Saturday, April 16, 2005

I don't know how you can deny it

I claim that the western world is just clearly a better place to live. I've gotten in several arguments with people, usually in the context of the progress of science, about this claim. I argue that one metric for the progress of science is how much better it makes our lives. Clearly I'm thinking of medicine here. Usually the argument then moves to 'what do you mean by better?' And I say something like quality of life or length of life or something like this. Then they say, 'some cultures don't value long life. Their idea of quality of life is different from yours.' Maybe this is a strawman version, but you catch my drift.

While this may be true, I cannot seriously maintain this sort of extreme relativism. Perhaps this is because I am thoroughly western. I have some set of intuitions and beliefs that may be radically different from other cultures and I am unable to transcend them.

But deadly virus outbreaks scare the shit out of me. When I read HOTZONE I remember being legitamately scared. That movie, OUTBREAK, scary as shit too. And now there is a serious outbreak of the Marburg virus, a close and equally deadly relative of Ebola, in Uganda.

from the NY Times:

"More than 200 patients filled a ward designed for 97, according to Luiza Maria Costa Pedro, the chief pediatric nurse, and two other doctors who worked at the hospital. Children slept two to a bed. Mattresses were spread upon the floor for those who could not fit in the bunks.

Dr. Bonino was increasingly worried. "She sat across from me in that chair and said we are having too many strange deaths," said Dr. Enzo Pisani, who works at the hospital, also for the Italian charity.

Mrs. Costa Pedro said the children were admitted with vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Those symptoms are typical of malaria and many other tropical diseases. But after October, the death rate went up from three to five children a week to three to five a day, she said, and many died bleeding from the mouth or other orifices.

"We were very, very upset," she said. "We didn't have any way to help the patients, and we couldn't discover who brought here this sickness."

When national authorities failed to respond to requests for more tests, Dr. Alexandre took to the radio. In February, he announced that he suspected an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Uíge.

Now, he said, he has been cast as a scapegoat. Traditional leaders, he said, circulated rumors that he had used witchcraft to create the virus in hopes of winning a job promotion, a charge that can carry substantial weight in a region where deep superstitions blend seamlessly with modern beliefs. He was dismissed as hospital director."

I mean jesus fucking christ man. Clearly our life here in the Western World is BETTER than this. Maybe it's just some pragmatic notion of better, an inter-subjective notion of better, but still, I don't know how anyone from any culture could deny it.

Please respond to this post with comments if you have them. You don't have to register, I've opened comments to anyone. I'm very interested in what people have to say about this. I just simply can't get over my own cultural biases or what?

1 comment:

cesare pastorino said...

Hi Matt, this is an interesting subject.
I'm interested in cultural relativism - and actually, sometime, I would like to prepare a course on c. r. in antiquity and the early modern period.
I'll try to leave a comment later this week as, at the moment, my desk is like yours.
(ps: nice blog)