Recently I listened the Playing God episode of the Radiolab podcast. It is a fascinating exploration into the ethics of choosing who gets to live and who gets to die in extreme circumstances. The core of the story is about the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina inside of Memorial Hospital. I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. It is quite good.
One aspect of the story is that some researchers put these thorny ethical questions to regular people in a town hall meeting. For example, if there were a flu epidemic, and ventilators were required to save people, but there aren’t enough ventilators to cover all the sick, how do you decide who gets a ventilator? Should it be based on years of life remaining? Or likelihood of survial? Or just lottery/luck?
Starting at around 39:35, a participant describes the dilemma:
You’re gonna have like a young pastor. And you might have a reprehensible alcoholic criminal type person, and he might have more years to live. Well the years of the pastor are gonna be more beneficial to society than the years that this criminal reprehensible alcoholic bad person.
She equates criminal, reprehensible and alcoholic not once, but twice. In her mind, the three go hand in hand.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not surprised that some people do this. I’m not shocked that some random person in the USofA would think of alcoholic and reprehensible in the same breath. I’m not really annoyed that this person thinks alcoholic is an enhancement to reprehensible criminal to help make her point.
What gets me most is that Radiolab producers let her comments make the final cut. Just imagine if she had said “reprehensible negro criminal type person”, or “reprehensible retarded criminal type person”, or “reprehensible Islamic criminal type person”. I imagine pretty much any other slur would have made her comments unsuitable for inclusion. Remember, this was not a documentary on how people feel about alcoholism, so although her comments helped to illustrate a point, they were also incredibly nasty.
Some may object to my point by insisting that alcoholism is a behavior, but race and mental illness are not. The problem is that it is so much more complicated than that. To start with, alcohol addiction has been seen in pretty much any mammal that has ever ingested the stuff. As a race, those who consume it are almost universally addicted to it. And to think it is a “personal choice” completely ignores all the societal factors that contribute to its consumption.
So the point to this post is two-fold. A) some people equate ‘alcoholic’ with ‘evil person’. B) it is so socially acceptable to people to perform this equivalence, that people hardly notice.