Julian Sheather: On the terrible instability of opinion

We live in momentous times. Foundations are being shaken; long-held assumptions overthrown. The relationship between citizen and state is being redrawn. Consider only the health service. So much that seemed immemorial put to the sword. PCTs on their way out. Quangos to be torched. All that seemed solid melting into air…Time then for men and women of nerve. Time for clear thinking and strength of conviction. Cometh the hour…etc. Time also for me to lament once again the appalling infirmity of my opinions. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I read or think, I can find no cure for this terrible palsy or trembling of the intellect. Given a choice of evils Mae West always plumped for the one she hadn’t tried before. I alas just sit ashamed upon the fence. Think of some of the great intellectual battles being fought out on the world’s stage: that the market is the only credible mechanism for distributing social goods; that values can be deduced from facts; that neuroscience is finally revealing the machine that is man. No trifling matters I’m sure you’ll agree, and on each I am, well, undecided. Could be, I think. Interesting point. I see where you’re coming from. And me? What do I think? Well on the one hand…

Take even my own trade, medical ethics. After ten years at the grindstone you would think by now I would have made up my mind whether the good inheres in the maximisation of welfare, or the obeying of morally relevant rules, or acting in accordance with virtue…but not a bit of it.

So bad has my indecision become that I have started looking for pharmacological rescue. If we can find biochemical relief for inattention or for dullness of wits, surely we can find a cure for equivocation. In a recent blog, Professor Savulescu, who fortunately does not suffer from my infirmity, makes the moral case for the bioenhancement of mathematical ability. To paraphrase his argument slightly, the ability of geniuses such as Einstein to solve problems that we confront collectively adds enormously to our common welfare. If we can safely enhance mathematical ability, even the mathematical ability of geniuses, more problems will be solved and the greater will be our welfare. Ergo we have a moral duty to enhance mathematical ability. Such are the fruits of firmness of mind.

Until a cure is found for my disability I will need to take comfort elsewhere. Recently I came across the following lines by the nobel-prize winning poet and author Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911. Witness to both the Nazi occupation and the long years of Soviet tyranny, he had a great deal of time to ponder the unreliability of opinion. “And when the air is filled with the clamour of analysis and confusion,” he wrote, “would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?”

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.