The instructors for the ethics course were all devotees of “thought experiments.” These were rather fanciful affairs designed, as far as I could see, mostly to throw students into confusion concerning their “moral intuitions.” They involved trains going down tracks and people tied to the train tracks and someone standing by a lever and having to decide whether to switch the lever so that one or three people died, even if the one was your brother and so on and so forth. They also involved people getting stuck in caves and having to drive over people to save people stuck in caves.
The questions these thought experiments are intended to evoke involve such matters as whether or not it is ever morally right to kill an innocent person even if killing that person might mean saving many lives. Also involved, in the experiments I heard was the attempt to make the distinction between killing and letting die. The amount of mayhem and mutiliation evoked–all spoken about in a very light hearted manner complete with stick like illustrations drawn on the black board–for the purposes of philosophic speculation was quite amazing. The thought experiments, as one can see, along with discussions of capital punishment, abortion and euthenasia all involved, in one way or another, the topic of death. However, death, as an issue of some subjective importance to the individual, was never addressed.
For a number of years I also taught a writing class linked with a course international relations. At that time, the mid-80’s, the course concerned itself with US and Soviet relations. A full three lectures were devoted to nuclear war and the possibility of nuclear disarmament. The different forms of nuclear destruction, whether from air craft, submarines, or rockets, was quite amazing. Additionally, rockets differed considerably in “throw weigh,” some had multiple war heads and some didn’t; some were in cased or hardened silos and others weren’t. The discussion was very complete and designed to show that disarmament was probably impossible.
Every time I sat through these lectures I got a headache. Also amazingly, though I had heard the lecture three or four times, each time it seemed I had completely forgotten everything I had previously known about the subject. I didn’t at first understand why my head felt all abuzz after these lectures; but one day it hit me that basically we had been discussing mass destruction, and the possible end of civilization as we knew it. And once again death was never directly addressed as a matter of some possible significance to the individual.
I have long wondered what academics mean by “objectivity,” because as far as I could tell, especially in the social sciences and humanities, none of them remotely approach it. Perhaps this is what they mean—talking about death, pain, misery, mutiliation all as if they had no relation to anybody in the lecture hall, as if it all were happening somewhere out there in a kind of giant thought experiment. Talking about sticking or not sticking a needle of poison into somebody’s arm as a way of distinguishing between killing and letting die.
Personally, I don’t call this objectivity. I call it repression, systemmatic and unconscious repression. Boredom is an odd thing. Sometimes it is a mask for anxiety; perhaps that’s why the ethics class seemed at times to drag on endlessly. Anxiety is timeless.