Throwback Thursday: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America Chapter 8 Discussion

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


Discussion Paper – Wojcik Chapter 8

Apocalyptic beliefs are persistently popular because they offer a coherent narrative structure with which to understand our world, promising an ultimate end to suffering (through rebirth or annihilation at differing points in history), and that harmony on earth with eventually be reached – fulfillment of a cosmic plan. This cosmic plan extends, particularly in the post-cold war era, past the strictly religious and to the extra terrestrial, as Wojcik describes in chapter 8 “Emergent Apocalyptic Beliefs about UFOs and Extraterrestrial Beings.” Despite overt differences, Wojcik establishes fundamental similarities in the arising belief of extraterrestrial apocalypse as a natural extension from belief in the religious apocalypse.

Similar our pre-fall break discussion on whether alien invasion would count as a religious apocalypse, Wojcik establishes extraterrestrial apocalypse as a natural successor to belief in the religious apocalypse sharing “preoccupation with the threat of nuclear annihilation…cultural pessimism…and yearning for worldly transformation by other worldly beings” (Wojcik, 175). For many, this “otherworldly being” is god (or a god, depending on the religion), but for an increasing few, these other worldly beings are of the extraterrestrial kind, which fit into the narrative structures of the religious apocalypse. For some, extraterrestrial is equated with “heavenly” (176). The “UFO phenomenon has become a folk religious movement of global proportions” (177). Similar to how religious apocalypses are popularized by even the non-religious understanding of religious apocalyptic belief through pop culture, extraterrestrial apocalyptic belief is becoming more known, which popularized its fundamental belief.

Our class discussion on aliens counting towards the religious apocalypse focused on whether they could stand as a “replacement” of sorts of god in the apocalyptic narrative. A higher, non-human power which rescues humanity from itself and at the very least a select few humans from the destruction of our planet. Wojcik takes the integration of the extraterrestrial to a higher degree, breaking down each similarity in narrative structure. Most notably, the part of the religious apocalypse which claims humans are powerless to save themselves without otherworldly intervention is echoed in “abductions narratives” which “imply the world is doomed…unless…radical transformation that cannot be accomplished through human effort but only through the guidance of otherworldly…entities” (197).

Extraterrestrial apocalyptic belief shares many similarities to religious counterparts. From narrative structures of abductions (as compared to rapture) to save/take chosen humans, to fully believed sightings (or visions) of those other worldly beings (god, Mary, or aliens), Wojcik characterizes extraterrestrial apocalyptic beliefs as a type of religious apocalyptic belief. While the definition of humans salvation can take different meaning in extraterrestrial apocalyptic beliefs as “not…through worldly cataclysm but…through…genetic and spiritual perfection” (194). Nonetheless, extraterrestrial is equated to a less deterministic religious apocalypse through the “fate of humanity [as] guided by external forces” (208), as a way to explain the world as it is, understand threats to current ways of life, and absolve humans – at least in part – of being wholly responsible to correct it, giving hope of a higher power that will essentially save humanity from itself in same way, shape or form.

Throwback Thursday: “The American Apocalyptic Legacy”

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


“The American Apocalyptic Legacy” Wojcik Chapter 2 Discussion Paper

The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and the Apocalypse in America​ by Daniel Wojcik examines the role and belief of the apocalypse in American society and culture, with chapter two focusing on the origins of apocalyptic beliefs in America. Starting with America’s founding, in chapter two, “The American Apocalyptic Legacy” starts as defining “the United States…as the new Eden” historically (Wojcik, 21). The concept of America, not only as a hub of apocalyptic belief, but as an originator of modern apocalyptic belief is fascinating.

A central theme of apocalyptic belief, especially traditional, religious apocalyptic belief, is the image of rebirth – a new, better world to come out of the ashes of suffering. Wojcik discusses the prevalence of “apocalyptic ideas…in Puritan belief” (Wojcik, 23) and the imagery of “hellfire and brimstone” (Wojcik, 24) which prevailed religious ideas and sermons. The Puritan apocalyptic beliefs could have found symbolism in the very way America came to exist. As the “new world” of the Americas offered a new beginning and a safe haven for the persecuted Puritans – a physical manifestation of their beliefs, that shows how the world changes to accommodate human beliefs, as humanity shapes the world. Many modern apocalypses have an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy – environmental collapse and nuclear war as fears get worse the more they are debated or ignored. The apocalyptic narrative of America’s beginning could lend credibility to the beliefs of those who lived through it, a confirmation of their faith, and a jumpstart to the perpetuating cycle of continued belief in today’s America, though the specifics of the apocalypse, and the shift away from the religious to the secular have come over time.

Originally, America has its roots in apocalyptic imagery, with its status as “a city on a hill” a shining example, a sort of ideal of god’s plans coming to fruition . Centuries later, even as apocalyptic beliefs has shifted from the religious to the secular, biblical allegory showing America as a central focus in the apocalypse is inescapable. America is considered by many a catalyst of most modern apocalyptic theories of environmental or nuclear disaster – a key component to the beginning of the end. Wojcik traces this continued biblical imagery into the 1980’s (modern for Wojcik, who published this book in 1997) with President Reagan’s views of “Armageddon as the fulfillment of divine prophecy” (Wojcik, 30) citing apocalyptic beliefs in foreign policy and “initiating…a divinely sanctioned nuclear war” (Wojcik, 30) showing how America’s religious apocalyptic beginnings tie inexorably to America’s role in modern secular apocalypses, which are not separate apocalypses at all.

Wojcik examines the way the apocalypse has and hasn’t changed over the years. The core existence of the apocalypse has persisted over centuries, though Wojcik focuses on the distractions of “premillennialist and postmillennialist systems of belief” (Wojcik, 36), showing how belief has shifted from the apocalypse solely being in god’s hands to human beings ability to affect it, from the pessimistic to the optimistic. This shift is centered in American belief and discourse, showing how America has been and continues to be central to the apocalypse, as its inception could be considered a kind of apocalypse itself. This is only one chapter of Wojcik’s book, but America’s apocalyptic origin extends past the genocide of native americans into core ideology of the people who made the new world, and this different apocalyptic view is symbolic of the way, today, the same events can be viewed through different apocalyptic lenses.

Throwback Thursday: A Discussion on “In The Lord’s Hands” by Robert Lifton

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


“In the Lord’s Hands: America’s Apocalyptic Mindset” by Robert Jay Lifton

Most interesting to me is the overarching idea Lifton has that most, if not all, major apocalyptic ideas – no matter how different in details and minutia – boil down to very similar and even formulaic plans, which for those involved are not termed negatively but as a necessary step for the improvement of mankind, a sacrifice made for the overall human good. The end of the world being the end of the world as it is known, with its struggles and evils, ushering in a new world order without these negatives. The apocalypse is a rebirth, inevitable and necessary, for better or worse, past or future, for those who believe in it in any shape or form, secular or religious. When and how is the apocalypse redefined?

Lifton seems to redefine the apocalypse from is usual negative connotation by considering how it is viewed by those who seek it – a rebirth, a revelation (by the greek roots). The apocalypse comes from the search for utopia “apocalyptic violence as…a quest for spiritual utopia” (Lifton, p.59). A utopia looks different to different groups of people, which is why the apocalypse, especially is different religious contexts as Lifton examined, have different looking outcomes, even as the general pattern of the apocalypse is quite similar across times and places. There is a prominence of apocalyptic ideas and ideals around the world and across time periods and persistence of beliefs. Lifton calls it a “sacred mission of murder in order to renew the world” – in other words, it is seen as spiritually necessary, a necessary evil to make the world better. This line of thinking extends into the less global scale secularly, in political coups, new government systems to improve quality of life, and other missions that sought similar goals, such as the Nazi regime which saw themselves as purifying the world for the better of Germany. By this logic, the American Revolution could be seen as a sort of apocalypse. Even secular apocalypses like the Nazis follow a narrative similar to christian armageddon – Lifton’s view of “killing to heal”. The general concept exists in every religion and in secular political doctrines showing the universal human trait of apocalyptic thinking, tracing from ancient times to modern day, from politics, to Islamic tradition. The apocalypse doesn’t so much change as adapt to new times and enemies.

The human nature aspect of apocalyptic thinking is fascinating. Why does the apocalypse draw people of all faiths and cultures as an immutable truth even today when beliefs and knowledge are so vastly different? Is it human nature to search for meaning in suffering, hope in dark times? The apocalypse offers a sense of hope, that violence and suffering become worth it when the ultimate goal of a better world is one day achieved. Lifton mentions the impulse to “force the end”, to speed along this ultimate end goal by making things worse so they can get better. If it can’t be avoided forever, might as well get it over with. Religious scholar John Collins mentions that apocalyptic values of life can transcend death, and there is a tendency to try to make sense of chaos which surrounds human beings, a craving for power or cosmic importance which leads to apocalyptic ways of thinking, that the violence and suffering experienced has an ultimate end and purpose, shifting the blame and responsibility from people to gods or in secular apocalypses, governments. This aspect of human nature closely relates to the french term “l’appel du vide” or “the call of the void” which is a human impulse to think “I could jump from this ledge, this is a way out” which ties into apocalyptic views of forcing the end, to get the worst of it over with, and simply jump, because you can. It isn’t considered a symptom of suicidal ideation, but a comfort of knowing there is always another option, l’appel du vide is a term for the odd and unique human impulse to consider the possibilities for our own downfalls, and in apocalyptic senses, it is martyrdom and sacrifice. The best way to prevent unwanted ends is to force the one we’d prefer, so that it means something better and more important than ourselves. Why do humans have this impulse, and why is it so seemingly universal, to various strengths, and why does it affect some individuals more strongly than others?

America has a power imbalance to affect this cycle of apocalyptic thinking, and more care towards how much destruction or sacrifice is caused or given for an uncertain outcome is needed. Apocalyptic ideals don’t always work as planned, leaving a lot of death or harm, without the rebirth that was sought by the offending group; Lifton gives examples of Timothy McVeigh and Nazi Germany. Ideally betterment can come without destruction beforehand, and reconciliation of what is and isn’t truly a threat in need of an apocalyptic way of thinking and progress needs to be considered between increasingly interconnected groups, with fundamentally similar ways of thinking but see each other as common enemies, with different ideals for how the reborn world should look.

Why does the apocalypse draw people of all faiths and cultures as an immutable truth even today when beliefs and knowledge are so vastly different? The other questions here are how to balance the ideals of a better world among different groups, how can America continue its strive for improvement without perpetuation of the vicious cycles of apocalyptic thought, and how can religious apocalypses can be untangled from the more secular or political counterparts, when the latter is based on the former, and what are the inherent differences in their outcomes sought. The religious apocalypses have clear prophetic paths, all other thoughts or theories on potential world ends are yet to be determined.


References:

Dahl, Melissa. “’Pronoia’ and Other Emotions You Never Knew You Had.” ​CNN​, Cable News Network, 24 June 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/24/health/words-for-emotions/index.html. Goldfarb, Kara. “Ever Stood On A Ledge And Thought, ‘I Could Jump’? There’s A Phrase For That.” ​All That’s Interesting​, All That’s Interesting, 16 Feb. 2018, allthatsinteresting.com/call-of-the-void.

Lifton, Robert Jay. “‘In the Lord’s Hands.’” ​World Policy Journal​, vol. 20, no. 3, 1 Sept. 2003, pp. 59–69., doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Where to Begin?

The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy are set earlier in the story of Narnia, but published after, making them some sort of prequel. When first published, the books were not numbered.

C.S. Lewis’s reply to a letter from an American reading who was having an argument with his mother on the subject:

I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books more than with your mother’s. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them. I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.

In the end, like Lewis wrote : “perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone read them.”

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Four adventurous siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie—step through a wardrobe door and into the land of Narnia, a land frozen in eternal winter and enslaved by the power of the White Witch. But when almost all hope is lost, the return of the Great Lion, Aslan, signals a great change . . . and a great sacrifice.
  2. Prince Caspian – The Pevensie siblings travel back to Narnia to help a prince denied his rightful throne as he gathers an army in a desperate attempt to rid his land of a false king.
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – A king and some unexpected companions embark on a voyage that will take them beyond all known lands. As they sail farther and farther from charted waters, they discover that their quest is more than they imagined and that the world’s end is only the beginning.
  4. The Silver Chair – It takes place during the Golden Age of Narnia.Through dangers untold and caverns deep and dark, a noble band of friends is sent to rescue a prince held captive. But their mission to Underland brings them face-to-face with an evil more beautiful and more deadly than they ever expected.
  5. The Horse and His Boy – On a desperate journey, two runaways meet and join forces. Though they are only looking to escape their harsh and narrow lives, they soon find themselves at the center of a terrible battle. It is a battle that will decide their fate and the fate of Narnia itself.
  6. The Magician’s Nephew – This prequel brings the reader back to the origins of Narnia where we learn how Aslan created the world and how evil first entered it
  7. The Last Battle – The end of the world of Narnia. Jill and Eustace return to save Narnia from Shift, an ape, who tricks Puzzle, a donkey, into impersonating the lion Aslan, precipitating a showdown between the Calormenes and King Tirian.

 

The Chronicles of Narnia: Chronological Order

  1. The Magician’s Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and His Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

Throwback Thursday: Expressing Apocalyptic Belief

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


Belief in the apocalypse is pervasive in human nature, across societies, cultures, and time periods. Why is the belief in the apocalypse still so pervasive today? In what ways is it believed in, and why does it bring hope and fear in turn to different people? This paper will examine these questions through the lens of two articles: “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” by Evan Osnos and “‘In the Lord’s Hands’: America’s Apocalyptic Mindset” by Robert Jay Lifton. I will compare where these two authors differ in opinion—whether belief in the apocalypse stems from fear or hope—and how they ultimately agree in many fundamental ways. The fear and hope they argue for are two sides of the same coin, showing the perspectives of different people of the same apocalypse. Why and how people believe in the apocalypse today is constantly changing, and its view as a negative or positive is based on whether the world stands to get better or worse for you. Different individuals will see the same apocalypse with either hope or fear depending on if the world as they know it could improve (as is Lifton’s view) or worsen (as is Osnos’ view). I argue it is the same type of apocalypse they are writing about, viewed from different vantage points of what someone stands to lose or gain.

In “‘In the Lord’s Hands’: America’s Apocalyptic Mindset” Lifton’s focus is that ordinary people can believe in the apocalypse and that apocalyptic thinking can bleed into politics, for example, in situations like political coups, which can change the status quo for the better, or for the worse. A dramatic example of such political upheaval is World War II because “even secular movements like the Nazis have followed a version of the Armageddon script.” (Lifton 64), even political and secular apocalypse-like events follow themes and narratives of the religious apocalypse. Lifton details the historical definition of the apocalypse as “a form of ultimate idealism, a quest for spiritual utopia” (Lifton 59) and traces religious beliefs and their influences on politics. There is a major influence of religious apocalypses in America, clearly seen with the war on terror which was used “as a vehicle for our own salvation” (Lifton 69). This can also be seen as a protection of traditional Christian values and feeling threatened by other belief systems inherent to apocalyptic thinking which Lifton describes as “desolation as a possible means of fulfillment” (Lifton 66). While some may fear this desolation (as Osnos argues), Lifton sees it as a source of hope—a cleansing fire. Lifton thinks people’s motivation for apocalyptic belief is a mixture of hope and fear as “apocalyptic visions…have flourished during times of great suffering…powerful sources of hope” (Lifton 62). The idea is that if the world is going to end, it is for a grander purpose, a comfort for many who feel powerless. In this way, themes of the religious apocalypse feed secular apocalypse as a way of feeling in control of humanities destiny—that the way forward is clear, a set narrative path towards betterment. This can clearly be seen with President Bush “making the war on terrorism a war on evil” (Lifton 67); here, religious ideals were tied to political moves just as religious narratives influence secular apocalypse.

Views of the apocalypse change with the times, and the changing status quo is a potential for things to get better, just as the apocalypse brings a sense of hope through rebirth. As mentioned earlier, Lifton describes “desolation as a possible means of fulfillment” (Lifton 66)—before rebirth and the betterment that comes with it, current suffering must be endeared. Typically, the apocalypse connotes disaster—the world ending before it is reborn, getting worse before it gets better. Things have to get worse before they get better, and for some people, there is nothing left to lose. For these people, the apocalypse is nothing to fear, it is something to anticipate and welcome—the benefits are worth the price. For the majority of people, the apocalypse brings a sense of peace. The apocalypse is seen as “all-consuming violence in a hopelessly corrupt world was, in fact, required for the hopeful and lofty rebirth that was to follow” (Lifton 59), a necessary evil to get what you want, a sacrifice so that things can get better for those in desolate situations, and a promise that their suffering is not in vain.

In Lifton’s view, only the sinners—those who do not deserve nor benefit from rebirth—need fear the apocalypse. This description may very well fit those whom Osnos describes—the elite who stand to lose everything. In “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” Osnos interviews multiple prominent survivalists “among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort” (Osnos 2), who typically benefit from the status quo. Those elite who fear this type of apocalypse, which directly affects them, and is more easily believed than a grand religious one. There are two major ideas presented in Osnos’ article: that doomsday prep is no longer a radical position, but as common as insurance for those who can afford it, with “forty percent of Americans [believing] that stocking up on supplies or building a bomb shelter [is] a wiser investment than a 401(k)” (Osnos 5). Second, that it perhaps distasteful that money and resources are sunk into these personal preparations rather than mitigating the causes of apocalyptic fears, such as political discourse, and environmental collapse. Osnos quotes Max Levchin, a founder of Paypal “‘It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike—the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.’ To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he [says]… ‘All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.’…In [Levchin’s] view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape” (Osnos 8). The thoughts of the possible apocalypse depicted in Osnos’ article stem from fear, fear which would be greatly assuaged if the causes of that fear, from political to environmental issues, were dealt with head on, rather than only anticipated as a future concern.

Osnos’ article deals overwhelmingly with the fear of the wealthy elite, such as those from Silicon Valley, that America as it is known will collapse. Revolution against the 1%, while not likely, is one of the most likely apocalyptic scenarios America could face. In relation, Osnos writes, quoting Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook product manager, “when society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos.” (Osnos 2). The primary founding myth of American culture is that of the “American Dream” the ideal that if one works hard enough, they can attain the life and status they desire. In recent decades, many have lost faith in this ideal, as the wealth gap increases, and further distance is driven between the 1% and the rest of the nation, leading to this aforementioned “chaos” that leads to apocalypse prep. He defines the apocalypse in terms of survivalism and preparation; “less focussed on a specific threat—a quake on the San Andreas, a pandemic, a dirty bomb—than…the aftermath” (Osnos 2). Osnos views the belief in the apocalypse as a manifestation of fear at the changing status quo as well as a coping device—there is ego and self-defense as well as perhaps a sort of guilt at play.

Lifton and Osnos disagree in many ways. Osnos presents the apocalypse as a varied and fearful thing—though even among survivalists there is contention about the specifics, the core belief system holds constant. Lifton shows different religious views that seem very different and are often argued on, even to the point of war and bloodshed, but they essentially boil down to the same narrative structure: some general hope, fear and expectation—that the world will end and be reborn. Those who stand to benefit from a new world order look to the apocalypse with hope (Lifton’s view) and those who stand to lose status or success in this new world order fear it (Osnos’ view), but the apocalypse itself is one and the same. Lifton and Osnos at their core present a very similar argument—that it is fundamental human nature to believe in the apocalypse. The difference in attitude towards the apocalypse does not come from a different belief in what the apocalypse is, but what a person stands to lose of gain from the apocalypse. No matter the ideal of separating the religious and secular—it never works.

More than their differences, Osnos and Lifton don’t seem to disagree too much, in so much as they analyze separate aspects and perspectives of the very same fundamental facet of human nature. While Lifton and Osnos’ thoughts on the apocalypse seem to be separated as religious and secular respectively, with only slight influence from the other type of apocalyptic theory, they are speaking of the same type of apocalypse, split less along secular/non-secular lines and more on socio-economic lines. Lifton’s arguments and beliefs lend more to the common experience of the majority, while Osnos details the experiences of the 1%—while very different thought goes into the why of the fear, the fear and anticipation of the apocalypse is held common. It is the same apocalypse. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told Osnos in an interview “Human motivation is complex, and I think people can say, ‘now I have a safety blanket for this thing that scares me.’” (Osnos 7). This idea of a safety net is important, because this is how Lifton portrays apocalyptic views in his article; the apocalypse brings a sense of hope that things will one day get better for them. As Lifton says, “Apocalyptic visions…have flourished during times of great suffering.” (Lifton 62). Lifton’s view of the apocalypse offers hope, a safety net of sorts, for those who need it, that things will get better eventually. But the duality of Lifton and Osnos’ arguments is, that for things to improve for the people Lifton is describing, it is generally thought that they have to worsen for the elite Osnos offers insight to, painting a common apocalypse as a sort of zero-sum game.

Fear is the driving belief of the apocalypse, not necessarily fear of the apocalypse, but its cause, coming from an external force. Fear of being unprepared, or the consequences if it isn’t your apocalypse—that if you are not a part of it, you’ll be left behind. For the masses analyzed by Lifton, there is a fear that if the apocalypse, or some apocalyptic-like event does not come to pass, things will never get better. For them, the apocalypse is a source of comfort and hope. For the upper-crust described by Osnos, this very same apocalypse which gives the majority comfort is a source of fear, because they have achieved what they see as their best possible lives, and any change in the status quo may mean the downfall of their money or power. But there is also a comfort to naming this fear; comfort in feeling as if one can prepare for an apocalyptic event rather than a nameless, faceless uneasiness which can stem from an unconscious sense of guilt for leading these better lives. The apocalypse changes with times and places, as the status quo shifts and power changes hands, but the core belief remains the same: a name, a system to believe in, for the fear people have, and the hope they crave.


Works Cited

Lifton, Robert Jay. ““In the Lord’s Hands”.” World Policy Journal 20, no. 3 (September 1, 2003): 59-69. Accessed September 1, 2018. doi:10.1215/07402775-2003-4002.

Osnos, Evan. “Doomsday Prep for The Super-Rich.” The New Yorker. August 10, 2017. Accessed September 01, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich.

 

Want More Book Reviews?

A lot of times, when I finish a book, I don’t have enough time or inclination to write a full blog post review.

So, I have recently started doing Bookstagram again and I’ve been posting mini-reviews of every book I’ve ever read, including going back and writing a review of every book I’ve read and never received in the past as well as going forward.

 

Give me a follow: My New Bookstagram

Throwback Thursday: On The Use of Unethical Research Data

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


Ethics in medical research can sometimes be a blurry line, with ethical guidelines varying by country, and being far less clear cut than strictly quantitative issues. Such is the case with a study sponsored by the U.S. National Institute for Health, which was conducted in a developing country and is being reviewed for publication by Medical Science Review, a prominent journal that prints cutting edge research on medical issues. The study had stunning results: a simple, short, regimen which promises to cut HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) transmission rates by 80%. While the study was scientifically sound, the morality is questionable, as researchers used a placebo-based control group, rather than either of the other treatments of HIV currently recognized: A long, and a short AZT regimen, which can be an exploitation of the lower economic status of research participants in these countries. The question is whether or not Medical Science Reviewshould publish this study. This paper will explore the ethicality and the moral fraughtness of this experiment, and conclude that, while not identical circumstances, this paper should be published just as other data, such as that obtained during Nazi experimentation, is used. The research should be published, as it is scientifically sound, and the damage done to participants who were ethically mistreated is only worsened by refusing to publish the results of the research. However, a foreword should be published along with it, condemning the unethical research practices.

There are two main ethical concerns which spring from this experiment, given the limited information we have on their research methods. The first being possible exploitation of a developing country and its people as test subjects. The other issue being with the use of a placebo-based control group itself, rather than a previously proven treatment of a long or short AZT regimen.

The first issue is the issue of possible exploitation of populations in developing countries. “The Declaration of Helsinki of the World Health Organization (WHO)…is widely regarded as providing the fundamental guiding principles of research involving human subjects.” (Angell 1) and is a primary source for parsing whether an experiment is ethically treating patients and can help determine if an experiment in a developing country is exploitative. The Declaration of Helsinki states “In research on man [sic], the interest of science and society should never take precedence over considerations related to the wellbeing of the subject,” (Angell 1), which essentially says arguments of an experiment being for a “greater good” or potential benefits to a large number of people does not outweigh a research participants moral rights to care and information. The benefit of the greater good was one way the Tuskegee experiment was justified, that the “study was important (a ‘never-to-be-repeated opportunity,’’ said one physician after penicillin became available)” (Angell 2) and that the results would be “valuable, but it was especially so for people like the subjects” (Angell 2), using an argument of the results leading to a common good to defend the unethical treatment of over 200 poor men of color, many of whom were denied care even after treatment for syphilis (which Tuskegee researched a cure for through deceit of patients) became available.

The Declaration of Helsinki also specifies that “in any medical study, every patient — including those of a control group, if any — should be assured of the best proven diagnostic and therapeutic method” (Angell 1). This part specifically mentions the control group, which in the case of the experiment at hand, was a placebo receiving group. “The Declaration of Helsinki requires control groups to receive the “best” current treatment, not the local one” (Angell 3), the best current treatment globally in this instance what have been a long or short AZT regimen, rather than a placebo for the control group. This is important because “acceptance of this ethical relativism could result in widespread exploitation of vulnerable Third World populations for research programs that could not be carried out in the sponsoring country” (Angell 3). In other words, if we opt for a “local standard of care” model, then researchers will have a scientific and financial interest in maintaining access to populations in which the standard of care is lower than in the United States. Adopting a local standard of care leads to increased possibilities for exploitative practices, allowing for the perpetuation of low-income developing nations and populations without access to quality healthcare, with the defense of researching on them being that a significant number of (significantly wealthier) people will benefit from the medical knowledge, which is the major concern with possible exploitation.

Beyond the issue of exploitation is the inherent moral grey area of using placebo-based control groups, despite being a fairly standard scientifically sound way of researching the effect of a new treatment. Some argue that there is no moral issue with placebo control groups as “some officials and researchers have defended the use of placebo-controlled studies in developing countries by arguing that the subjects are treated at least according to the standard of care in these countries, which consists of unproven regimens or no treatment at all” (Lurie and Wolfe 4). This argument used the local standard of care loophole previously discussed, which has its own issues of exploitative practices which can arise from this viewpoint. However, even though “the citizens of these impoverished countries may indeed have a moral right to a better standard of living…this is almost certainly a claim that will be unredeemed for the foreseeable future” (Crouch and Arras 28). While it can be acknowledged that the local standard of care is not an optimal approach to research in a developing country, in particular instances where the main benefit is to people living in those populations, whatever progress which can be made until inequalities in healthcare can be overcome are better than nothing. Often, the global standard of care is not available to these studied populations, mostly due to economic inequalities. Until those inequalities are overcome “[woman in the] Third World would not receive…treatment anyway, so the investigators are simply observing what would happen…if there were no study” (Angell 2). Finding a new treatment may not be as effective but is better than nothing. As, “a placebo-controlled study is the fastest, most efficient way to obtain unambiguous information that will be of greatest value in the Third World” (Angell 2) and while not the preferred option “the inclusion of placebo controls ‘will result in the most rapid, accurate, and reliable answer to the question of the value of the intervention being studied compared to the local standard of care’” (Angell 2). This is the specific condition in which the research at hand would be considered ethical in its use of a placebo group – when it is used to benefit the population being studied, and not as a cost cutting measure. We are not given the researcher’s motivations however, and so it is unclear if the placebo group was carried out ethically.

However, some researchers take issue with placebo-based control groups for their adoption of the local standard of care in cases such as this and argue that what are termed “equivalency studies” by Lurie and Wolfe be used in their place. Equivalency studies, simply put, use the best-known method of treatment as the control group, rather than a placebo. These researchers “believe that such equivalency studies of alternative antiretroviral regimens will provide even more useful results than placebo-controlled trials, without the deaths of hundreds of newborns that are inevitable if placebo groups are used” (Lurie and Wolfe 3). The issue with equivalency studies is exactly why placebo studies are still a norm in many cases. “This proposed method…would have the undesirable effect of preventing researchers from answering the most meaningful questions that motivated the research in the first place” (Crouch and Arras 29). What is meant here, is that, if the point of the research experiment is to find a treatment which would work and be available in this specific developing country, comparing results to a treatment they have no access to would be pointless, even if placebo trials do wrong by these populations ethically, the economic systems in place have made it impossible to give them the equal healthcare they have a moral right to from the start, so placebo trials are simply working within the confines of the system, even if they are less preferable ethically. A particular condition to ensure placebo trials are not exploitative in nature is that the results will benefit the host country in particular, and that the condition of a placebo group arises from a need to establish a baseline and lack of available treatment, not from attempts to cut costs in developing countries to benefit wealthier populations. Because “even if the organizers were well intentioned, their research may nevertheless violate ethical canons if its positive fruits are not made reasonably available to former research subjects and other inhabitants of the host country” (Crouch and Arras 30).

The argument against the publication of this study rests on the ways it can be viewed as unethical. Without knowing the researcher’s intent to provide care for participants of the study post-experiment, and whether the research is intended to benefit the population the research was conducted in, the question of exploitative practices is highly possible but uncertain, as the motivation and reasoning behind the research methods were not disclosed for this experiment. As examined previously, it is possible to conduct placebo-based research in a developing nation without being explicitly exploitative, as long as the caveats of the Declaration of Helsinki are followed, and the local standard of care is used only to benefit that population itself. If these conditions are not met, the research is unethical, and some may argue should not be published. Arguments against publication might also see allowing the study to be published as showing researcher they can get away with unethical studies which are scientifically sound, because being published is a reward for the bad behavior, a sort of perverse or backwards incentive. Arguments for publication rest on the previously discussed ways these types of experiments can be ethical, or at least, as ethical as possible while operating within the confines of the economic inequalities in place systematically, with one of the goals of research improving healthcare in developing areas to help this gap narrow. Though in this case placebo-based trials are acceptable, a preface explaining why it is reasonable in this instance and precautions taken to limit or prevent exploitative practices should be published with the research, explaining the ultimate goals of helping the developing population at hand, because that it the condition it would take for this experiment to have been ethical or not.

Regardless of whether or not the experiment was exploitative or not, and thus ethical or not, the research should still be published, with a preface detailing all ethical concerns of the experiment. We simply do not know which would apply, as we do not have all the details of how patients were treated or how results are going to be used. There is historical basis for using scientifically sound data with morally questionable background. During World War II, “Nazi scientists performed brutal experiments on Jews and gypsies in the concentration camps” (Wilkerson), and there were “experiments in which the Nazis used hundreds of people to test human reaction to long-term exposure…while they monitored their subjects’ deaths.” (Wilkerson). While these experiments were clearly unethical, the results and data are still used in mainstream science as “it served no purpose to science to ignore data that could help people…The wrongs perpetrated were monstrous; those wrongs are over and done. How could the provenance of the data serve to prohibit their use?” (Wilkerson). This historical basis shows as that, even if the study at hand were proven to be unethical in their choice to use a placebo-based trial, the study should still be published, as the damage which has been done is done, and ignoring the results does not help anyone. The study could still be published, whether or not it was found to be truly unethical.

It is possible to use data that is obtained unethically, because the damage done to people cannot be undone, and using the research does not worsen their suffering. Research methods cannot be ignored, “however hard we might try, we cannot separate the data from the way they were obtained” (Wilkerson), and it is important not to separate the data from its methods, because that allows for complacency and forgetting the past, that is what allows for exploitative practices benefiting a greater good, what leads to looking the other way and allowing another Tuskegee incident, as mentioned earlier in the paper. There is “benign acceptance of Nazi data in modern-day science and the occasional, matter-of-fact reference in contemporary scientific papers. ‘Nazi data…is absorbed without comment into mainstream science,’ Dr. Caplan [director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota] said. ‘That I find disturbing.’” (Wilkerson). It should be disturbing. You should understand where data comes from, and what the cost of it was. “It should be used if the circumstances under which it was conducted are acknowledged” (Wilkerson), meaning that the research at hand could be published, so long as ethical concerns of the study are addressed alongside its publication.

If data obtained from Nazi research can be used ethically, though the research itself was not ethically done, then the same applies in this instance. We do not know the exact conditions of the experiment conducted, and so we cannot know whether the placebo-based control group was used for an ethical or exploitative reason. Whichever is the case, the research should be published by Medical Science Review, as the data is potentially valuable, and the experiment is scientifically sound. However, along with publication, acknowledgement of possible ethical issues of exploitation and the ultimate goals of achieving better local standards of care which justify the use of placebo trials should be published along with the data in the form of a preface or foreword, so that neither ethical issues nor the bigger picture can be forgotten or ignored. Provided the research is proven to have been done ethically, the foreword could detail the conditions under which it is ethical, especially the condition of serving the specific population studied, and working to narrow the healthcare gap between developing and developed countries. If the study is found to be unethical, the study should still be published, but the foreword should describe the ways it was unethical, the conditions which would have made it ethical, and show that the unethicality of the research method is neither ignored nor condoned by the journal.


Works Cited

Angell, Marcia. “The Ethics of Clinical Research in the Third World.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 337, no. 12, 1997, pp. 847–849., doi:10.1056/nejm199709183371209.

Crouch, Robert A., and John D. Arras. “AZT Trials and Tribulations.” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 28, no. 6, 1998, p. 26., doi:10.2307/3528266.

Lurie, Peter, and Sidney M. Wolfe. “Unethical Trials of Interventions to Reduce Perinatal Transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus in Developing Countries.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 337, no. 12, 1997, pp. 853–856., doi:10.1056/nejm199709183371212.

Wilkerson, Isabel. “Nazi Scientists and Ethics of Today.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 May 1989, www.nytimes.com/1989/05/21/us/nazi-scientists-and-ethics-of-today.html.