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Posted on September 11, 2020 at 4:49 PM

In New Zealand we have been saved from the worst devastations of Covid-19 by a firm government, courage and care for one another, and our geographic “moat.”  With the recent minor surge of cases, our government has, once again, encouraged us to respond as a team of 5 million. We have been guided by the slogan “Be kind.”

Individuals like me, faced with frailty, have felt a sense of relief that we are in a caring and trustworthy community. I live precariously, having suffered two basal ganglia strokes and a closed head injury and undergone treatment for prostate cancer and cardiac failure. These experiences have encouraged me to reflect on what I have learned from philosophy, which I taught at the University of Otago for some years in addition to practicing as a neurosurgeon. Doing a lecture on Kant after a brain operation demanded a shift in thought and focus.

My work in medical ethics and the philosophy of medicine emerged from a chance encounter during doctoral studies at the University of Oxford in the 1980s. I came in contact with The Hastings Center and with many valued colleagues from the United States who opened my mind to a variety of ethics somewhat at odds with the dominant Australasian philosophy

Australasian philosophy is utilitarian, or consequentialist, aiming to rationally calculate the outcomes of any decision in terms of quality and quantity of life. In opposition to this philosophical reasoning is deontology, which is concerned with our attitudes to one another and acting out of a sense of the good. I have come to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein because of his moving on from a formal and quasi-mathematical philosophical method to one that deeply engaged with the realities of human life. This rang true for me as somebody who had patients suffering from dire and challenging diseases, which raised for them all the questions of life and death in some form or another.

I have been thinking about James Klagge’s book, Wittgenstein in Exile, which explores our existential angst with respect to us as mortal and sometimes frail creatures. This exploration calls to mind human vulnerability, especially among those whose lives might be devalued by utilitarians because of disability or age. By certain readings of the utilitarian calculus, I would be one of those people. Covid-19 has forced insight into existential angst on many of us. We have lost loved family members and acquaintances, some of whom have been associates and important mentors. The loss of these people has left yawning gaps, and any attempt to minimalize the tragedy or overwrite it with an optimistic message is a failure of human and empathic sensitivity.

Reflection on our existential angst, and what it is to be at risk of one’s life in a crisis that affects us all, has led me  to think again about the way we do moral philosophy, and it re-affirms the hope, which is so hard to keep in mind at times like this, that we can all think first of each other and the common good. For those who find themselves adrift in a sea of troubles and feeling for people whose worst suffering is to come during our slow collective recovery, knowing that others care and can be trusted to be kind is immensely important. In that respect, I join others I know in turning to more indigenous ways of thinking, where those of us descended from colonizers have learned profound lessons about forgiveness and human kindness. We have been drawn closer to our extended familial and tribal roots–and to the times in our shared history when human solidarity and those things that brought us closer to one another as communities proved to be the difference between societies such as Switzerland that have survived and ultimately thrived and societies such as Rome that, however dramatic in their historical impact and admirable their statutes, eventually failed.

Grant Gillett is a neurosurgeon and a professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand and a Hastings Center fellow.

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