JACKI LYDEN, host:
Philosophy professor Michael Taber thinks we use ethical reasoning all the time in our daily lives: what we eat, what we buy, how we act toward other people. So he posed a challenge to the students in his class on altruism and egoism at St. Mary's College in Maryland: decide as a class if he should donate his own kidney to someone in need.
Michael Taber is with us now from member station WBUR in Boston.
Professor MICHAEL TABER (Philosophy, St. Mary's College): Good day.
LYDEN: Well, quite the question. It made me sort of grab for my side. How did you decide to put your kidney on the line for the sake of philosophy?
Prof. TABER: I was trying to come up with an exercise that would allow them to apply some of the concepts and some of the discussions that we were having in the seminar to a real issue and not just to a theoretical issue but to a real issue.
So I tasked them, as one of the assignments of the - over the course of the semester, to write me some recommendations about whether or not I should donate a kidney to a stranger.
LYDEN: And the truth is you expected them to say what?
Prof. TABER: I would have predicted that they would have recommended in favor of donation but maybe have backed off and framed their recommendation with some caveats about, well, of course, it's your decision, or we realize it's a difficult issue, so we don't expect you necessarily to take our advice.
And I had told them at the beginning of the semester that I did reserve the right to not take whatever their recommendation would be.
LYDEN: Which was?
Prof. TABER: Their recommendation was not to donate, although it wasn't because they thought it was a bad idea. It wasn't because they thought that donating was not a good thing. In fact, many of them, through the recommendation paper, it was very clear that they believed that this would be a very good thing to do, going above and beyond and all the usual sorts of ways we would talk about such charitable actions.
But they felt uneasy making that recommendation to someone they know, namely me.
LYDEN: How did you feel about your students' response? How did you assess them?
Prof. TABER: Well, when I first read the paper, I was quite impressed with the rather extensive discussion they had and the way they had carved up the issues.
In terms of assessment, the students got an A. I told them that they would all get the same grade for it. It was worth five percent of the grade, and they got full five percent for the paper.
LYDEN: So you weren't disappointed?
Prof. TABER: I was very impressed with the paper upon first reading. And then -and I actually had a bit of pause the second time reading through it, which was actually the next morning, which is where I was more struck with how it was that they were not making a recommendation. They were deliberately backing off, in some sense, what they were assigned to do. And...
LYDEN: But they saw it as responsibility, not advice.
Prof. TABER: They saw it as responsibility. I think in part that's because there is something much more personal and intimate about envisioning someone lying on an operating table and being cut open. The decision to do something as intimate and personal as giving literally a part of oneself is not simply like whether or not to donate, say, even a sizable amount of money to a good cause.
LYDEN: But you're teaching philosophy, not precisely medical ethics. And the kids said: Listen, we know that this is going to look, at first glance, like a cop out. I'm looking at their paper right here.
Prof. TABER: Right.
LYDEN: They said: None of us could handle the decision of being responsible for the choice if something went wrong. Is that a cop out?
Prof. TABER: It's - I guess it is a cop out in the sense that there's all kinds of ways that we can rationalize to ourselves not getting involved, even though, I must say, I did tell them in class the day after I read the paper. I said, look, if I were trying to decide between buying an SUV and a small hybrid, I'm sure none of you would have had any reluctance about giving me recommendations.
LYDEN: Well, let me jump in there. This is a class, altruism and egoism. Was there an element of egoism involving yourself in posing this question in the first place, whether you should donate your kidney?
Prof. TABER: That is actually one of the issues we did talk about. By the virtue of making this public, does that detract from the altruism of the action? That's an issue, and it's an issue I wanted them to address and they did address.
LYDEN: So, Michael Taber, what happens to your kidney now?
Prof. TABER: What I am going to do is still donate. I would like to wait maybe eight to 10 years until our daughters are in a more kind of stable - I hope by then - stable life situation, and I being 51 now shouldn't be too decrepit that no one would want my kidney.
LYDEN: That's Michael Taber, a philosophy professor at St. Mary's College, Maryland. He asked his students to craft an argument about whether or not he should donate his own kidney.
Michael Taber, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Prof. TABER: You're quite welcome. It was enjoyable talking to you.
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