When a chair becomes a throne

This semester, I’m taking Religion & Science with Dr. Jeri Wieringa (yes, she’s stuck with me again, bless her). Our first reading was one familiar to me: “What’s in a Name?” from Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion: An Introduction. This chapter gives excellent examples for the argument that naming a thing says more about the namer than the actual name. One of my classmates gave a useful example of this: Our own names.

Most parents plan their child’s name long before birth. It’s more about the parents and their experiences in the moment of naming than it is about the infant being named. I, for example, am named after both of my grandmothers. On my father’s side, I shared the name Frances with my grandmother. On my mother’s side, I have shared the name Sadie with my grandmother, great-grandmother, several dogs, and even a horse. Ironically, both of these women despised their first names and opted for middle names and nicknames to identify themselves instead. Eileen and Fanny begged my parents not to name me after them. The names were too old-fashioned they argued; I would hate being called Sadie-Frances . . . which, naturally, has made me love my names all the more. But, naming me after these women was not up to me. It was entirely up to my parents. Something that seems so central to my identity — my name — was not in my power to influence (nor my concerned grandmothers, as it turned out).

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Can there be one answer to an ethical dilemma?

Trolley

Imagine this: You’re the driver of a trolley filled with people. Up ahead you see five people chained to the tracks, unable to move. If you pull a lever, you can change the direction of the trolley towards a different track, but in doing so you’ll kill a bystander who does not have time to step out of the trolley’s way. What do you do: kill one person or five?

When you phrase the question that way, it seems obvious that five saved lives are better than one. But the Devil’s in the details, as they say, and the phrasing of a question says a lot more than the ‘correctness’ of an answer.

No wonder medical school’s infamously ask aspiring physicians questions like these. Saving lives can be quite literal in many medical situations, and (fortunately or unfortunately — depending on who you ask) the residing physician assumes responsibility for the outcome of a patient’s recovery. So much so, that many even compare physicians to ‘gatekeepers’ who decide a patient’s fate as if it’s a binary choice as simple as opening or closing a door. It is easy to see why a relationship between medicine and ethics has to exist, but harder, it seems, to define that relationship.

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