Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Saturday, October 14, 2023

Vaccine lawsuit poses moral questions

Sunday May 14, 2023

Psychologists devise little stories to help you examine your values. Here’s an old one.
A hypothetical princess has been lashed to the railroad tracks. A runaway train barrels down the tracks towards her. You don’t have time to untie the ropes. But you can throw a switch that will divert the train onto a siding.
However… There’s a work crew on that siding. Or, in other variations, a station crowded with waiting passengers.
Are you willing to sacrifice those other lives, to save the life of one beautiful princess?
You’re not given all the information you might like to have. Like how far away the railway workers are. Would they have time to see the train coming and leap out of the way? Or if the siding goes uphill, which might slow or even stop the train before it reaches the station.
Nope. You’re just given the choice – save one life and risk others. Or sacrifice one life for the sake of a greater number.
Go ahead. Decide what you would do. I can wait.

Back to real life
Now for part two, also hypothetical.
A pandemic has gripped the world. People are dying like fruit flies, especially in crowded long-term care facilities.
A pharmaceutical giant creates a vaccine to protect millions of people. Initial tests show it’s effective. But there’s a one in about 700,000 chance that the vaccine could trigger some intense, possibly even fatal, complications.
And I stress again, I cite these figures as purely hypothetical.
Do you release the vaccine anyway, to save as many lives as possible? Or do you withhold the vaccine, to protect one potential victim who may suffer life-threatening side effects?
It’s the princess-on-the-tracks dilemma, reversed.

Inverted reasoning
I gather that about 80% of people choose to save the beautiful princess. She is, after all, close at hand. The other lives are off in the distance somewhere. They might –just might – be able to save their own lives; the princess can’t.
Besides, she’s an individual; the others are anonymous members of a mass.
So you choose to save the one, and sacrifice the many.
I suspect you’d choose the opposite in the vaccine example. You’d save the many – perhaps including one of your own parents in their care home – rather than an unknown individual.
That is, in fact, what Ross Wightman alleges that AstraZeneca did. And why he’s suing the vaccine maker, and several others.
I have to say, again, that nothing has been proved in court. Also, that I am not taking sides. I don’t know Ross Wightman personally, although I consider his father a friend. And I have no knowledge of the inner workings of AstraZeneca.
After getting his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021, Ross Wightman experienced severe pain in his back. He sustained Bells Palsy, damaged reflexes and eyesight, weakness of his limbs, and paralysis.
Doctors diagnosed him as having Guillain-Barre syndrome. Guillain-Barre is relatively rare. It’s most commonly experienced as drooping of the muscles on one side of a person’s face. It rarely hits as severely as Wightman got it.
Only the fact that Wightman was exceptionally fit got him through. He spent two months in the hospital, attached to tubes and monitors. It took months of therapy before he could walk again. He still can’t play catch with his son.

Are they both right?
Wightman’s lawsuit claims that AstraZeneca knew their vaccine could – just could – precipitate Guillain-Barre. And that they released it anyway.
It seems to me, from my safe distance, that Astro-Zeneca had a valid rationale for releasing their vaccine to the public. They chose to save multiple lives over a single life.
Health experts say that the risks of coronavirus infection far outweigh the risks of vaccination. There have been more than 41,000 deaths associated with COVID-19 in Canada, and maybe 10 cases like Wightman’s.
It also seems to me that Ross Wightman has a valid case against Astro-Zeneca. They took the chance that a single life might be expendable – “collateral damage” for a greater cause.
The dilemma has been around for thousands of years. The Bible records one such instance, where Caiaphas, the high priest in Jerusalem, argued, “It is better that one man should die for the people than have the whole nation destroyed.”
He may have been right. Or at least realistic. Forty years later, irritated beyond patience by those troublesome Jews, the Roman Empire did wipe out a nation.
Where do your sympathies lie? With Caiaphas and Astro-Zeneca? Or with the princess and Ross Wightman?
And how would you justify your choice?
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Your turn

Last week’s column about the reduction in human interaction, as artificial Intelligence (AI) takes over human roles, produced a flood of mail. There’s so much, and some letters were so long, I’ve had to edit some letters down to a sentence or two.

Heather Sandilands: “I appreciated your comments on increasing individualization through the use of ATMs, self-checkouts and online shopping. (Although I am motivated to the latter due to living 170 km from the nearest department store.)
“I was most persuaded by your comment about ‘cost reductions’. Which can also be stated as ‘increased profit’. Banks, credit unions, and grocery stores -- those ‘record profits’ they've seen in the past few years, I would bet, is due primarily to the ‘cost reduction’ of employees. I wonder if self-checkouts are primarily profit-motivated rather than an agenda to keep us in our silos?”

Jim Hoffman: “I don't disagree with David Byrne's assertions regarding the reduction of human interactions. But the question for me is, ‘Who or what has this as a goal?’ I understand that businesses profit more if they can do away with human workers -- but Byrne contends that the overall goal is to isolate us from others, to create more individualism. So whose goal is it -- and why do they want to isolate us? Is this some conspiracy theory? Or is it more than that?”

Tom Watson: “The reason there are fewer checkouts is simple: money. Machines don't get sick, don't want days off, don't want salary increases. But if you're the IT person at the place of business, then you apply the rule you gave: ‘If the only tool you have is electronic technology, every problem looks like a software solution.’”

Allan Baker: “Maybe the development and adoption of ‘technology’ causes an unintended effect of less human interaction. I wonder if the intended purpose of technological development and adoption is simply additional profit. Greed knows no boundaries.”

Isabel Gibson: “One of the things that keep me shopping at my closest grocery store has nothing to do with its stock, and everything to do with the (admittedly casual/superficial) relationships I have with several staff, who know me by name and whom I know by name. Even in the DIY checkout line, I see others chatting and laughing with these staff helpers. It's an odd source of community, perhaps, but a good one anyhow.”

James Russell: “The question, I guess, is whether this is a human plot – or an AI one. Certainly, it’s in the interests of the ‘have’ class of humans to isolate opposition so far as possible. ’individualism’ is the ideology of privilege and maintains it by dividing opposition into the weakest possible units, while endorsing the ‘top dogs deserve the best’ slogan as Mother Nature’s own. On the other hand, if Artificial Intelligence wants to get rid of the messy biological opposition, the same “weaken the opposition” argument would hold. Also, modern AI systems seem to learn from absorbing large quantities of verbal and written material and providing the stimulus that gets the greatest response (number of clicks). Can we still hit pause?”

Cliff Boldt: “A great column. I thought I was the only curmudgeon out there who felt that a conspiracy had been unleashed against me.
“My daughter and I have talked about this and we have diagnosed the problem: our society is suffering from mental health issues —- brought about by climate change, inequalities, social violence. Society is exhibiting what we used to see only in some individuals.
“I refuse to use a self-checkout at Canadian Tire or my grocery store — the human cashier always invites some kind of interaction.”

Michael Jensen: “We need reminders about how technology tends to isolate us. During Covid-19, a study showed that people were more likely to have positive mental health if they talked to strangers in a line-up, like a grocery store. I've enjoyed many interesting conversations at the grocery store, bank line-ups and in waiting rooms. The weirdest conversation took place in an isolated hospital corridor between me and a woman as we waited for an MRI—with nothing on but a thin hospital gown. The neighbour across the street created fun expectations when I realized that every time I cleaned some snow off their driveway she brought a goody to our door.
“The opportunities are there, but we have to fight the natural and technical inclination to isolate. Organized activities like church, sports (pickleball), and dance (my wife’s clogging) all help to keep us connected and happy.”

Nenke Jongkind: “The loss of pheromones and vibes from in real life gatherings, transitioning to Zoom, is very significant. Visuals are good but we need to use all of our senses in our relationships.”

David Gilchrist had an anecdote about fears of social isolation:; “Many years ago I read of a group meeting, where the leader asked a question. Those who answered one way, gathered in one corner for further discussion; those with another answer, went to another corner, etc. One man found himself alone, and joined the closest group. Turned out that he was the only one in the whole group who had the correct answer. The leader asked him why he had joined a group who held the wrong answer. He replied: ‘I’d rather be wrong than alone’.”

Ralph Milton managed to connect my column on individualism and social isolation with the coronation of King Charles III. He was amazed that people who don’t claim any sympathy for monarchy in general would watch seven hours of pomp and circumstance: “Is that the same as the hero worship that people have for sports and media stars? With religion having lost its power for most people, and the Christ reduced to JC Superstar, that leaves a big hole in many lives. In a world where human contact is being reduced and often eliminated, as you describe in your column, do we turn to the goddess Celebrity in a desperate grab for a sense of personhood, of meaning, of significance?”

Lois Hollstedt noted the trends -- self-serve gas pumps, long-distance calls that don’t need to go through an operator, etc. Bu she now feels that “creeping human isolation is to be feared. When I see people everywhere staring down at a device instead of looking up and smiling at each other, not risking chatting to a stranger because the device has become their shield, it does make me wonder about the future of society.
“My son & I debate this issue. His dystopian premise is that humans will need these skills when they are living on a space craft looking for a new planet to house humans… Button pushing and isolation will be the new norm (unless our thumbs become obsolete due to voice recognition or AI implants). I argue that humans are smart and will find solutions and hope he is wrong.”

Claire Neufeld: I don’t disagree with your lament. However, I need to quibble just a tad, about online ordering.
“As I read the description of how things get ordered, shipped, and delivered, I recalled our way of life, as rural folk. We used to order from printed pictures, listed prices, in thick catalogues. We sent in our orders, by dropping our letters into the mailbox, and waiting for the items/parcels to be delivered anywhere from 2-6 weeks after sending the order.
“The company which received our order, was neither seen nor heard, in the process.
“We presumedn that there were real people in the works, somewhere, responding as humans do, to a received order, which they presumed came from real humans, with real money, wanting real things, in exchange for their having let go of real money.
“Quite a familiar process in my memory bank. A minimal quibble -- but a quibble, nonetheless.”

Laurna Tallman: “You make the dehumanizing of humankind by technology experts a conscious agenda. I think it is the inevitable outcome of the sort of computer genius who lives predominantly in the inadequately controlled right-brain that has a ‘savant’ ability with numbers and memory. I am familiar with those personality profiles because my father was among them in the development of atomic energy.
“The right half of the brain lacks a moral compass. Morality is a product of the rational left-brain. The rationality that is applied to speech and thought is different from the mathematical processing that plays with numbers in the right-brain out of reach of theological and most philosophical conceptualizations.”
Laurna went on to describe her research, and experience, in treating right brain dominance though auditory therapy, through using one’s ears – too big a subject, unfortunately, for me to include here.

Ted Spencer had some pungent comments on immunization deniers. He went on: “Science does err, to be sure, but the fact that your car starts in the morning -- or the fact that you have a car -- indicates that, on the whole, science works.
“Science has allowed the existence of self-checkout machinery. Brilliant boxes of silicone and software, but they are stupid. So, too, are the folk who use them rather than politely mentioning to the store manager that the absence of human service will be met with the absence of their custom. How long would robotic checkouts last in the absence of customers? Sadly, and very much to your point, those of us recoiling from this human individualism are not in the ascendant.”

My column about immunization was the week before, but I thought this letter from Judyth Mermelstein was worth including: “I may be the perfect example of why the mRNA Covid vaccines are a good thing. As a person with both COPD and lung cancer, receiving chemo and radiation for the latter, and thus with an immune system compromised beyond normal aging, I’ve had four shots as well as going nowhere but medical appointments.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught Covid, probably at the hospital from an unmasked person. I’m in the prime category for requiring a ventilator and dying anyway. Instead, I felt truly lousy for two weeks, with worse cough and shortness of breath than usual, but recovered on my own, to my oncologist’s great astonishment. Had I not had the vaccine, I very much doubt I’d be in a position to write to anyone.
“No, there’s no evidence the mRNA wrecks one’s immune system and plenty that thousands of Canadians survive Covid better for having had the shots.”
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Author: Jim Taylor

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