The Gamers Who Killed Their Baby And The Hippocratic Oath
There was a horrific case that came to light last week, one in which a married couple with a baby neglected it so that they could play online games at a PC Room. The baby died from malnourishment. Reading the article I linked to churns my stomach. As a father of a small child the thought of my child going hungry so that I can satisfy my desires sickens me. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a aspiring novelist or rock star or photographer or blogger turned correspondent or aspiring pro-gamer or poet, or any other such hopeless thing. These two people wanted to do something so badly that it caused them to kill their baby. They failed in the primary function of human beings, the one that necessarily supersedes all others, because they liked looking at representations of themselves doing things in a virtual world. Qualitatively this is not much different from abandoning your responsibilities in order to imagine up representations of yourself doing any other such thing, say, being successful at the aforementioned hopeless endeavors (and let me just say that if you’re one of the truly talented people with the dedication and commitment to make it in any of those fields I wish you all the best, but for the rest of you, don’t waste your time).
Yesterday we had a guest speaker in my Electronic Commerce class, Mr. Yunho Chung, who writes a blog called Korean Insight. His lecture was interesting and thought-provoking, and I left it with a new perspective on Korean technology. The lecture maintained a generally positive tone, mainly focusing on communications technology-based business innovations that are occurring in Korea now. He did briefly touch on the downsides of the technology here, mentioning ActiveX and finally making reference to the murder case above. Mr. Chung stated that with the good comes the bad, and that the Korean government is on the cutting edge of internet addiction treatment. He brought up a game created by Korean game company NCsoft called Aion, stating that it and others like it are ‘very addictive’ and that NCsoft is required to contribute to a fund to help the government fight internet addiction.
This juxtaposition, of the murder case with the knowing production of a new addictive medium, with its prudent actuarial assumption that it will lead to a certain number of addictions, among them a certain number of broken lives, and, although perhaps nobody has the courage to predict it, a certain number of neglected children, and the subsequent attempt to quantify in monetary terms the company’s responsibility for the damage its product is expected do to society, really jarred me. Later in the afternoon while reading Allan Bloom’s Interpretive Essay on Plato’s Republic, I came across a passage that brought all this to mind. Socrates and friends are discussing what justice is. It’s first suggested that it’s an Art (we may say a skill), like medicine or farming, a skill that is learned and carried out for others and for one’s own wage. Then the case is made that doctors are both experts at saving lives and killing, farmers experts on raising crops would also be the most able destroyers of cropland, etc. Thus if justice is an Art, then those adept at it would also be masters of injustice. It’s suggested then that justice is not an art.
Our doctors are supposed to obey the Hippocratic oath*, and that obedience would, in a sense, make them reliable. But, ultimately, the most important thing is the knowledge of the goodness of that oath, of the reasons why following it is salutary. The worthwhileness of a doctor’s activity depends on this; and, no matter how technically proficient he may be, his talents are useless or dangerous if there is no knowledge about this first question.
We accept that this is the case with doctors. We do the same in my profession. CPAs are required to adhere to strict standards of ethics and independence. This is the case not because CPAs are expected to meet these standards, but because they are expected, as relatively rational human actors, to bump up against these ethical standards. The standards are like guard rails to keep them in line.
Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about the creation of the atomic bomb as science’s loss of innocence. Until that point, scientists could follow their natural desires to see their knowledge carried out in the real world while turning a blind eye to the ethical and moral implications. Was the science that went into the nuclear bomb so vital that it could be performed on anybody’s dime? What about the German scientists who came to the US and happily worked on the bomb, thoughtless as to the consequences. When Oppenheimer saw the bomb used to deadly effect in Japan, he is said to have come to realize the nature of the bargain he had made to pursue his desire for science. After that point, in Vonnegut’s eyes, no scientist had the luxury of turning a blind eye unwarned as to the possible consequences.
This is a dangerous argument, in that it’s anti-science and we are a relatively pro-science society. Taking this argument to its natural end would make scientists’ moral compasses the arbiters of what science gets done. Nonetheless it is obvious that the coolness of creating new digital worlds blinds all those concerned to the negative consequences. They are dealt with ex post facto with internet addiction treatment and other afterthought measures.
Taking it back to the computer programmers, designers, writers, and all the other people who make these addictive products, it is difficult to impossible to say in the world we live in today that any of them is particularly responsible for the death of that little girl. It would be dangerous perhaps to even suggest it. Nonetheless Bloom’s writing, this murder and the thing I’ve read in multiple Vonnegut books 50 times since I was a kid have coalesced in this thought: Should anyone who has an Art, anyone with the skill to do anything follow some form of Hippocratic Oath?
*The Hippocratic Oath is as follows:
I swear by Apollo the Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods, and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:
To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art–if they desire to learn it–without fee and covenant; to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken the oath according to medical law, but to no one else.
I will apply dietic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.
I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.
Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.
What I may see or hear in the course of treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep myself holding such things shameful to be spoken about.
If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.