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Md. philosophy class gets a real-world question: Should professor give a kidney?

St. Mary's philosophy professor Michael Taber offered his class an unusual challenge.
St. Mary's philosophy professor Michael Taber offered his class an unusual challenge. (Matt McClain - For the Post)

He looks the part: beard, glasses, jeans, a vest and hiking boots. Often, students can be found sitting in the funky, swiveling chair in his bookcase-lined office.

About half of the Philosophy 380 students were majoring or minoring in the subject. All were sophomores or juniors.

The group included a tattooed junior who doesn't like to gender identify and loves fantasy role-playing games; an artsy rugby player from a small farm town whose career plan is being a mother; an athletic economics major who plans to do international service work after graduation; and a bearded junior who wears sandals in winter and considered the entire project "pointless."

The students researched organ donation, studied Taber's family medical history and health insurance plans, and compiled questions for the professor to ask his wife. Late one evening this month, the students e-mailed Taber a 15-page paper.

The introduction stunned him: "We took a vote on whether the answer to donate should be yes or no, and found that if we were really the ones making the choice, then we would have to say no."

He reread it. The students repeatedly wrote that it was not their decision whether to make a donation. One student dissented, saying he hoped one day to save a life by donating a kidney.

But on the whole, the students argued they could not in good conscience advise Taber to donate because of the risks, albeit slight, of death or disfigurement.

The students wrote that being a live donor is "a morally good act, but it is not the opposite if someone chooses not to."

They added that people "have a moral obligation to themselves that must be considered before moving to donate pieces of their body."

Taber had not expected that response. Especially at a small liberal arts school with a reputation for social activism. And especially in a philosophy class.

"Students are unpredictable," he said, shaking his head. "I thought they all would have been on board."

He reflected and realized that this friction point was part of the learning experience.

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