24 March 2008

The Moral Conflict of John Locke's Kidney

Week Two's reading from Ethical Theory and Business, Eighth Edition included on pages 18 to 30 an overview on both the Utilitarian and Kantian Ethical Theories. As I read some of the varying examples provided by the text's three editors, another and more personal example breached my thoughts.

The television series LOST had and has a remarkably diverse cast of characters, including one of my personal favorites--John Locke. As the show progresses, the viewers slowly learn of each character's "back story" and usually some interesting unknown connection one LOST castaway has with another. John Locke's back story contains one haunting standout, where his birth-father suddenly enters Locke's middle-age life for the first time and figuratively rips his son's heart out. What happened was that John's father apologized profusely for being absent from his son's entire life, and then explained that he was--at that moment--in a situation where if he didn't receive a kidney transplant immediately, he would most certainly die.

John Locke, not wanting to lose the opportunity to get to know his long-lost father, hastily surrendered his perfect-match kidney to a man he knew nothing about. While Utilitarian Ethics is often boiled down to "the greatest good for the greatest number" (Ethical Theory, 23), the point can be argued from Kantian Ethics--among other things--that "using human organs as commodities is to treat human beings as though they were merely machines" (24). The strain here follows from the fact that John Locke's father, briefly after receiving the transplant and recovering from surgery, once again pushed his frazzled son out of his life.

Immanuel Kant said that "persons should be treated as ends and never purely as means to the ends of others" (24) and further that "people must not treat another exclusively as a means to their ends" (25). Through this straightforward declaration, John Locke's father can easily be classified as having acted immorally toward his son as per Kantian Theory. How though, does the morality of John Locke's decision to give up his kidney in the first place sit?

Was Locke's donation of his own kidney disrespectful to his own person? Was his "goodwill" immoral? The 1700's moral philosopher Kant "seems to require only that each individual will the acceptance of those principles on which he or she is acting" (25). So if John Locke was truly acting freely, with no underlying immoral motive, then his choice was that of a moral man.

John Locke was a willing albeit disinformed participant of the kidney transaction, acting from a sense of obligation...or was it really for a feel-good self-interest? From page twenty-six of Ethical Theory and Business we learn that "actions motivated by self-interest alone or compassion alone cannot be morally praiseworthy" and "to be deserving of moral praise, a person must act from obligation." While John Locke's sense of obligation to his father may have been there, from other television glimpses of his back story we know that Locke is often depressed and is absolutely seeking a chance to redeem his life, to make a connection to a dreamt-of man, and to gain peace with his inner-self.

Kantianism implies that "if conflicts arise between one's obligation and one's other motivations--such as friendship, reciprocation, or love--the motive of obligation should always prevail" (28). It is my deduction that John Locke therefore allowed the terrible force of love to outweigh any real sense of obligation he had and that he immorally donated his own kidney, to his own father.


Zachary said...

I really enjoyed this. It shed new light on what I otherwise thought was a pretty selfless act on Locke's part.

In reflection, it now seems almost selfish. Not only did Locke devalue his own body in the act, he also devalued himself--essentially, he whored himself out to his father.

Seth C. Burgess said...

Cool. When initially viewing that episode of LOST, my supposition probably would've been supported by the question "how can anyone who gives a bodily organ to a relative do it for any reason but selflessness?"

Yet, something must have struck me as questionable about the situation (probably because of my Saunders College of Business course load) and after highlighting a phrase on Kantian Ethics while studying, this reaction fell together for me.

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