Support the Troops (Remembrance Day Poem)

A farmer working in a field with his children formed

A bucolic scene in the countryside, maybe.Screenshot 2018-11-10 at 06.23.15

An older man crashed his bicycle and

Injured his leg, or so it would seem.


On the first tour, these scenes did not

Seem so ambiguous. The world

Had not given over to chaos then.

A soldier might still pass with a sense of purpose.


On the second tour, doubt set in,

And the soldiers sometimes faltered

In indecision–perhaps the wedding

Party was filled with combatants.


On the third tour, everyone is

A combatant. Everyone must die.

The universe is infinite and absolute

Hostility, death the only possible escape.


He asked whether I thought US soldiers

May have committed atrocities.

I asked whether he had support

For his mental health needs.


He answered only with

A desperate, pleading smile.


Posted in justice, Mental Health, poetry, Psychotherapy, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uses and Abuses of Autonomy

If you’ve studied bioethics, you know that the principles of bioethics are autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. You also know that autonomy, especially in the early days, got most of the press. I was one of the people who saw bioethics and autonomyethics generally, really, as a matter of respecting autonomy. And I still think it is typically wrong to do things to people that they wouldn’t reasonably want done.

As it often happens when changing points of view, I first began to question the value of autonomy in the most extreme cases—those where someone had no autonomy at all. How do you show the proper respect to a cadaver for example? How should we go about respecting the autonomy of someone who is no longer conscious and may never regain consciousness? It seems that showing respect for a person’s life may not always mean respecting the person’s autonomy.

Even in those cases, though, we still try to preserve the notion of autonomy by calculating what would have been correct for that person if that person were a conscious being with autonomy. To what would a rational person want or be entitled? And here is a bit of muddy water already. Kant described respect for autonomy as respect for universal laws, not respect for individual wishes, for respecting someone’s wishes might only be to help them use themselves as a means (see: physician-assisted suicide). For Kant, respect for autonomy would mean that no one could morally choose to die, so certainly no one could morally help someone to die.

But we don’t adhere to Kant so closely, do we? So, respecting someone’s autonomy has come to mean respecting that person’s wishes by getting their consent before doing anything to them or not doing anything to them, as the case may be. But even having someone’s full-throated consent does not make it okay to do whatever we please, and we mostly recognize that. We have laws against doing things to children, for example, or to people with limited cognitive abilities because we recognize that some people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

We spend a lot of time trying to identify vulnerable populations, but my problem comes with trying to figure out who might not be subject to exploitation. It seems to me that even the most mature and intelligent people in the world are subject to exploitation at least some of the time. I can think of many examples, but one example is certainly whenever anyone gets sick.

I would say that anyone with even a minor illness has lost a degree of freedom. If I have something as simple as a stuffy nose, I will make decisions I would otherwise not make. You know, I may decide to give money to some stranger who promises that some chemical or other might make my breathing easier. If I will give away my money to avoid slightly congested breathing that will likely correct itself in a short time, what might I do to avoid rapidly approaching death?

If I’m frightened enough of dying, and most of us do want to avoid an early death, I might agree to almost any treatment dangled in front of me, and I might go to extreme measures to procure the treatment. Getting my consent to give me my only chance of relief seems a little strange, which is why neither healthcare providers nor their clients pay much attention to the whole informed consent process in routine cases. We generally go to healthcare providers with the intention of making use of the services they provide.

Yes, I know patients do need the information that makes up the “informed” part of informed consent, and sometimes genuine decisions must be made in collaboration with the doctor or other caregiver. Even in those cases where decisions must be made, most patients assume the doctor is in a better position to know what choice is best. Which is why so many of us respond with, “What would you do, Doctor?”

What we don’t say, though, is, “No, I don’t want any treatment. I only came in because I had a bit of free time and thought I’d spend it in an examining room.” It is only suffering, whether minor or extreme, that drives us to see a doctor. And it is that suffering that makes us vulnerable to exploitation, and that vulnerability renders the concept of free consent or undiminished autonomy questionable.

So I don’t think autonomy can shoulder the moral burden it is expected to carry. In fact, autonomy may not mean anything useful at all. Respecting a person’s wishes, especially in situations where wishes are so easily manipulated, may not be of any moral value at all.

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Own the Libs Boycott (poem)

Whatever the liberals do,

You’re against it.Screenshot 2018-10-29 at 11.34.22

You’d destroy their position,

If you could understand it.

You bought an expensive coffee pot

Just to destroy in some boycott.

But liberals have done something new,

So you have to set fire to your shoes.


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A New Dawn (poem)

I wrote this poem at 10 am

after a good night’s sleepIMG_7102

And a satisfying breakfast.

I was stone-cold sober,

And not the least hung over.

The sun shown brightly,

Without a hint of harshness,

And a nourishing breeze

Preserved the morning freshness.

My thoughts were untroubled

By the news of the world,

And the birds sang songs

Celebrating morning unfurled.


And I thought of you,

Running through bluebonnets,

Diving trough the air as if

You believed you could fly.

Laughing and screaming

As you ran into my arms.

I threw you higher,

And higher again,

But you’d never be satisfied

By the strength of a mortal.


You are unsatisfied still,

But I will wish you all

The way to the stars,

If I can, because that is

Where you should be,

And I am where I am.

Here. Earthbound.

And above ground,

For awhile longer.

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Feedback (all failure is) – poem

Instead of “why is this happening?”

I ask, “What is this teaching me?”

I understand that all failure is feedback,IMG_2683

And I want to grow in full self-awareness.

Perhaps this rejection is telling me

That I don’t deserve to be loved,

Or this earthquake is teaching me

I live in a chaotic and hostile universe.

I think the shadows in the room

Want me to know I will always be alone.

Perhaps this new and fatal diagnosis is

God’s way of saying all prayers go unanswered.

And I suppose it may be the case that your

Betrayals have taught me to never trust again.

The rain of abuse has flooded my soul,

And my spirit drowns in a sullied sea.

I’ve learned the lessons of helplessness

And despair by the glow of an eternal flame.

In the end, all suffering comes from life,

And a universe free from suffering

Results only from all encompassing death.

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Doing Philosophy for Fun or Profit

I was recently invited to think about answering two questions: 1. What is philosophy? 2. How is philosophy done? Teaching first-year community college students for 17 years gave me ready answers, of course. Philosophy is a love of wisdom inspired by a sense of wonder about the world. Philosophy is an activity, not a study. It is a way of engaging with the world critically, not accepting things simply as they appear to be, and it is expanding the imagination to ask broader and deeper questions about reality.

These answers aren’t too bad for first-year students hearing of philosophy for the first time, but they seem fairly shallow for older adults who have already lived examined Despairlives and have also read the works of some of history’s most famous philosophers. A second approach might be to think of the work of professional philosophers working the field at the moment, some engaging in work so arcane and distant from everyday life that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to describe them.

Still, we do have public intellectuals who engage with social issues and try to help us navigate how to live just and meaningful lives. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum come to mind. Another group of philosophers are trying to answer basic questions about both consciousness and morality through experimentation—Joshua Green, for example. And some philosophers are doing their best to use an expansive and critical approach to science of the mind to develop a coherent philosophy of mind to explain what it means to be conscious at all (Patricia Churchland, for example).

But none of this answers either of the questions that sent me down this path. Most first-year philosophy students in the United States learn that Socrates is considered the father of philosophy—despite the fact that philosophers certainly existed before him. Nonetheless, Socrates is credited with establishing the foundations of philosophy by developing the practice of refutation. In this method, possible conjectures about the truth are offered, though not by Socrates, and then examined for possible flaws. Socrates, it would seem, was good at finding the flaws and refuting the conjectures of others, which made him quite unpopular in some circles.

It is worth noting that coming up with those conjectures in the first place might be an important function of philosophy, but refutation became cemented in our minds as a sort of negative function of philosophy. It doesn’t really give us answers to what our own existence is, but does tell us what it is not. The process of refutation invites a competition that can be demoralising to the person whose theories are being refuted. Some female philosophers have opined that this negative approach to philosophy is exactly the thing men would come up with. Women, they say, would use more collaborative approaches, which may be true—at least for some women. Many female philosophers have shown both the willingness and capability to engage in refutation with fervour. Christine de Pisan was refuting hither and yon in the 14th century.

Regardless of the importance of refutation, philosophy does seem to involve an ongoing conversation. Though philosophers often claim to lock themselves into a state of solitude (just look at Descartes for example), they rely just as much on interaction with other philosophers (see Descartes’ objections and replies). So, the proper method of philosophy must involve engagement, whether collaborative and constructive or competitive and destructive. So, philosophy is a kind of conversation with testing, challenging, and, one hopes, some degree of support—and maybe a little experimentation with fMRI’s and things of that nature.

And to what end do philosophers engage in this conversation? Is it to generate questions, generate answers, or to live a good life. Socrates must have believed that the practice of philosophy would help develop a good life, or he would not have declared so forcefully that the unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, not everyone agrees that the examined life is worth living, either, but maybe that is the kind of question philosophy can help answer.

Bertrand Russell offered a pretty convincing argument that philosophical questions can’t be answered because the ones that can be answered are scientific questions. From time to time technology and scientific experimentation move some questions from the realm of philosophy to the realm of science. In such cases, philosophers might offer a hand in interpreting the answers to such questions, which doesn’t seem like the grandest aspiration for philosophy—helping to interpret scientific findings.

I also don’t know that generating questions should be the ultimate goal of philosophy, either, but it is one I enjoy. I always used to promise my students that while other subjects would answer their questions about the given subject, philosophy would make them question the answers they already had and open up a slew of new questions. I once had a student challenge me and say that he was pretty sure everyone in the class knew what a human was and he couldn’t believe anyone would waste time asking about it. After asking a few questions about at what stage in mental deterioration one loses the rights they had as a functioning human, he agreed that the question did have important implications and could be difficult to answer. As promised, I failed to give him any clear answers to the question of what a human is, but I did give him more questions than he had expected.

I do think my life is better for the time I’ve spent engaging with philosophy and philosophers. If nothing else, philosophy has made me less sure of myself, and I think the world would be better if more people were less sure of themselves. Unfortunately, telling people they don’t know the answers to questions that pop up in everyday life is not always met with gratitude or praise. Socrates would agree.

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(Note: I wrote this poem by looking up “rhymezone” on and copying all the resultant rhymes. A couple of the words are used incorrectly, which is sort of the point.)

It’s okay to use a rhyming dictionary,

But some poets are so addicted to Rhymezone,heartman

It seems like a crime zone,

Across every time zone.

Worse than a dry calzone.

But you rhyme ecstatically, emphatically,

And oh so enthusiastically.

Maybe a bit erratically,

But always dramatically,

Even if not grammatically,

But certainly dogmatically.

And I would say fanatically.

It’s all about your narcissism,

Nothing but verbal tourism,

I don’t want a schism,

And I’m sorry for the criticism.

But I can’t see through your prism,

It’s like linguistic fascism.

It’s not as bad as plagiarism,

But it’s poesy fetishism.

A kind of literary nihilism.

How about some amelioration?

It just takes a bit of cognation.

You’ll be proud of your creation,

When you lose the rhyming fixation,

Try a blank flirtation,

I’m not trying to be imperious,

But get serious, mysterious,

It’s not so deleterious

To be just a bit ethereous.

I know audiences prefer the doggerel

And the strutting of a cockerel.

You may think I’m a dotterel,

But my poetic license is post-doctoral.

Sure, with so many words, you can always rhyme one.

But your first blank verse will be a milestone.

Cause you got no laurels to lie on.

Shames gonna hit you like a cyclone.

You’re just grist for my grindstone.

I give you a clue cause you can’t buy one.

And here’s some talent you can try on.

Don’t despair, I have a shoulder you can cry on.

You can keep your rhymes,

I’ll write my own.

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