Who is irrational?

There was a bad article in the Guardian a few days ago by Mary Warnock, the philosopher, about organ donation (http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1863232,00.html). The laws on organ donation have recently been changed: among other changes they now mean that a person’s decision to donate organs before they died cannot be over-ruled by the relatives subsequently. However, the new law does not grant absolute priority, which Mary Warnock is complaining about.

There’s certainly a good argument that absolute priority should be given to the donor’s wishes, either legally (they should have a control over their own body) or morally (one should not override a dying relative’s wishes). Unfortunately Mary Warnock chooses to make a different argument: that relatives’ wishes must be ignored because ‘any objection to the use of the organs of someone recently dead must be based on either irrational sentiment or irrational dogma, or both’.

If you going to argue that irrational arguments are invalid for making decisions about organ donations, then you open up all sorts of problems. For a start, how rational were the organ donor’s decisions to become a donor? Suppose he (she) put his name on the organ donor register because he believed he would somehow be less fated to die early if he’d done so, or he would accumulate good karma/merit in heaven by doing so or that if he donated his heart something of his essence/soul would somehow live on in the person who received it? None of these are ‘rational’ reasons for becoming a donor. As a real example, a friend of mine became a donor because his brother took an overdose and he might have suffered permanent liver damage. This made my friend feel more personally committed to becoming a donor: surely that counts as irrational behaviour in the strict sense as well? (I’m pretty sure that he didn’t first check carefully whether a liver transplant would have been the appropriate treatment in such cases or whether hospitals give organs to those who have self-harmed in that way.)

Similarly, if irrational arguments are invalid in such cases then why should anyone be allowed to refuse the donation of their own organs? (This is not the same argument as saying that there should be an opt-out rather than opt-in for organ donation, which still allows strongly held views by the donor to be respected). Mary Warnock believes there is no good reason you can refuse your relative’s organs being donated. She implies it is irrational to object even if there was not consent for the taking of organs (as in the Alder Hay scandal). Surely anyone who refuses to become an organ donor themselves must equally be doing so from ‘irrational’ sentiment or dogma and can also safely have their wishes ignored?

Finally, she shows the limits of her ‘rational’ argument by accepting that it is ‘right to treat the death of any human being as an occasion for the formal expression of grief and respect’. But the minute you start talking about ‘respect’ for the dead you get to beliefs and ideas that are culturally/personally specific and so almost by definition not ‘rational’. If you are a Parsee you believe that dead bodies should be consumed by birds. If someone suggested that this should happen to your body or your relative’s body after death and you are not a Parsee you might well object (even if it could be proved there was no environmental health problems). That might not seem respectful to your tradition/personal views, however ‘rational’ it might well be in terms of effective disposal.

If Mary Warnock wants to discuss ‘irrationality’ she needs to provide a far better argument as to why some irrational views should be respected and some not. As it is she leaves the impression that ‘irrational’ in this context means ‘views she personally disagrees with’. There is also a worrying undercurrent which links her views to the Alder Hay scandal: that of superiority. She and other ‘rational’ people know best: who are others to disagree with her or doctor’s decisions based on their inferior views? I am in favour of encouraging organ donations and approve the recent changes to the law but Mary Warnock’s attitude does this side of the argument no favours.


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