I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 4‘s religious discussion programme, Beyond Belief, but I happened to be driving yesterday while it was on. The programme, broadcast on Monday 12th August 2013, and as of the time of writing, available on iPlayer, dealt with the ethics of organ donation.
The three panellists were:
Janet Radcliffe-Richards, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Oxford, stating the secular case;
Reverend George Pitcher, Anglican Priest at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, providing a Christian perspective;
and Mufti Mohammed Zubair Butt, Islamic scholar and hospital chaplain, representing Islam.
Since I rarely listen to Beyond Belief, I don’t know how often they have non-religious panellists, but the few episodes I have caught, and a quick glance at the previous episode summaries on the programme’s website, suggest it’s not very.
Now, intelligent people have known for millennia that an instinctive understanding of ethical principles is inherent to human nature. We do not need religion to inform our morality. In fact, over the last few years, many have made the case that religion, far from improving that inherent morality, has a tendency to pervert and suppress it. The most eloquent statement on the matter is probably Steven Weinberg’s:
“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
The Beyond Belief debate on organ donation was a great example of this.
Throughout the discussion, Janet Radcliffe-Richards, the secularist speaker, provided an absolutely clear-headed, intelligent and principled analysis of the issue, to which, it seemed to me, any reasonable person would have a hard time objecting.
Opening with her reasons for being an organ donor, she gave the fundamental moral argument: “If something which I have no use for can save somebody else’s life or health it would be morally appalling not to allow it to be used.”
As unequivocal as that sounds, it was then up to the religious speakers to diverge from it.
George Pitcher seemed to be in roughly the right moral area when he stated he also believed in organ donation and was on the organ donor register.
Mohammed Zubair Butt, however, found himself in the opposite camp, saying he wasn’t an organ donor, as he was “queasy” at the idea. His ethical thinking on the issue – informed by his faith and religious studies – had led him to a position diametrically opposite to the most simple and undeniable principles of ethics.
Asked to explain his reasoning, he continued: “Organ donation is a new phenomenon. It’s not something that has explicit reference in the Holy Koran or the sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him)…”
This conveniently overlooks the fact that the Koran is supposed to be the word of god, who would presumably have known about the ethically difficult phenomena which were due to appear in mankind’s future. And also that it’s supposed to be his final, complete and perfect message, which makes it odd that he chose to omit useful long-term ethical advice on these questions. It also looks strange compared to the often-boasted claims that the Koran does include advanced scientific knowledge (in embryology and geology, for example) hidden in its revelations.
“What you will find are general principles that have to be applied. [The principle that makes me feel uneasy is] mutilation of the body.”
So, because his ethics have to be based on Koranic principles, rather than an instinctive human understanding of right and wrong, because the Koran is notably lacking in guidance on any issues beyond the awareness of 7th century desert nomads, and because the best, tenuous connection it provides is a ban on mutilating the enemy dead after battle, Mohammed Zubair Butt’s ethical stance on organ donation is the complete reverse of any sane, rational person’s.
The programme then went on to explore the fact that this queasiness and opposition to organ donation is widespread among Islamic scholars, and that this has resulted in a booming black market trade in live organ donation, particularly in Pakistan, where the poor and desperate are exploited into selling their kidneys, so that the rest of the Islamic world can get its transplants while obeying a twisted misinterpretation of morality.
Radcliffe-Richards had already summed it up in her opening statement: “morally appalling”.
Meanwhile, Pitcher seemed to be in a reasonable position, signed up as an organ donor himself and informed by his faith that “there’s no higher way of living a life than sacrificially for others”, and that “to enable other people to live after your own death” is a morally sound goal – although of course, he reached this conclusion by looking at the example of Christ, rather than by simply examining the quality of the action itself, as Radcliffe-Richards did by “purely secular principles”.
However, his viewpoint diverged from decent moral thinking as soon as it came to the question of whether the organ donor register should be “opt in” or “opt out”, ie whether all UK citizens should be automatically on the register unless they specifically choose not to be.
He took the stance that an opt out system would “sweep away altruism”, following the rather repugnant line of Christian thinking that believes suffering and evil are worth keeping, because they provide greater opportunity for individual humans to make good moral choices.
Radcliffe-Richards instantly demolished this argument by pointing out that we can still admire the compassionate actions of families who care for their elderly relatives in their own homes, even though we also think it’s right for the state to provide a safety net for those elderly people who don’t receive such care. Yet Pitcher couldn’t accept this knock-down logic, blinded as he was to clear ethical reasoning, by his religious belief in the sanctity of bad moral choices to provide contrast to the good.
As the programme moved on to trickier topics, Radcliffe-Richards made some suggestions which many may find more problematic – for example, on putting non-donors at the bottom of organ waiting lists, or on the issue of ‘elective ventilation’, the sustaining of dead bodies on life support until their organs can be used. However, her arguments were always clear, rational and based on sound ethical principles. Her opponent’s objections, on the other hand, were dogmatic and muddled.
It was a study in the superiority of the secular approach in questions of morality, and the various ways in which a religious mindset can twist ethics into its reverse. Listen to it on BBC iPlayer while you can.