Death and the Politics of Life - Midwest Faculty Seminar Update

Dr. Paul Wojda, Theology

Dr. Paul Wojda, Theology

I attended the Midwest Faculty Seminar on February 23-25, 2012. The focus of this seminar was the intersection of bioethics, culture, politics, and religion around questions of death and dying.

As we have known for a very long time (since at least Plato), death and sex are two topics guaranteed to stimulate vigorous discussion among intellectuals. Politics and religion are close seconds. In this respect, the seminar was a smashing success, for our two days of discussion centered on at least three of these issues (death, politics, religion) and more specifically their inter-connectedness. As it turns out, our attitudes and convictions regarding death usually presuppose certain attitudes and convictions regarding both politics (how we order our lives together) and religion (our sense of what is ultimate and of absolute value). The same can be said for both politics and religion, of course.

The Seminar presenters reflected this interdisciplinary approach to the subject matter. Eric Santner (Germanic Studies) on the “politics” of death/dying, very much indebted to post-liberal political theologies; Daniel Sulmasy (Medicine/Divinity) on the “ethics” of end-of-life decision making; Harold Pollack (Social Services) on current economics of healthcare; Daniel Brudney (Philosophy) on the philosophy of “conscientious objection” to provision of certain forms of healthcare; and Wendy Doniger and Kevin Boyd (Divinity) on the comparative religious dimension of death and dying.

All of the presentations were extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking; however, I will probably make most (in both my teaching and research) of Brudney, Doniger, and Boyd. In fact, I have already made use of elements of Boyd’s presentation in my spring course at the School of Divinity (DVMT Biomedical Morality), as it involved a discussion of the cultural assumptions underlying the popular “Five Wishes” advance directive. Brudney’s talk raised a highly controversial question about the role of the State in regulating (i.e., coercively treating) healthcare providers (doctors, pharmacists) who refuse to perform abortions or fill prescriptions for contraceptives on grounds of conscience. His argument was that, while the Constitution grants individuals the liberty to refuse, it does not guarantee them the right to do so without suffering the consequences of such refusal, e.g., loss of employment, income, etc. I will most likely use this scenario (and Brudney’s essay when published) as a case-study in my upper-level bioethics classes. Finally, Doniger’s exploration of Hindu approaches to death and dying was absolutely fascinating, and I intend to bring this perspective to bear in my Christian bioethics courses as a way of illuminating both Hindu and Christian attitudes to death and dying.

As I wrote in my evaluation report (and letter) to Elizabeth O’Connor Chandler, the Director of the MWFS, participation in the Seminar was one of the high points of my spring semester.

I am deeply grateful to the Center for Faculty Development for making it possible for me to participate.

About the Midwest Faculty Seminar

The University of Chicago joined with liberal arts colleges throughout the region to create a unique forum, the Midwest Faculty Seminar, which brings faculty members at the University of Chicago into continuing conversation with faculty members at private liberal arts colleges. This year the first of four seminars will take place November 8-10, 2012. 






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