled, the breaking news. We are confronted by our utter powerlessness.

At the same time, as a result of the damage suffered by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, we have become conscious again of the immense destruction that we humans are able to cause. We are simultaneously confronted by our power to destroy the planet.

We are at once powerless and powerful. We are called to be stewards of the planet we live on even while we recognise that it is part of our human nature to overcome obstacles and to modify the world and ourselves. We also experience paradox at a more personal level. On the same day a family grieves the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather a young woman goes into labour and a new child is born; death and grief coexist and are intermingled with life and love. Paradox is also something each of us encounters within; we draw on our strengths while gradually becoming aware that they also define our weaknesses. And, through our weaknesses, we discover new strengths.

Because it lies at the heart of human existence, the question of paradox is particularly relevant for the discipline of bioethics.

Understandably, we struggle to make sense of the paradoxical nature of human existence which calls us to hold together contradictory realities. How do we reconcile the cognitive dissonance that characterises paradox and seems to defy rational logic? We do it in different ways.

All too often, in the face of the existential anxiety that flows from the awareness of our mortality and powerlessness, we draw on technology to try and exert ever greater control over the world in which we live. Rather than opting for a simpler lifestyle and reducing our carbon footprint in response to the environmental crisis, we look for solutions that won't interfere with our consumerist lifestyles. Rather than live and struggle with the challenges raised by disability we start to use prenatal testing to deny certain persons the right to life. Rather than caring for people with terminal illnesses in ways that invite us deeper into the mystery of suffering we start to argue for the legalisation of euthanasia to make a pre-emptive strike against death at the time of our choosing. Rather than acknowledging and reflecting on our responsibility to the common good we argue even more loudly for the right of the individual to choose.

What these responses have in common is that they attempt to cope with paradox by seeking to dissolve it. But this approach comes at a heavy price; it demands a degree of disconnection from our own bodies, other people, our environment, our universe and ultimately God. As Daniel O'Leary notes in an article titled " They shall be comforted" (The Tablet , 5 March 2011) , this disconnection results in a state of alienation that causes psychic damage. It is at odds with what we know deep within – that we are part of a loving unity that holds all things together, including those things that we experience as contradictory realities. It is also at odds with the findings of quantum physicists who have recently come to understand that the universe is interconnected in much more subtler ways than was previously thought.

Therefore, instead of dissolving or denying paradox, bioethics faces the challenge of holding in tension what is paradoxical. In our bioethical arguments this calls for us to protect and promote the inherent connectedness that exists between all things. It also calls for us to be wary of those ethical approaches which, in the way they seek to resolve dilemmas, rely on a fragmented description of reality that ignores or attempts to deny what is paradoxical.

The paradoxical nature of our existence offers a useful point of reference for critiquing the different human responses to the many dilemmas thrown up in the world of bioethics. More specifically it gives rise to a key question: To what extent do our reflections and thinking take adequate account of the reality of human paradox?

While the notion of paradox might present a philosophical conundrum for some, it is straightforwardly logical to those who are contemplatives. In the words of the prayer attributed to St Francis: For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

John Kleinsman
The Nathaniel Centre