Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Little Lost Bioethicist

The Israeli government recently passed a law that will allow respirators to be turned off in a manner that some people imagine to be consistent with Jewish law:

Machines will perform euthanasia on terminally ill patients in Israel under legislation devised not to offend Jewish law, which forbids people taking human life.

A special timer will be fitted to a patient's respirator which will sound an alarm 12 hours before turning it off.

Normally, carers would override the alarm and keep the respirator turned on but, if various stringent conditions are met, including the giving of consent by the patient or legal guardian, the alarm would not be overridden.

Similar timing devices, known as Sabbath clocks, are used in the homes of orthodox Jews so that light switches and electrical devices can be turned on during the Sabbath without offending religious strictures.

First, the purported explanation makes no sense whatsoever. This is not in the same category as a Sabbath timer as explained by the Holy Hyrax in the comments to the post on respondingtojblogs:

This is so ridiculous to even compare it to a shabbat timer. A shabbat timer is not a problem because you are setting it up BEFORE the Shabbat, which there is no issur.
With this Human timer, there is no issue of a specific time to set it up. Takiing a life is assur at ANY time.

There is no difference with this than with someone throwing a ball towards a light switch on Shabbat and then saying "I didn't turn on the lights, it was the ball."
Instead it might be an example of doing something indirectly. Setting the timer to go off in the first place would supposedly not be classified as suicide since somebody might reset the timer. On the other hand, not resetting the timer would not be murder since it is refraining from an action instead of comitting an action.

I'm reminded of the robot in “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov (from his collection I, Robot). Normally, Asimov's robots were supposed to obey the First Law of Robotics:

A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
The lost robot obeyed a modified version of the First Law:
A robot may not harm a human being.
Such a robot could set the timer for the ventilator to go off. That had some disadvantages:
If a modified robot were to drop a heavy weight upon a human being, he would not be breaking the First Law, if he did so with the knowledge that his strength and reaction speed would be sufficient to snatch the weight away before it struck the man. However once the weight left his fingers, he would be no longer the active medium. Only the blind force of gravity would be that. The robot could then change his mind and merely by inaction, allow the weight to strike. The modified First Law allows that.

At first sight, that looks like a standard application of Talmudic hairsplitting, except … there's a common type of equally indirect suicide that's strictly forbidden in Jewish law: Jewish law does not accept a confession in a capital case on the grounds that it is suicide. If indirect suicide were permitted, such confessions would be accepted. There's a loophole in the apparent loophole.

This is one reason I'm reluctant to attach too much importance to Zionism. As I have said before, organizations tend to drift left. This may be an instance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shalom ~ Thanks for the good insights. BTW, please become a Rabbi. We need you!

8:44 PM  
Blogger Kent said...

Heh. Given what I know of the history of Zionism, I wouldn't say it has drifted left. It was pretty far to the left to begin with.

10:04 AM  

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