Science and Postmodern Ethical Response
Science depersonalizes the individual; it addresses the exterior as a statistical body without regard to the individual human being. In this sense science is impersonal, detached and objectivist. Medical science speaks in terms of cure rates, mortality statistics and efficacy of treatment options all based on access to controlled experimental data and other statistics gathered through data collection in the field. The goal of medicine, it appears, is to reach optimal cure rates with the fewest side effects based on a large and robust data set.
This does not mean that there are not going to be side effects of any treatment option; in fact they occur in x patients per 100 treated. If the statistics call for a 10% possibility of any given side effect of treatment then 10 out of 100 patients treated will absolutely obtain the side effect in question. It is a matter of numbers and a random luck of the draw that determines whether or not a side effect will occur.
The human being, the patient, is objectified into a group of patients for which treatment is offered. The patient is a statistic, one that will comply with a normal range of expected results. It is a matter of simply waiting to see which place on the bell curve any individual falls as treatment is administered. No matter that a doctor will say, “We treat patients, not statistics,” they cannot escape the fact that the options offered are based on the statistical efficacy of the selected treatment.
All this means is that medicine is a-ethical. It does not reach the standard of postmodern ethical obligations because it fails the test of humanizing the patient being treated. In around four weeks, for example, I will undergo a robotic resection and removal of my prostate. I will lay on a table with a robotic machine at my feet and my surgeon sitting at a control console somewhere in the operating room where he will control the robot as it performs the surgery. In fact, the surgeon needn’t be in the room at all; he could be in Amsterdam or Melbourne and still perform the surgery if his console was linked to the robotic machine at my feet. This places the surgeon two steps removed from the patient. The surgeon need not look at the patient, only at the camera view of the insides of the patient, in order to perform the necessary steps of the operation. The patient is objectified, turned into a piece of meat, and in doing so, is no more than a statistical probability.
Postmodern ethical relationships require a face-to-face responsibility (being responsible for the other even to the extent of being responsible for the responsibility of the other) which, in turn, may or may not elicit an ethical response. The responsibility of the self is one that is given without reservations or expectations and once given, once announced, creates a state of proximity or waiting that is only interrupted by the commanding voice of the other. While, entering the operating room, I may present myself as an ethical human being, what I am met with is a cold, sterile (in every sense of the word) environment filled with masked men and women, beeping machines and bright lights. The room itself is uninviting and the people around me are cogs in the surgical procedure, each one with a professional task to perform; each one following a pre-determined procedure designed to depersonalize the procedure itself.
The operating room is far removed from the postmodern ethical stance. But, it must be that way because if it were to somehow become a subjective space where ethical commands can be acted upon by individuals involved, there most certainly would be chaos; the last thing one might want in a surgical stage.
In the final analysis, it is clear that some things are best seen from an objectivist stance while other things must follow a subjectivist approach. They are not mutually exclusive. Each has a place and each must work within the boundaries acceptable for the practice. So I will be objectified as I enter the surgical suite, put to sleep and violently operated on. The ethics begin when I wake from the procedure and present myself to the nurses that will care for me during my hospital stay. I’m fine with that!