Health Humanities Initiative September Report

The Health Humanities Initiative has started a weekly meeting series since this Fall, to get faculty and students from different backgrounds together to discuss how health issues interact with the human experience.

Sept 6, 2023: Ice-break and theme exploration

In the first meeting, students each gave a brief introduction about their major background and potential topics they would like to explore in HHL. It was quite exciting that we had students from different fields: global health, anthropology, history, religion & philosophy, and biology. Students proposed several topics they were interested in, including how death is perceived in history and religions, the development of hospice in China, bereavement education, as well as the anthropological perspective of health’s definition. Considering students’ overlapped interests in death, we decided to mainly focus on death-related topics. We started our activity with students’ facilitation each week with no limitation on the forms and discussion between students and professors in order to explore different topics for further investigation.

Sept 13, 2023: Documentary Screening: My Last Summer

In this session, facilitated by Dong Ding, a sophomore student from Global Health major, we watched the first episode of My Last Summer, a BBC documentary that recorded the fears and hopes of five individuals diagnosed with terminal illnesses, with less than a year to live. They are brought together to spend four unforgettable weekends and share their thoughts and emotions about pain, religious beliefs, and the afterlife.

In the discussion, we talked about how different people’s attitudes are when facing death. One student mentioned this documentary provided us with an opportunity to gain a dynamic, holistic view of the dying ones as normal people with hobbies, passions, and emotions instead of being generalized as a group that can only perceive pain and pity. We also discussed the difference between dying and death with dying being a lengthy process while death happens instantaneously. In addition, we mentioned the essentialness of support from the secondary group, namely “similar others” when an individual is approaching death. As their closest family members and friends may not fully understand their feelings, having someone in similar situations to share their thoughts with can be very helpful in improving their well-being, which can be a part of hospice care.

Sept 20, 2023: Documentary & Lecture Screening: Death in Tibetan Buddhism and Philosophy

In the first section of our third meeting, facilitated by Jiachen Wu, a sophomore student in religion & philosophy, we watched a documentary about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and a lecture about death in philosophy. The documentary features the process of a Buddhist master trying to guide the soul of a dead man to achieve nirvana. It displays how death is optimistically perceived as a chance to escape from the circle of reincarnation and become a Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism. We discussed how death as an inevitable and positive component in Buddhism can help people learn about and accept the death of themselves and their loved ones. We also talked about the definition of compassion in Buddhism. Additionally, we compared the rituals for dead people, such as cremation, in diverse religious beliefs.

In the second section, we watched a lecture about philosophical questions about body and soul taught by Prof. Shelly Kagan from Yale University. Descartes’s argument is that if one can imagine the soul as an independent figure, then the soul can be independent of one’s body. However, in the video, Prof. Kagan argues that based on the phenomenological differences and dependence, which is the imagination of the dependent soul out of the body, should not be a valid and complete support for the duality of body and soul. He applied the example of morning stars and evening stars to further demonstrate this issue. The morning star and the evening star could appear independently, and actually only independently, while they are the same single planet. Therefore, Prof. Kagan proclaims that he himself doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, no mention the rebirth based on that. In our discussion, we talked about the relevance between Descartes’s theory and Tibetan Buddhism. We also mentioned Venus and Aphrodite, the Roman and Greek forms of the same deity, an example of one soul in two bodies as a possible counterpoint of Descartes’s theory.

Sept 27, 2023: Presentation and discussion: Health Ethical Principles and Hospice

Ethan Tung, a sophomore student in Global Health/Public Policy, facilitated the discussion session and shed light on several ethical principles specifically applied in the medical field and the principles in a broader context. For medical ethics, the four pillars are autonomy (self-decision), beneficence (trying to improve the overall well-being and achieve the best outcome), non-maleficence (doing no harm and ensuring the treatment/decisions align with the patient’s interest), and justice (fair and equitable distribution). A shared characteristic of them is patient-centered. In broader ethics, the three major principles are utilitarianism, deontology, and absolutism. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that focuses solely on the outcome of the decision. Deontology, the study of duty, applies laws to define what is right and wrong, does and don’ts. Absolutism emphasizes things that are unconditionally wrong regardless of the context and the consequence of the action, which is similar to non-maleficence in medical ethics. Ethan used stealing food to feed one’s hungry family members as an example. From the utilitarianists’ perspective, it is morally right because it can help the food feed more people and achieve better outcomes. However, to deontologists and absolutists, it is wrong because stealing causes harm to other people and is an illegal action. In our discussion, we compared the principles in two fields. We also looked into the international codes ethics of hospice care and found the interaction between the two theories. Codes ethics, as a result of the materialization of the ethical principles, is a linkage between application and the fundamental theories.