Tough question about values pushed to extremes

Must one’s values always remain consistent even in extreme conditions? Must extreme conditions be considered in order to legitimately form values?

Imagine a pair of conjoined twins, joined at the chest. They are toddler-age. Doctors are sure the twins will not survive past age 10, 15 at the most. If a separation surgery is performed, one of the twins could live to 25 or perhaps even longer–but the surgery must be performed now and the other twin will die. What is the obligation of a surgeon who has taken a hippocratic oath to “do no harm”? If I was the parent of these twins, what would I instruct the doctors to do?

That latter question is much harder to answer than what would I do if I found out that my wife was pregnant with a child who would be born with extreme, debilitating deformities and someone recommended an abortion. I like to think I’d accept what comes, but I’ve never actually been in that situation. If experience has taught me anything it’s that things are often different when it’s happening to you. Maybe I would do what I like to think I’d do, but there’s a possibility I wouldn’t.  Neither option sounds appealing.

Edge cases like these can shake one’s understanding of one’s own values. But at the same time, they’re called edge cases for a reason. Most life-saving surgeries don’t mean certain death for another person. Most child sacrifices aren’t (or rather, I hope, “weren’t”) performed as a sure way to save another child. Most parents considering abortion aren’t facing the prospect of children with grotesque deformities.

Most of us live our lives experiencing some part of a range of common circumstances. Isn’t it reasonable to form our values based on this range? Do we have to take into account possibilities lying outside that range in order to consider our values soundly based? In some cases we probably take those possibilities into account too much, simply because of some cognitive bias, but are there any times when we are obligated to include them in our considerations?

I don’t know the answer to these questions and don’t expect I ever will.


6 thoughts on “Tough question about values pushed to extremes

  1. It’s extremely unlikely that Ruffians would invade the Amish Shire. However, it seems reasonable to refrain from joining the Amish, despite the attractiveness of traditional Amish sex-roles and so forth, because the Amish Way in principle forbids a Scouring of the Amish Shire, a principle contrary to Human/Hobbit Nature.

  2. You’re kidding, right? If not (but I think you are) — “The Scouring of the Shire” is one of the concluding chapters of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings. Not included in the silly movie. But of course you’re kidding.

    • I never read it. Never got into wizards-n-dragons stuff. But regardless, I didn’t follow whatever point you were making about it being reasonable not to join the Amish.

  3. The Lord of the Rings is the last truly great literary work in English, not “wizards-n-dragons stuff”. It is deep and beautiful. It will be read and discussed by thoughtful people for thousands of years. But perhaps you’d also dismiss Spenser’s The Faerie Queene as “wizards-n-dragons stuff.” Maybe you’d even dismiss The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost in a similar way.

    • Hah, as much as I make an effort to live under a rock, I am aware of the literary merits of LotR. I’m just saying it’s also a work squarely positioned within the wizards-n-dragons fantasy genre, which has never interested me. (Also when I tried to read it I had trouble getting past all the anthropological backfill.) I am not dismissing it, just saying it never appealed to me and so I didn’t really read it and so I don’t readily understand references to it.

      The Divine Comedy is totally different for me BTW; Mark Musa’s translation is a prized item on my bookshelf.

      Anyway I still don’t follow your Shire/Hobbits metaphor with the Amish. Please rephrase.

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