Friday, August 27, 2004
Several days ago I posted some thoughts on The New Yorker's profile of Zell Kravinsky, a wealthy real estate developer who has dedicated himself to the joyless task of stripping himself of every dollar and organ that might benefit his fellow humans, opining even that letting his own child live at the cost of two other children's lives is morally indefensible. The article prompted some insightful letters from the magazine's readers, and a couple offer especially helpful perspectives on the proper vision of sacrificial giving.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at Berkeley, writes:
Zell Kravinsky should not be made into a hero for donating one of his kidneys to a sick woman he did not know, and then considering donating his second kidney to another stranger, or even becoming the first total (living) body donor, so that he could save even more lives. Sacrificing one human life in exchange for many lives is an impressive moral imperative, except that it is, of course, quite mad. In slowly dismantling himself, Kravinsky would not only be killing himself; he would be (emotionally) murdering his wife and children. . . . Kravinsky's Franciscan impulse to strip himself bare and rid himself of all his troublesome worldly goods (including his own body-self) speaks, albeit eloquently, to his self-loathing and narcissistic injury. Kravinsky's search for "ethical euphoria" is similar to that of the teen-age suicide bomber's. The surgeons who allowed the nephrectomy on such a vulnerable human being should be chastised. Pathological generosity, even in the service of humanitarianism, is not something to encourage. Kravinsky needs to find a better way to love mankind than by hating himself.
Frank J. Mininni, a philosophy prof at Marshall University, reminds us that:
Buddha's compassion for suffering mankind led to enlightenment, inner peace, and joy. St. Paul's inner struggle with the absolute demands of the law opened up a dimension of grace that permeates human existence. Taoism showed the limits and destructive effects of human efforts to seek total control over life's processes. The wise men and saints of history knew when to let go. . . . Kravinsky's obsessive guilt about the suffering of others leaves no room for grace, for joy, for peace. Real-estate deals may profit from mathematical reductionism; life does not.
It's reassuring to see folks defend the middle ground between care-free self-absorption and the sort of self-devouring conception of moral obligation that seems to have driven Kravinsky to despair.
UPDATE: For a more scholarly embrace of Kravinsky's ethics (minus the organ donation), a reader recommends Peter Unger's 1996 book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence.