This I Believe
By Iain Keir Todd
I believe there are no moral phenomena; there are only moral interpretations of phenomena. Friedrich Nietzsche first said that in 1886.
I became aware of his wisdom 30 years ago when I worked as a paramedic. A good medic walks into any state of affairs and says “so what? This is no big deal, I can handle this.”
If the medic starts making moral interpretations of phenomena, the ball game is over. There is extraordinary emotional power in being able to suspend moral interpretation.
It is the emotional power of being calm and collected in the midst of blood, screaming, chaos and the deepest levels of hell.
Varying moral interpretations rather than moral absolutism has fascinated me throughout my career and life. It has freed me from imposing singular principled adjudications. Deconstructionists say there are numerous interpretations. They don’t mean there are millions of interpretations; but simply that there can’t be just one.
It is the cultivation of this precise ability to see multiple interpretations that provides the power to realize multiple solutions.
I now work in a maximum security prison. My patients have been deemed incorrigible by society. Every time they commit a crime, they loose more freedom and maximum security is the end of the line.
Many believe my patients are bad men and need punishment. Nietzsche’s doctrine teaches otherwise. They aren’t bad men; they are men who have done bad things. These men who are predisposed to commit horrific acts, have the potential for rehabilitation. They have a right to my medical care. Society deems the action wicked and worthy of incarceration. With these men locked up, society is able to continue functioning without the danger their acts impose.
The belief that there are no bad men, only bad actions has framed my provision of medical care in this population. Providing medical care for these men who have engaged in sociopathic behavior is challenging. After years of heavy-duty drug abuse, gang violence, gun shots, stabbings and who knows what else, these men are medically fragile, despite their patina of emotional toughness. Incorporating rehabilitation into medical care is possible if you see beyond the criminal act.
Having the ability to suspend moral interpretation of phenomena makes it possible to find these men likable. Murderers become men learning to manage their diabetes. Meth addicts struggle to find sobriety. Men with terminal liver disease after years of drinking strive to find meaning in their lives.
As I watch them struggle, I labor to find my own meaning. I contend with my own demons, sometimes floundering, sometimes find existence after great difficulty.
Isn’t it possible to see these men in contradistinction to their acts and put out the hope for rehabilitation? Nietzsche would say yes. If I can’t do that with them, how can I do it for myself?
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