Thursday, November 11, 2010

A tough one

So I've been watching the West Wing for the past few weeks. Its very good, though it's obsession with abstract intelligence is slightly off-putting. I'll talk about that more in another post.
I just finished watching and episode in which the Ayatollah of Iran asks the U.S. president to allow his dying 15 year old son to come to the U.S. for a life saving operation. For added dramatic effect, the only doctor in the U.S. who can do the operation is the son of an Iranian who was killed by the Ayatollah.
As you would expect from a heart-warming drama (which the West Wing aspires to be) the U.S. President allows the boy to come to the U.S. and the doctor does perform the operation. And of course we are all supposed to be impressed with their magnanimity.
But I'm not so sure, though certainly not on the grounds that the president and doctor should have stuck it to the evil Ayatollah by letting his son die.
Rather I'm uncomfortable with the decision because it assumes that the president should have the power to bestow such benevolence in the first place. Why didn't the president simply say "Sorry but that's not my choice to make." After all the president is not the U.S.'s Chief Immigration Officer, somebody else has that job. What about this case made it okay for him to disregard the established divisions of authority in the government. And if it was justified to do so in this case, why not others?
Without question this boy deserves to come to the U.S. and receive the operation. But then so do thousands of other children around the world. Sadly we don't live in a world where that is possible. One might nevertheless support the decision with moral platitudes about "not making the perfect the enemy of the good." but I don't think that is very convincing here. The president in this case is not doing all he can to help the thousands of children in the world who would benefit from American healthcare, he is not fighting the good fight (and realistically never will), but rather simply helping a singular child because that child is the son of a powerful person. That isn't something I can feel good about.

There are some choices that we should not give ourselves the power to make.


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