Beyond Belief on organ donation

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.

4 thoughts on “Beyond Belief on organ donation

  1. I agree about not needing religion to inform morality, but Weinberg’s claim and the implied message of this post is different. He is (and indirectly, you are) saying that without religion, the only difference the world would have would be no “good people doing evil things”. Religion provides moral zeal, so it makes good people do better things, evil people do less evil things and one of the by-products of that is that it also helps evil people to do more evil things and good people do evil things sometimes too. Whether or not religion is good overall is far from clear by analysing the clear-headedness of religious thinkers.

    • No, the reason religion makes good people do evil things isn’t just that they have more zeal, which can cause collateral damage. It’s that the basis for their moral thinking is something other than natural human decency and reason. Neither Weinberg or I are saying that’s true of all religious people: most religious people are fairly good people, and there are plenty of people who would describe themselves as “Christian humanist” or “Jewish humanist”, etc, who base their morality on humanist principles while believing in a god.

      However, half of Islamic scholars believe post-mortem organ donation is wrong, indirectly but inevitably promoting unnecessary suffering and an appalling black market trade in live kidney donations. Would anyone come to such a conclusion if asked to consider the question on the basis of humanist principles, unhindered by religious doctrine? Of course not. The reason these scholars come to such an abhorent conclusion is because according to their religious beliefs, they have to decide it based on the contents of an ambiguous, inconsistent and insufficiently comprehensive book.

      When any parents have a baby, they inherently believe that it’s beautiful and perfect, and every natural, decent human instinct in their bodies wants to protect that child from all harm. Left to those instincts, would any of them decide to mutilate the genitals of that baby in order to reduce its sexual pleasure later in life? Would any of them further decide that this procedure should be performed without anaesthetic or surgical standards of hygiene, by a man cutting through most of the foreskin, then sucking it off the baby’s penis with his own mouth? Of course not. People only do this because it was written down in a book several thousand years ago, and their religious belief makes them prefer the moral judgments of this book over their own sense of propriety.

      That’s the sense in which both Weinberg and I are saying the same thing: most people are good; most people have inherent instincts towards decency, fairness, altruism, etc (an evolved aspect of human nature); many of those good people ignore those instincts because their religious-based moral ideas conflict with them; religious-based moral ideas are often diametrically opposed to natural morality, because they rest on a foundation of scripture and dogma, which are usually incomplete, inconsistent, written in ignorance and in large parts violent and tribal.

      I didn’t make any statement in this post as to whether or not religion was good overall (although you can guess my opinion on that). Its tendency to subvert the natural human instinct for right and wrong and hinder clear-headed ethical thinking, by itself, perhaps isn’t enough to decide the question. However, I think it’s a big mark against it.

      • When I said that religion provides moral zeal, I meant that it provides moral zeal by providing an objective morality. The objective morality is responsible for the range of bizarre and barbaric things you’ve described, but also for zakat in Islam and tithing in Christianity. I don’t know the statistics on Muslim as compared with secular charitable giving, but there are plenty of people who don’t (and will not) engage in this sort of debate but will follow the dictates of religion. Leading them to both genital mutilation and to charitable giving.

        Non-religious thinkers should take this sort of inter-faith discussion seriously. Interpretations of religious texts do change through time, and Beyond Belief will have contributed to that. There will have been undecided young Muslims listening who will make up the next generation of Muslim scholars. Perhaps it’s 50% at the moment who are against organ donation and in ten years it will be 40%.

        • I don’t think religion provides an objective morality. Any moral system based on religion must derive from an extensive interpretation and selective filtering of that religion’s scriptures and auxiliary doctrines and traditions, which is no more objective than a secularist’s choice of moral system based on an analysis of their own moral instincts and their community’s values. What religion provides is a ready-made moral system, transmitted by a supposed authority, which gives the illusion of objectivity and negates the need for any independent moral thought. I think the combination of the latter two aspects is extremely worrying and inherently dangerous.

          You may be right that Muslims give more to charity than other religious or non-religious groups because they’re explicitly instructed to follow zakat. This poll suggests so: – although it was based on a survey and doesn’t consider the possible bias that Muslims, who are subject to a religious and cultural pressure to give to charity, would exaggerate their charitable giving when questioned.

          However, charity is based on altruism which is based on human instinct. Humanists are subject to the same instinct and still give to charity. Zakat institutionalises that instinct, possibly leading to it being fulfilled to a greater extent, but it doesn’t pioneer any new form of goodness that isn’t already inherent in humans. There is no such natural instinct towards suicide bombing, genital mutilation or the withholding of medical treatment to the curably dying (all of which are practised not just by Muslims but by other religious groups too, although practically never by secular humanists).

          I agree that the non-religious should take inter-faith discussions seriously; I found this episode of Beyond Belief very interesting, and I took it seriously enough to write a post about it. It may make me more likely to listen to future episodes, although my experience in the past has been that when the panel has been exclusively religious, I want to tear my hair out in frustration. Without Radcliffe-Richards providing the voice of sense and reason, Monday’s discussion would have been several people expressing different varieties of insane wrongness, with no-one to properly counter any of it.

          I hope you’re right that such discussions will increase the percentage of future Muslim scholars with more reasonable opinions. However, the opposite is just as possible: when a group’s dogma is confronted by opposing ideologies, it often entrenches itself further in order to define its distinctive identity.

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