The Testimony of Biology And Physics


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Dax Cowart and the Natural Law

2) Natural Law Ethics: CH 7 – “The Testimony of Biology And Physics”

Natural Law Ethics. Philip E. Divine , (Greenwood Press. , Westport, CT. 2000). pp. 59 ff.

For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts.

-- Thomas Mann 1

Donald (“Dax”) Cowart is a survivor of a propane gas explosion in the summer of 1973 that left him totally blind, permanently disfigured and severely maimed. Despite his massive handicaps, he now leads a reasonably secure and productive life. He is financially secure by virtue of an out of court settlement with the energy company whose leaking pipeline caused the accident. He recently graduated from law school and has set up a small legal practice in his hometown of Henderson, Texas. But, had Dax Cowart been given his way, he would never have survived his horrifying ordeal. Through fourteen long months, he repeatedly demanded that he be allowed to die. He pled with his mother and lawyer to be discharged from the hospital. He raged against the treatment his doctors and therapists provided. But neither his family nor his physicians would consent to his demands. He remained in the hospital and received treatment until he was well enough to be released to his mother’s care. Thereafter, he languished through years of virtual helplessness until he finally began to build a new personal identity and public life for himself. Though his efforts have been successful beyond anyone’s expectations, he remains convinced to this day that he should have been allowed to die.

-- Lonnie D. Kliever 2


Professional bioethicists tend to maintain that Dax ought to have been allowed to die as he requested. 3 James Childress and Courtney Campbell make relatively traditional arguments, reasoning that the principle of respect for persons in this case outweighs the principle of beneficence. 4 William F. May, in contrast, starts from an acknowledgment of his own aversion to burn victims and poses the ethical question in apocalyptic terms: “How does one respond to one’s death, to a total, comprehensive, all-penetrating, sun-blackening, oxygen removing, fleshcharring, chilling, stilling, numbing, and isolating death?” 5

Although favoring May’s experiential approach, Paul Lauritzen points out that May leaves out the experience of Dax’s mother Ada, who saw to it that her son survived contrary to the advice of learned bioethicists. Nonetheless Lauritzen sides with Childress and Campbell and May in rejecting the arguments of Dax’s mother. Her position, he writes,

would simply not cohere well with the best philosophical account we have of how to deal with conflict between respect for persons and beneficence, nor with our understanding what continued existence must have meant for Dax, given the deep aversion others would have for him and he would have for himself. 6

I do not attempt here to “solve” Dax’s case, but to use it to draw some lessons for ethical theory. On no account are we obliged to preserve a human being in every possible way and at whatever cost. But it is disturbing when ethicists find a justification for letting a person die (and by plausible implication for his killing himself), not in the pain he is suffering, the supposed impossibility of his return to relatively normal functioning, or even in his desire to die -- but in our instinctive inability to acknowledge the full humanity of the disfigured, an inability into which a disfigured person himself has somehow been conscripted. The impulse to turn away from those who are somehow marked or scarred is not one a sound ethics should encourage.


Narrative ethics cannot do what many bioethicists want it to do and provide a basis for consensus about health care issues in a culturally divided society. For there are too many stories to tell, and too many different ways of establishing relationships among them.

There are stories of heroic struggle against the odds, and of miraculous rescue from the brink of doom, as well as stories of courageous acceptance of inevitable fate. Beethoven has often been used as an exemplary case against abortion on “sociomedical” indications, but he also provides a case against physician-assisted suicide. If anyone is a plausible candidate for the ministrations of Dr. Kevorkian, it is a man whose whole life has been dedicated to the composition of music, who finds himself profoundly deaf. Whether Beethoven is a paradigm of how human beings can triumph over adverse circumstances, or an unusual case that can be neglected in day-to-day bioethical reasoning, depends on what set of stories we take as central.

All of our stories represent important aspects of human experience, and it is impossible to establish a hierarchy among them by anything approaching algorithmic reason. We will be inclined to give a relative privilege to those stories that harmonize with the Big Story as we understand it, and people in the contemporary world do not share a common Big Story. Even attitudes toward dead bodies have controversial metaphysical ramifications. Hence narrative has come to be, in many academic circles, a euphemism for propaganda.

But casuistical approaches to bioethics fare only slightly better than do the narrative variety. Even if we assume that suicide is wrong, we still have to ask whether Dax’s intentions were suicidal. If they were, then we have to draw the line between wrongful cooperation with wrongdoing and mere failure to interfere, that is open to prudential considerations. And, if his intentions were limited to refusing treatment which he found, in the circumstances, unduly intrusive, still other prudential considerations arise. For intervention did save Dax’s life. Still, we must avoid the fallacy of retrospective judgment, that is, of arguing that since Dax is now happy to be alive, his wishes ought to have been overridden and treatment imposed on him. No one knew at the time what the results of imposing treatment were going to be.

Any system of casuistry, however detailed, will include judgment calls, and such judgment calls engage a person’s entire sensibility, as shaped both by his own experience and the Big Stories that have played a role in his education. My own bioethical outlook, for example, was influenced by a brief period of employment in an animal shelter -- which prompted the thought, how easy it would be to dispose of unwanted human beings as we dispose of unwanted kittens. It was shaped as well by the Biblical story of the massacre of the innocents.

Likewise, our Big Stories affect our understanding of the principles applied in bioethical casuistry. Consider the principle of respect for persons, in contexts where it is thought to count against the preservation of the very person demanding respect. Even where killing in the core sense is not at issue, some people will find it harder than others to sever respect for a person from a felt obligation to preserve and protect the human organism that person in some sense also is.


The phrase “the place of value in a world of facts” suggests a residual positivistic picture that continues to be influential. On the one hand, there are those who believe that facts about human nature are morally irrelevant; on the other hand, there are those who use words such as real to suggest that normatively infused convictions are for that reason somehow second-rate.

No one denies that facts about human beings are relevant to moral judgment. Even Bentham turns to account the fact that we ordinarily and for the most part prefer pleasure to pain, and other sorts of utilitarians use the fact that we are ordinarily and for the most part happier when we get what we want. All concede in practice that data about human nature provide one element necessary to sound moral judgment. Moreover, all cognition is value laden. Scientific investigation reflects a desire to control nature not universally shared, or given the same weight among human ends by those who share it. Judgments of simplicity, coherence, and the like also reflect the value-commitments both of the individual scientist and of the scientific community. The way we interpret ambiguous data reflects our vision of the world.

Human beings give every appearance of having been designed, mind and body, to survive and continue their kind (and to protect their offspring once born). The requirements of human survival encourage the motives that moved Dax’s mother to insist on his being treated despite his objections. (The Pietà, representing a mother mourning her only son, is not merely a Christian icon.) For Dax represented to Ada Cowart the possibility of the future, indeed a certain simulacrum of eternity. Each one of us is the descendant of numerous human and animal ancestors who managed to survive long enough to reproduce, often against staggering odds. Natural selection favors the disposition to attempt to survive, even when the objective probabilities suggest that it is hardly worth the effort. Inference from single, vivid examples, when these involve triumph against the odds, makes evolutionary though not logical sense. 7

Yet the orientation of human beings toward survival and reproduction plays itself out in a universe in which -- if we are to believe the dominant scientific story -- all forms of energy are transforming themselves into heat. The forms of order exhibited by human and other organisms, and even more so the motivational structures favored by natural selection, work contrary to the dominant tendency of the physical universe. Hence children, and children’s children, can only represent a simulacrum of eternity. The conventional scientific wisdom is not necessarily the last word, even scientifically, but we have no right to presume that the future of science will in some fundamental way alter our intellectual situation. Yet we need not assume, either, that the regnant scientific picture of the human situation is complete.

Biological nature also teaches less benign lessons. The ordinary forms of predation are easier to accept than the perversity of the parasite: moreover, some species kill their young, and some insects eat their mates after or even during intercourse. We can recognize a diseased organism as diseased, and see something contrary to nature in the lovelife of the praying mantis, but how this is so is something of puzzle. In view of the incongruity between nature and our moral sense, Annie Dillard is led to observe that “either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” 8 “When nature . . . owns her sovereign Death,” as the Sacred Harp hymn puts it, 9 naturalistic vitalism ceases to be an option.

There is a conflict between Eros and Thanatos, developed in quasi-mythological form by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, and given powerful literary expression in the novels of Thomas Mann. 10 There is a conflict between the attitudes that tend to sustain life and the requirements of consequentialist ethics. Even limited forms of consequentialism require that possible outcomes be so far as possible appraised according to their objective probabilities, whereas human beings notoriously commit systematic fallacies concerning probability. 11 A person struggling to survive against the odds is more likely to survive if he overestimates his chances of survival; at times and places where many women die in childbirth, the reproduction of the species requires that they underestimate both pain and risk. Hope is the most precious of commodities, for which men and women have been known to sacrifice even their own lives and the lives of their children.

Some might attempt to solve the resulting dilemma by saying that physics gives us truth, whereas morality or even biology is only a human projection. (This is the “God’s-eye” or “no-eye” point of view of contemporary materialism.) But physical theories are as much and as little social constructions as are moral codes and biological observations. To find the physical universe harsh and unfeeling -- to be terrified, as Pascal was, by the silence of those infinite spaces -is to place physics within the human world. Considered merely as a physical reality, the space between the galaxies is neither hostile nor friendly nor indifferent; the question about its attitude toward us is a category mistake.

Other people attribute primacy to the vision embodied in physics, on the grounds that physics concerns the whole universe and biology only a tiny part of it. Whether biology can be reduced to physics is an open question, but no one has responsibly proposed to reduce physics to biology. From the standpoint of the moral life, however, it is biology that matters: moral issues have to do with what we do with our own and other people’s bodies, but not with the microparticles that compose them. Even such notions as purity of heart would make no sense if we did not have a notion of bodily cleanliness. In moral contexts, extension in space and time are not the most important issues.


Sometimes the existence and pervasiveness of both moral and physical evil is taken to establish that the power or powers that rule our universe, if indeed any powers do so, are hostile or indifferent to humanity (and in particular to the claims of morality). To argue this point successfully we would have to show that there is no possible good to which the evils we experience are a necessary condition, and this cannot be done. Contemporary atheism is usually content to announce itself as a self-evident insight, which cannot be rejected by those who have confronted it clearly.

Another way of dealing with these problems is to provide a decisive argument for the conclusion that the regnant scientific image, though true so far as it goes, is not complete. The argument here is strongest for consciousness, since both reductive and eliminative materialism faces severe difficulties. This argument leaves open the possibility that materialism, though strictly false, might as well be true for all practical purposes -- a result that reproduces, in another form, the dualism between the biological and physical visions set out above.

Let us, finally, consider the possibility that we are the creation of a wise and beneficent God, Who among other things endows us with the capacity to know moral truth (and, in some versions, gives us further assistance toward its discovery). There may be good arguments for at least part of this picture, though much of it is on any account a matter of (possibly reasonable) faith and hope. But none of these arguments will satisfy the sort of skepticism that the defeatist vision is likely to generate. For, on any account, God, as an infinite (or perhaps better, inexhaustible) Being, is radically different from His creation. Hence there will be a conceptual gap between any concept applied to Him -- for example that of Creator or Designer -- and the same concept as instantiated among created things. The perplexities of analogy defeat any attempt to establish a contentful theism by watertight argument.


Naturalistic defeatism and Jewish or Christian theism do not exhaust the field of possible outlooks. Merely to simplify discussion, I shall address the issue in terms of only two rival visions, and leave to others the task of putting Hinduism and Marxism into the picture. The methods of argument appropriate to a limited choice will also prove useful when the choice widens.

When the resources of ordinary argument have been exhausted, pragmatic considerations step into the breach. To put it precisely, when all other criteria of appropriate belief have been exhausted, we are entitled to adopt those beliefs among the remaining options that enable us to live (and live well). “Living well” here has a moral component: belief systems that authorize massive injustice are not acceptable.

Even in this-worldly terms, there is a strong pragmatic case for some form of theism, at least when compared with the most important contemporary versions of atheism. There are powerful reasons for promoting a sense of the solidarity of the human species, and the most persuasive ground for this solidarity is our common condition as having been created in the image of a Creator God. One popular alternative -- solidarity based on rebellion against the Cosmic Tyrant (in one version, Thanatos) -- is self-destructive: once its adherents convince themselves that God is really dead, they have no reason not to turn their fury on one another, whether as individuals or (more likely) as tribes.

The force of pragmatic arguments depends on the desires of the people to whom they are addressed. Those whose deepest disposition is to pursue liberty or death (or both) will not be impressed by any argument that requires them to accept any avoidable suffering or renounce any possible pleasure. Perhaps a version of Pascal’s Wager will impress such people. 12

Theists believe in truth in a stronger sense than do atheistic humanists of any description; hence, although such humanists can ignore or persecute theists, there is a sense in which they cannot prove them wrong. If the vindication of theism must take place outside the confines of space and time, well then so be it.

References to eternity raise, however, some questions that threaten to undermine morality. Why should we not rely on God’s Providence to make up for the evil that we do? Why, for example, should we not kill a freshly baptized infant, confident of his salvation and trusting in God’s mercy for our own? But few if any people these days believe (and perhaps ever believed) in a future life with enough confidence to act coherently in such a fashion, and those who do so will not mix secular and religious systems of ethics in a way that reduces religious morality to incoherence. If indeed there is a God who secures our moral code, He will not so arrange matters that moral decisions are inconsequential both in this world and in the next.

Footnotes: Chapter 7: The Testimony of Biology and Physics

1. Mann, The Magic Mountain, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter’ ( New York: Knopf, 1963), pp. 496-97. In italics.

2. Kliever, “Preface”, to her collection Dax’s Case ( Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989). For a more common sort of case, see Leslie Goerner, Do You Understand about DNRT?’ Commonweal 126, no. 20 ( 21 November 1997). pp. 20-22.

3. See Paul Lauritzen, “Ethics and Experience: The Case of the Curious Response”,lb /> Hastings Center Report 26 ( January-February, 1996), pp. 6-14. For a dissenting view, see Stanley Johansen, “On Why We Should not Agree with Dax”, Dax’s Case, pp. 169-86.

4. Childress and Campbell, “Who Is a Doctor to Decide Whether a Person Lives or Dies?” Dax’s Case, pp. 23-41.

5. “Dealing with a Catastrophe”, Dax’s Case, p. 142.

6. “Ethics and Experience”, p. 13.

7. On the evolutionary importance of vivid examples, see Robert Nisbet and Lee Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings in Social Judgment ( Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 60.

8. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, excerpted in The Annie Dillard Reader ( New York: Harper Perennial, 1995), pp. 279-424; quotation, p. 382.

9. Isaac Watts, “Calvary”, in Hugh McGraw et al., The Sacred Harp (N.p.: The Sacred Harp Publishing Co., 1991), p. 300.

10. Most strikingly in Death in Venice, where pederasty is presented as infused with the death wish, and in The Magic Mountain, where the same role is played by the impulse to lie down in the snow and die. Buddenbrooks develops the same themes in the life of a family.

11. See Nisbet and Ross, pp. 19-21, 24-26, 185.

12. Suggested by Leszek Kolakowski, Religion ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), and further pursued in my Relativism, Nihilism, and God ( Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), chap. 6.

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