Chris Skowroński, Opole University, Poland/Berlin Forum, Germany
There have always been controversies over the practicality of philosophy even when given authors claimed in their books and lectures that philosophy and ethics are vitally important for the members of the public. Yet not always have they been convincing in their claims. For some audiences, academic philosophers seem to stay closed within the university rooms and heard by hardly anybody else than the students and other professors. John Lachs (1934-) is serious when he demands that philosophers, especially the pragmatist philosophers, should go out of their lecture rooms and give something more substantial to the life of the community they have been living in.
Lachs has been able to produce his own way of practicing the practical version of pragmatist philosophy, and this is at least for two reasons. First, he insists that philosophers do not practice philosophy by merely talking, teaching and writing about practicality, but rather by engaging themselves in particular social matters, for example: by making their own lives exemplary, by being public intellectuals, by being effective in education, heard in political disputes, and – most interestingly for me now — by being instrumental for those who face tough existential dilemmas, ethical purposes, and bioethical choices. Second, he tries to link the pragmatic philosophy with some practical aspects of the Stoic philosophy — taken predominantly from the Late (Roman) Stoics and, to some degree, from George Santayana and other contemporary thinkers — to produce ‘stoic pragmatism’ as the title of one of his recent books announces (Stoic Pragmatism, 2012). I emphasize the term ‘practical’ because Lachs rejects the Stoics’ metaphysics (with the notions of fatum and providentia as deterministic factors) and the Stoics’ theology/cosmology (with the notions of logos and pneuma as divine factors). Instead, to the basic traits of this stoic component of Lachs’s pragmatism belong: searching for wisdom, creating a meaningful life as a singular task for each of us with the awareness of our self-limitations and the need of renunciation on some occasions; seeing philosophy as (self-) therapy that helps overcome personal crises or dealing with occasional depressions, and, finally, being ready to go away when the time has come due to the natural limitations of human nature.
The combination of these two plots alone, that is the pragmatist and the stoic (apart from some others in his works) makes his thought specific within the philosophical tradition of American pragmatism, and worthy of attention. Below, I use these two plots as a perspective from which I present some selected views of Lachs on bio/ethical issues.
Anthropological Assumptions on Purposes, Contexts, and Quality of Living
Lachs assumes, as most of the American pragmatists (at least the followers of W. James and J. Dewey), the naturalistic, secular, socially contextualized, and individualistic stance. Not in line with most of them, however, and, instead, following Santayana, he stresses the role of the individual seeking for a good life and the individual decision-making efforts to make one’s way through life against social pressure and communal conventions. His claim that “Every man must seek to make his thought the adequate expression of his personality: this is the sum and substance of philosophy” (Lachs, 1964, p. 440) testifies to the former, and his recent book Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone (2014) testifies to the latter.
Individual decision making is for Lachs something fundamental and constitutes an important segment of his anthropological views from the very beginning of his career. In one of his earliest texts, “Angel, Animal, Machine: Models for Man” he gave his life-long understanding of the anthropological and ethical meanings of the exploration of the potential of each and every human being: “A fully successful human life would aim at the actualization of this potential for contemplation, feeling and enjoyment as much as it would strive to secure the physical goals in health, security and equilibrium” (Lachs, 1967, p. 227). This Aristotelian language and ‘spirit’ on human entelechy was also akin to Santayana and to Jamesian, Deweyan, and Mead’s versions of pragmatism in the places where they (especially Dewey and Mead) do not evoke the social and communal character of human experience. This does not mean that Lachs believes in a set of universal goods to be realized by everybody under some objective guidance; he claims human flourishing to be the basic anthropological demand, yet it is the question of each of us to define the way we want to flourish.
More importantly, however, such a claim eliminates, as if at the start, the religious, transcendental and idealistic perspectives, including Platonic, Stoical (Greek and Roman), Scholastic, Kantian, Hegelian, even Peircean from Lachs’s approach. A transcendental and idealistic perspective is ousted by the belief in contingency and inexplicability of the gravest dilemmas with hardly any hope of having access to the ‘real’ reference with the invisible cosmos; as he put it in “Questions of Life and Death,” “from the moral point of view there is a mad contingency to the world – an element of sheer chance we can neither explain nor avoid” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 132). I will not discuss at this place, though such a discussion needs to be performed on some other occasion, whether it is Lachs’s World War II experience of “the uncontrollability of fortune” along with “the sight of gratuitous violence and sudden death” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 17) that paved the way to his naturalistic philosophical views or he assumed them during his philosophical studies over naturalism. It is enough to say now that Lachs defends his earthly, secular, individual, pluralist, and liberal position in philosophy and (bio)ethics against these stances that refer in the argumentation to God, divine rules, sanctity of all life – which he calls “an empty slogan” (Lachs, 2003, p. 131) -, idealistic obligations, and eternal values.
It is, then, within the naturalistic framework that his views on the purposes of human living should be further discussed, which does not mean that he is content with un-transcendental and un-spiritual dimensions of living. Just the opposite. In “Transcendence in Philosophy and in Everyday Life” he advocates the view that “Transcendence today is the search not for a reality beyond the everyday but for a value of unquestioned finality in daily life” (Lachs, 2003, p. 75). He simply thinks that longing for another reality is proportionate to the misery of our reality, and the option we face is to enrich and to give more sense to our lives here and now. Philosophers and bioethicist should go hand in hand in serving different audiences the internal perspective as no less important than transcendental for those who want to practice it. Thanks to such humanistic and liberal service — and by ‘liberal’ here I mean ‘NOT converted in an institutionalized system of pressure and coercion over individuals’ — the ethical (existential) choices may become less tragic; bioethical dilemmas much less complicated and, on the other hand, the enjoyment and sense of living much higher.
The belief in progress in human affairs is one of the omnipresent features of the pragmatist philosophy in general, and especially in pragmatist social ethics. Unlike many pragmatists, however, and like Santayana, he sees the development as having a better quality of living without a direct relation with the technological progress. Progress understood ethically does not necessarily mean technological progress and medical progress (in the narrow technical sense), because human misery can well be had in the most technologically developed circumstances and the most commercial environments that is to say when everything is at hand and nothing gives a deeper satisfaction. Lachs joins stoicism in claiming that the enjoyment of living and having a valuable sense of purposes belong to the factors that can be had irrelevantly of the external ambience. This external ambience includes the social institutions that can influence the decision-making of the given individual as far bioethical issues are concerned.
On the example of the problem of the assisted suicide as a way of stopping suffering, he does not see such external forces as the state, governmental institutions, and the church of any denomination as morally justified in forcing and imposing grave consequences upon particular persons in particular hopeless situations to go on, against her wish: “Telling others what they should do is for the most part wrong, but making others carry on the burden of a horrible life when they want to be set free is nothing short of wanton cruelty” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 466). This does not mean at all that any time anybody wishes, his or her suicidal tendencies should be obeyed, and here such institutional forms of social life as state and church should be instrumental in giving hope and advice as to how one may go on. This comes from Lachs’s central anthropological assumption, already mentioned, that says that we all have certain potentialities and thanks to the development of these we can thrive and enjoy our growth to the profit of ourselves, our families, and our communities. The recognition of the internal potentialities of men is one on the most significant factors to be taken into consideration; “A generous reading of human freedom leaves it open for adults to finish the book of life at any time they desire. If they are young and healthy, their doing so is a lamentable error” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 471). Here, we need to come back to the previous suggestions about the need of the philosophical teaching about the seasonal capacities of human life to thrive and generate perfections.
One can convert this individual liberty into the question of individual dignity. Lachs seems to be closer to the Stoic understanding of the term ‘dignity’ than to the Christian, and this has a direct impact upon his ethical and bioethical views on solitude, dying, suicide, assisted suicide, euthanasia, prolongation of life, and others. Lachs links this stoical understanding of ‘dignity’ with pragmatist (and Santayana’s) naturalism and internalism or looking for the meaning of life inside of life rather than outside of it as the followers of sundry forms of idealism and transcendentalism would wish. He seems to understand the term ‘(high) quality of living’ with the term ‘dignity of living’ as manifesting the ‘autonomous liberty’ and the more autonomy and liberty are in danger the more in danger will the quality and dignity of living be. He wants both philosophers and medical doctors to respect the formula saying that “Confusing a human life with the life of a human body is a pernicious mistake” (Lachs, 2003, p. 131), and convert it practically into helping people live better and happier.
The Factual Practice of Pragmatist Bioethics on the Example of Prolongation of Life
What should pragmatist philosophers do in order to focus more on the practice of living in the context of bioethical reflections and bioethical dilemmas? Lachs gives answers to this innumerable times in his works, and I should like to discuss them on the example of one of bioethical issues that Lachs analyzes frequently in his works, that is the prolongation of life of elderly people.
First, philosophers dealing with bioethical issues should make their points less abstract and more particular. By claiming, in “Physician Assisted Suicide,” that “A persistent weakness of bioethics discussion is their abstraction” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 459) and, in “When Abstract Moralizing Runs Amok,” that abstract moralizing is worse than committing moral errors (cf. Lachs, 1994, p. 10) he not only criticizes the vague and imprecise character of most of the philosophical debates at large, but also some philosophers’ ignorance as to the main mission of philosophy, which is to show examples of good life along with the purposes of living in a meaningful way. He even claims, in “Two Views of Happiness in Mill,” that such ethical deliberations as those on happiness should be converted into something more practical, and “it may be advantageous to cease all discussion of happiness and focus on the notion of the happy man” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 128). As I understand it, he does not criticize the very reflection on, for example, happiness, but has reservations about leaving the discussion at the theoretical level and not trying to convert its results into the practical level so as to show the reading audience a more important thing, which is some suggestions for and the standards of practically living well (not just theoretically, if not scientifically deliberating about living well). Similarly, when we deal with the issue of the prolongation of life we should not by any means generalize it and convert it into a normative level. Circumstances and contexts must be taken into consideration, especially if living longer is not becoming a burden for the very patient and her family, and by ‘burden for the family’ is understood the advantage of sadness and dedication over the (emotional) energy that is had in the process of caretaking.
Second, philosophers should be instrumental in giving (and justifying) the patters and strategies of the good life in different contexts. In a very similar way to the ancient Stoics, he sees much part of the philosophical effort to existential applications. Theoretical interpretation of reality should be inseparably linked with teaching self-orientation, self-reliance in life as well as the methods of cultivating joyfulness and creativity. Such factors, among many others, are necessary for the mental health, the sense of being needed, and involved in the decision making process with regard to particular bioethical issues. Philosophy understood this way would be instrumental in converting the lots of the particular members of the public into more conscious and more careful approaches towards the good life. For example, Lachs proposes his approach towards the decision making process with reference to the prolongation of life by suggesting that we should “think of life as a seasonal career justified in terms of its own rich contents and perfections” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 137), and learning (from the Stoics) how to get rid of unreasonable pretensions; our wish to have more and more does not always need to be converted into enjoying and experiencing more and more.
Third, and this is partially a development of the previous point, the philosophers, especially bioethicians should be specifically prepared to help us clear the purposes: “The central facilitative task of bioethicist requires that they possess the ability to lay bare the unarticulated purposes that frame conflict and propel action” (Lachs, 2003, p. 112). The consciousness of the purposes, he claims, energizes the agent (as well as the societies in the moments of mobilization to achieve some definite purpose), and gives her a much better position in effectively reaching the given objective. In “The Significance of Purposes for Bioethics” Lachs says the following;
The role of philosophers is, therefore, not very different from what it was always supposed to be. They need to occasion the examination of public and private purposes and assist in carrying it forward intelligently and with vigor. This is particularly true of bioethicists as they deal with decision-making in the clinical context and with public policies relating to human health. They must uncover disguised objectives, they must be alert to the emergence of new goals, and they must constantly challenge established aims and purposes (Lachs, 2003, p. 111).
The consciousness of the purposes in life is central for all those who are disoriented to such an extent that, for example, they are thinking of committing suicide or not willing to fight for life during the time of a grave illness. However, it is an unbridgeable gap between 1) unwillingness to prolong life when the reason for this is a lack of purpose, the lack of love for/from others, and the lack of some good to be realized, and 2) when the reason for the termination of life being that it factually has no purpose any more. If there factually is some purpose, some love, and some good to be realized by a given patient she should be helped in becoming conscious of the possibilities at hand. I say ‘possibilities’ because by having in mind the purposes one can think of the possible scenarios that assist the attempts of the realization of given objectives.
Fourth, philosophy should be instrumental in teaching the art of rational choices and critical thinking in the public sphere. For example, philosophers should be vocal in showing all others the alternatives in spending public and private money in the situation of the aging societies in the well developed states. In the situation when medical technology gives us more and more opportunities to prolong life, soon a big portion on public money will be spent on the prolongation of life of already old people. This will be, of course, at the cost of spending money to rescue life in less wealthy segments of the society, not to mention in other quarters, such as undeveloped countries. The proposal Lachs himself gives us takes us back to his stoic look at life in general and is the following: “The emphasis should not be on who shall live and for how long but on how we shall live and why” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 136). He explains to us that generally speaking (numerous exceptions need to be discussed separately) the dynamism of life has various stages, and the possible realization of the potential at its early stages is far greater than in later stages. The prolongation of life is not justifiable, at least from the viewpoint of public policy (public money spent on prolongation rather than on rescuing of younger lives), especially when it (the prolongation I mean) results with hardly anything than just a prolongation and making a given person’s quality of experience low anyway. Of course, we can think of the family life of this person, his/her love to and from the relations, but from the viewpoint of the public policy and public money, the focus upon the young people seem more pending. In other words, the routine care should be accessible to everyone, and this is the main issue; however, when the choice is to be made, the children should not be given less than the aging.
Fifth, philosophers should be aware of their obligations to the community and pay off the investment of the social institutions in educating them and giving them a space to develop their profession. In his text entitled “The Obligations of Philosophers” he writes that although philosophy is not able to discover new facts and give us conclusive answers to basic questions, its role is crucial, because it “serves as a skeptical conscience of the human race” (Lachs, 2015, p. 3). Philosophy such understood must transcend particular views or relative statements and, as if, judge them in the name of a common or universal good. Since, in the ethical context the highest good is the given human being, this sceptical conscience should always be alert to such injustices when something else is given priority and when human life is measured exclusively by its usefulness and instrumentality to some external aims and, this way, degrading human life to the status of a physical object (cf. Lachs, 2014b, p. 136).
Again, on the example of the prolongation of life, we can see Lachs’s criticism as applied to bioethics. He follows the Argument from Autonomy (I mean the individual’s autonomy in the rationalization of his/her self-determination) by giving the stoic type of reservation about the unlimited prolongation of life by any medical and technological means available for the richest nowadays. He seems to literally follow Epictetus (Discourses, II, 6) by saying that “Life by itself is not a value; it is only a necessary condition of values” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 136). If, then, the old life cannot mean hardly anything but mere a continuation of its existence, it is not only deprived of its dignity (Stoically understood) and loses its meaning, but also there are not rational reasons why the health policy should spend public money on prolonging it and, in this way, limiting the funds to, say, help younger adults thrive in various ways. Not only this. The very endless prolongation of life may become, in some contexts, fruitless for everybody involved (the patient, her family, and the health service). As we read in “Dying Old as a Social Problem,” the possible result of such enforced prolongation in some cases is the following: “families and institutions end up caring for biological organisms whose human potential has been wrecked” (Lachs, 2003, p. 129). This is Lachs’s main argument against the prolongation of life in the situation where there is no use made of the patient’s potential given her natural limits connected with aging and the debilitation of the body.
At this very point, we need to come back to the first point, on the contextualization and particularization of given cases. For example, we can take into consideration the strength of the family ties in some communities; the potential of the patient may be ‘wrecked’ if we think about his/her life, but this very potential can have a stimulating effect for the people around, especially those loving and caring. A further discussion with Lachs on this very issue would involve the problem of the patient’s potential that can be ‘transmitted’ to others by the very fact of being alive, and giving those around (say, loving children) a sense of still being with him/her.
My main aim here was a brief presentation of Lachs’s stance in general, without a critical discussion about some of his particular claims. I wanted to show that most of his views on particular bio/ethical issues stem more from his philosophical stance as such; they do not look like the technical, detailed, and multi-layer analyses of a particular bioethical issue deprived of its philosophical background. If one would like to criticize them, it seems to me that it would be more justifiably to deal more with Lachs’s general stance; for example, with his attempt to transplant (a part of) stoicism into the contemporary and un-stoic ground, and with his pragmatist secularism.
Let me conclude by saying that not only does Lachs join those who criticize the hyper-professionalization of philosophy, and thus making it a highly compartmentalized set of disciplines that have lost a holistic view on human and the universe. He also criticizes the scope of the professional specialization in medicine, and demands – apart from it, not instead of it! – a broader role of this profession, one that would deal with the quality of life as such rather than focusing merely to healing the particular illnesses. In the narrow or professional sense, the role of doctors in the context of bioethics is undeniable and necessary in some bioethical situations, such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, especially that “the medical profession has monopoly power over drugs. Since society conferred this vast and lucrative power of physicians, they are under an obligation to help individuals who have a legitimate reason to hasten their death” (Lachs, 2014b, p. 469). However, a no less significant is the role of physicians in a wider sense. As ‘a particular patient’s quality of life’ oriented physicians would “take their responsibility more seriously than doctors satisfied to treat not the socially situated person but the disease” (ibid., p. 389).
LACHS, J. (1964) “Santayana’s Philosophy of Mind” in: The Monist, July, vol. 48, no.3, pp.
LACHS, J. (1967) “Angel, Animal, Machine: Models for Man”; in: The Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 5, Winter, no. 4, pp. 221-227.
LACHS, J. (1994) “When Abstract Moralizing Runs Amok”; in: Journal of Clinical Ethics, 5
(1994): pp. 10-13.
LACHS, J. (2003). A Community of Individuals. New York and London: Routledge.
LACHS, J. (2012). Stoic Pragmatism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University
LACHS, J. (2014a). Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
LACHS, J. (2014b). Freedom and Limits. Edited by Patrick Shade. New York: Fordham University Press.
LACHS, J. (2015). “The Obligations of Philosophers,” in: Krzysztof Piotr Skowroński, editor, Practicing Philosophy as Experiencing Life: Essays on American Pragmatism. Leiden-Boston: Brill/Rodopi, pp. 3-12.