The Vegetative State and Humility

Russell Kirk, who many consider to be the father of modern conservatism, offered as one tenet of his six canons of conservatism the idea that we should have, “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.” Such a statement is as much an admission of epistemological humility as  it is a basis for political action. It is the realization that human life and worth is not reducible to simplistic scientific notions, or that all our problems can be alleviated by a new policy or assigning a new set of rights.

Such a notion is reflected in God’s reply to Moses who had attempted to argue against his own worth, based on his view of his own inadequacies:

“Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”

Such a statement provides a foundation for human dignity and worth, one that is rooted in the notion that all human life has an inherent value and purpose and thus should be protected. It provides such a foundation in a way that mere biology or materialistic measure cannot.

Into this understanding comes a recent finding, chronicled in the Los Angelos Times, about that class of people who live in a persistently vegetative state. Such people live at the juncture between life and death – they function biologically and yet there is no perceivable conscious activity. Until now:

In a study certain to rekindle debate over life-sustaining care for those with grievous brain injuries, researchers report that five patients thought to be in a persistent vegetative state showed brain activity indicating awareness, intent and, in at least one case, a wish to communicate.

Of 54 unresponsive patients whose brains were scanned at medical centers in England and Belgium, those five appeared able, when prompted by researchers, to imagine themselves playing tennis, and four of them demonstrated the ability to imagine themselves walking through the rooms of their homes.

One of those patients — a 22-year-old man who had been unresponsive for five years after an automobile crash — went on to respond to a series of simple questions with brain activity that clearly indicated yes or no answers, researchers said.

Their work is the first to give physicians and families the prospect of a biological test to determine whether a patient who shows no response to his or her surroundings is conscious and aware of them.

Such a finding confounds those who would like to reduce human life down to simple policy proscriptions that allow us to make quick, consistent decisions about who should live and die; human life resists simple reductions to the measurement of machines and charts. It gives lie to the notion that the only parties that should matter in such cases are doctors and the patients guardians – it may be the case that the patient themselves are aware and interested in their own fates.

As bioethicist Arthur Caplan sums up:

“The more these measures of consciousness get complex and fine-tuned, the harder it is to write a recipe about them”

One would hope that such a ‘recipe’ would include a bit of humility about what we actually know about human consciousness, and from where human life derives it’s worth to begin with.

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