Dear Bishop McGrattan:
We celebrate the Sunday liturgies accompanied especially by the Gospel of Mark this year and in this too, we can find great solace. Mark’s Gospel has been called the Gospel of “Discipleship”. He shows clearly how the followers of Jesus struggled with uncertainty in recognizing Him as the Son of God as well as with their call to be Evangelizers in a culture very different from the Gospel ways. Mark records the words of the disciples after Jesus calmed the sea when they said: “Who then, is this?” This is at the very heart of Mark’s Gospel and Jesus affirms this when he says to them: “But who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who responds by saying: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Mark shares with us that it is not enough to intellectually understand our faith; we are to have a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus, above all.
I was having a conversation trying to explain to someone that there isn't just one possible reasonable way to approach the coronavirus pandemic. It's rather like climate change, in that things are actually very complicated, and to pretend otherwise is unreasonable and often outright hysterical (usually not in the sense of being extremely funny). I think it could help a lot of people to understand this if they would watch this Jordan Peterson video: What Greta Thunberg does not understand about climate change | Jordan Peterson - YouTube. While watching, consider what kinds of similar things we might need to say in a hypothetical video entitled: "What covid-19 alarmists don't understand about pandemic public policy."
So in the conversation I was having, my interlocutor says:
"ok then explain your libertarian approach. The only reason I didn’t accept your answer is because 'libertarian approach' means nothing to me. I can assume that it means that you don’t want to do anything about the spread of the virus. Keep the elderly and immunocompromised isolated. Let the healthy infect themselves and pray for some form of immunity. Correct me if I’m wrong."
He was wrong, so naturally I corrected him. Here's what I said:
"I actually don't think it is necessary to isolate the elderly and immunocompromised either. I think it's okay to risk dying (that's life, bro), and it's unreasonable for the elderly to become obsessed with not dying of covid, just as its unreasonable for anyone to become obsessed with not dying in general. There are always limits, but I think the default position should be to inform people as effectively as possible about 'the science,' such as it is, and let them decide how they want to handle that information. If you want some well-established 'science,' here's a bit to consider: if covid doesn't kill the elderly and immunocompromised, something else will. Haters gonna hate, and old people gonna die -- that's science, man, and that's why people are often afraid of getting old, but it can't be changed. So to be clear, if an old person wants to be isolated, go for it; but condemning an innocent old person to involuntary solitary confinement because you think it's for their own good is actually just wrong."
So what I'm talking about here is what is usually referred to as the issue of paternalism and it's one of the most basic issues in health care ethics (a.k.a. bioethics). And it's really important! Usually forced solitary confinement is considered to be cruel and unusual punishment! But I think the really interesting thing is that it apparently never even occurs to many people as a problem to be reckoned with, including many people who imagine that they're "just following what science says" or some such simplistic nostrum.
Here's a little rant from a real scientist, which is naïve in a number of important ways, but makes the point effectively enough about the rather stupid idea of "just follow the science": Sabine Hossenfelder: Backreaction: Follow the Science? Nonsense, I say.
"Why are people living in fear? 'Be not afraid!' That's what I live by. That's why I make sure my life is continuous unremitting joy and positivity. I spit in the face of fear."
Hmm. I have a suggestion: perhaps the only reason people feel the need to spit in the face of fear is because they're afraid (afraid of fear, usually among other things). But what did fear ever do to you that you should go about denigrating and casting aspersions on it? Oh, I know there's some bathwater involved, but that's no excuse for throwing out the baby. Sometimes fear is your friend! (And we all know this perfectly well, even if sometimes we forget and pretend otherwise.)
Are medical professionals competent? Well? Are they?
Or are they just normal, incompetent human beings? (Surely some deep-seated, fundamental transformation happens when a person is handed a certificate with her name on it: she has graduated, stepped up and out of the domain of the incompetents, the hoi polloi... right? Isn't that how it works?)
I think it's pretty obvious that the answer to these questions (both of them) is, yes, no, and it depends.
I think the basic tendency of many?/most? (I don't know about numbers here) medical professionals, however, without being explicitly asked the question, is going to be basically, "Dammit Jim, of course, I'm competent -- I'm a medical professional!"
But of course medical professionals are not as a group inherently all especially stupid people. And more especially, they're not all inherently incapable of self-knowledge. So when explicitly asked, I'm sure that they are mostly all perfectly capable of some simple reflection on the meaning of the question and on the reality of their own status as both medical professionals and human beings. And accordingly, if presented with the occasion to explicitly reflect on the question, I don't suppose that in general they're likely to have any special difficulty in arriving at a more nuanced answer than the initial straightforward "of course I'm competent!"
Okay, so far, so what?
We could of course say similar things about other professions, from engineers and scientists, to teachers and professors, to priests, lawyers, scribes, and pharisees. And we could even talk about people in the lowly so-called 'trades' -- although delusions of overarching competence is probably less of an occupational hazard in settings that require the very concrete no-nonsense kind of competence which is characteristic of the trades and which our society generally holds in less esteem than the so-called professions.
However, back to medical professions, since that's what I happen to be talking about. So when we say, "yes, medical professionals are competent -- but then again, maybe not, it depends," what distinctions do we need to make?
Primarily, we're likely to be referring to their competence precisely as medical professionals. Insofar as they are required to have a foundation of education and training in their field in order to be professionally certified, obviously they must have some level of relevant competence here. But of course since they are human, with imperfect powers of memory and understanding, as well as occasionally unruly passions, as are those who trained them in the first place, and since the knowledge field wherein they are trained likewise is, and always will be, an imperfect work-in-progress -- at times more egregiously imperfect than at others! -- obviously even their competence as medical professionals, in the field of medicine, is limited. It is limited in ways inherent to human nature and to the nature of the medical profession, as well as in individual ways, based on the strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, of particular individual practitioners.
The evident variability involved in this kind of properly medical competence would seem to be a pretty straightforward thing, since the whole institution of medical training and certification is -- ostensibly and ideally, at least? -- directed towards trying to achieve and guarantee this kind of competence. That fact ensures at least that it's not likely an issue that will entirely fall off the radar.
But we should also note what this whole institution of medical training and certification is not directed towards: it's not directed towards any general competence in understanding the nature and limitations of medical competence. In other words, medical training, and professional training in general, is always and inherently directed towards a specific domain of competence, which is to say: a relatively limited and narrow range of competence. It is not directed towards a general understanding of the world, of society, of the full range of goods and values, and the proper place of medicine within that full range, that larger context. That kind of general understanding is just not what medical training is for.
And similarly medical training is not directed towards giving the medical practitioner a sound general understanding of herself, whether as a human being in general, or as medical practitioner in particular, who has an important but certainly limited particular role to play -- commensurate with her particular important but narrow range of properly medical competence -- within the promotion of the general well-being of society. While it will always touch on and be related to broader issues, medical training is clearly directed towards a much more narrowly technical range of competence.
Now certainly I don't mean to say that medical professionals are always only narrowly competent, i.e., only competent insofar as they are medical professionals, as if for some reason being a medical professional makes it impossible to be also more generally competent, as a human being. In other words, it's not as if medical professionals can't, besides their medical expertise, also have a well-developed understanding of all of the interrelated aspects of human nature and the general well-being of society (a.k.a. the common good). It's just that as medical professionals, they have no special training and no special competence in understanding and assessing the bigger picture of what makes for human flourishing and of what needs to be done in any given complex situation in order to promote the goal of human flourishing.
The occasion for my offering this reflection is a recent on-line conversation I had with a medical professional. She made what I regard as some rather naive and formulaic pronouncements about covid-19 policies. But more interestingly she prefaced these pronouncements with the following captatio benevolentiae (i.e., a preface designed to capture the goodwill of one's audience -- this is a term from classical rhetoric, and just to be clear, I am using it ironically!):
"I know this is post is getting stale but I just want to leave this here in case anyone (including OP) would like to look at this situation using science and logic, instead of just pure emotions. Please don't @ me unless you actually have some credible science/health care related background, as this is where this comment is coming from. I have to say this because we nurses have much more experience with communicable diseases than the average person. And feel free, if you're in healthcare, to correct me if needed."
Hmmm, yes. What to make of that?
To begin with, no one had previously looked at the situation in question using "just pure emotions." To imagine that they even possibly could do so is, if you think about it, clearly just pure nonsense: it just literally doesn't even begin to make sense. So in the very act of claiming that she will examine the situation using science and logic, she fires off a silly and bald misrepresentation of the dialectical situation she is entering into, which in logical parlance is generally referred to as a straw man argument and is something which is precisely illogical to do. Later she also made some naive comments about ethics, so it's also worth pointing out that making straw man arguments is something that is also unethical (morally wrong) to do, since a straw man misrepresents the truth and such arguments certainly fall afoul of the basic principle of loving your neighbor as yourself and doing as you would be done by.
Secondly she also makes an obviously fallacious (i.e., not logical) appeal to authority. Her little preface is a silly and unethical attempt to intimidate and warn off most would-be interlocutors, that is, those who would dare presume to comment unfavorably on her authoritative pronouncements. Since one clearly doesn't need a specific background in the medical field to understand and discuss medical issues, this is clearly silly and dishonest. Consider: If you had to already understand medical knowledge before you were capable of intelligently and critically discussing it, then it wouldn't be possible for anyone to ever acquire medical knowledge so as to become a medical professional, because you would only be able to understand medical knowledge if you were already a medical professional. Fortunately that's not how learning and knowledge actually work. But hey, logic (and more particularly, epistemology)! It can be a tricky business, especially for the untutored and incautious. (Her argument here is on the level of "keep your rosaries off my ovaries" or "if you want the right to say anything about abortion, make sure you have a vagina and ovaries and stuff first" - and no, it doesn't matter if what you're saying is something that lots of women agree with and also say!)
So anyway, I think an important thing to notice and reflect on from this example is the conflation of medical competence with various more general competencies, in this case competence in logic and ethics and science -- not to mention public policy, which is what her analysis was actually about.
(For the record, none of her post offered any special logical, scientific, or ethical insight. Neither did she offer even a single piece of specialized medical information that would have been news to any remotely with-it person, never mind connecting such information to anything remotely resembling a reasonable attempt to comprehensively evaluate the import of such information in relation to the overall picture of the common good. Instead her overall argument amounted to just, "listen to me, because we medical professionals are the one's who know -- but also don't dare question me (unless you're one of us), because..." Well it turns out she didn't really offer any answer there, just the evidently illogical and unscientific assurance that hers was the logical and scientific point of view in contradistinction to the purely emotional point of view.)
I don't want to make too much of this one person and this one example. But although I think it should be perfectly obvious, I think it would be helpful for a lot of people to reflect on the fact that a nurse may be highly competent as a nurse, and at the very same time highly incompetent in fields in which she has no special training, like logic, or ethics, or understanding the general nature and limits of science and of processes of scientific investigation and justification, or general public policy -- or even just being a decent and humble kind of person who at least makes a real effort to patiently and reasonably communicate with others, even those she rightly or wrongly deems to be beneath her.
If what I've just claimed about the compatibility of competence with incompetence is really so obvious, you might wonder, why bother about reflecting on it? It's because, as the example I mention shows, it evidently is not obvious to many people in their own concrete situations, and it only becomes obvious in virtue of taking some time to intentionally reflect on it. And that reflection on the competence as well as incompetence of medical professionals also has some rather obvious implications, which are also worth reflecting on, implications about how medical professionals worthy of the name ought to conduct themselves in conversation with non-medical professionals (e.g., be not a butthead, know thyself, recognize thy limitations!) and vice versa, for non-professionals talking to professionals (be not a butthead thyself, but also be not overawed by blustery medical professionals who fallaciously appeal to their own authority in matters wherein they may in fact prove to be at least as incompetent as the average Joe).
I have a friend who is friends with an old lefty Catholic former professor of his. The professor doesn't believe some of what the Church teaches and of what my friend does believe. So he tells my friend, "what you believe is true for you" even though, he also claims, it's not true for other people. So for other people the opposite "truth" is true, that is, it's "true for them." But here's the truth about truth and this kind of "truth" talk:
"It's true for you" almost always really means "you think it's true; but in reality it might be false." (And it almost always means this as a matter of semantics, i.e., the logic of the language, regardless of the speaker's explicit intention, or attention, or advertence to this logical reality.)
So "it's true for you" doesn't mean "it's true" at all. In regard to truth itself, it really just means "either it's true or it's false."
If that is well understood, then "it's true for you" can be an innocent facon de parler (a "so to speak" kind of thing).
But in its usual usage, it's deployed as a way of ignoring (or pretending to ignore and attempting to bury) the real meaning of "it's true for you," and thus as a means of ignoring (or pretending to ignore and attempting to bury) the real distinction between "it's true" and "it's false" (i.e., between truth and falsity). So "it's true for you" is usually really a means of ignoring (or pretending to ignore and attempting to bury) the real distinction between reality and fiction, the real distinction between the truth and a lie, and the real distinction between what is good and what is evil. And so usually when you hear someone pull out the claim "it's true for you," be forewarned: what you're dealing with may be innocent confusion, but is likely duplicity and hypocrisy at a deep-rooted level. It is effectively, if not intentionally, a foundational attack on our ability to rightly understand anything. It's a faux-inclusive rhetorical move that actually excludes everybody, because it systematically misconstrues everybody's claims, that is, the claims on all sides of a given debate.