Monday, August 8, 2011

Calling the Angel of Death

Ethics & Society

Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, 
since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.
Pope Jean Paul II

This is a precious possession which we cannot afford to tarnish, but society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient ... It is the duty of society to protect the physicians from such requests.
Margaret Mead, anthropologist, 
as quoted in Maurice Levine. Psychiatry and Ethics.
New York: George Braziller Publishers. 1972: 325.

The fundamental question about euthanasia: Whether it is a libertarian movement for human freedom and the right of choice, or an aggressive drive to exterminate the weak, the old, and the different, this question can now be answered. It is both.
Richard Fenigsen, Dutch cardiologist


Euthanasia or physician assisted suicide is legal in only a few nations, and in two states of the United States (see map). Even so, there is a push among some groups in industrialized nations to make it more wide-spread, citing the arguments of freedom of choice, right to die, and right to happiness. The central question is whether euthanasia is really a valid moral choice.

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Romulus and Remus: The painting depicts Shepherd Faustolo (on the right) finding Romulus and Remus nursed by a wolf (center).
Painter: Peter Paul Rubens [1577-1640]; 1616. At the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini) in Rome, Italy.
Source: Wikipedia


In Ancient Greece, parents left deformed, unhealthy and unwanted babies to die in the elements. The babies were put in a clay pot or jar and deserted outside the front door or on the roadway. In ancient Greek religion, this practice took the responsibility away from the parents because the child would die of natural causes, for example hunger, asphyxiation or exposure to the elements.

Such explains many of the Greek myths, the most famous being Oedipus, who is left to die as a baby in the hills by a herdsman ordered to kill the baby. Of course, he survives and grows up to unwittingly marry his biological mother, after unknowingly killing his father, with unhappy consequences for all. Then there is the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf in the wilderness, but afterward, again, are found by a shepherd.

This practice lasted for hundreds of years. Infanticide became a capital offense in Roman law only in 374 CE, shortly before Christianity became an official state religion in the Roman Empire. But even then offenders were hardly prosecuted. Yet, Christianity's persuasive ways made the practice less culturally acceptable.
 
Practical Ethics

Euthanasia is a Greek word that roughly translates as "good death," one that is quick and painless. "The first apparent usage of the term euthanasia belongs to the historian Suetonius who described how the Emperor Augustus, 'dying quickly and without suffering in the arms of his wife, Livia, experienced the euthanasia he had wished for,' " Wikipedia says.

Such might describe how Peter Singer views things. He doesn't want to leave babies out in the elements, or out in the roadway. His is a more humane end of life option, under the rubric of child euthanasia. Professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer argues from principles of utilitarianism—the greatest good for the greatest number— that killing a "deformed" newborn baby could be acceptable. His reasoning can be boiled down to this: newborns and infants lack the characteristics of personhood: rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness. I quote from Practical Ethics (1993) and the chapter, "Taking Life: Humans":
Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it. Some parents want even the most gravely disabled infant to live as long as possible, and this desire would then be a reason against killing the infant.

But what if this is not the case? in the discussion that follows I shall assume that the parents do not want the disabled child to live. I shall also assume that the disability is so serious that - again in contrast to the situation of an unwanted but normal child today - there are no other couples keen to adopt the infant. This is a realistic assumption even in a society in which there is a long waiting- list of couples wishing to adopt normal babies.

It is true that from time to time cases of infants who are severely disabled and are being allowed to die have reached the courts in a glare of publicity, and this has led to couples offering to adopt the child. Unfortunately such offers are the product of the highly publicised dramatic life-and-death situation, and do not extend to the less publicised but far more cormnon situations in which parents feel themselves unable to look after a severely disabled child, and the child then languishes in an institution.

Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too. As we saw, the most plausible arguments for attributing a right to life to a being apply only if there is some awareness of oneself as a being existing over time, or as a continuing mental self. Nor can respect for autonomy apply where there is no capacity for autonomy.
In utilitarian thinking, practical considerations always govern, and the rationale behind decision-making is whether the decision will lead to happiness. (Martha Nussbaum, professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, has a good article on the limitations of the happiness or positive psychology movement, Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology.) In the case of the disabled child, the happiness of parents are allegedly diminished since the burden to care for such a child is great. Using such an approach it makes perfect sense to increase one's happiness by reducing the locus of the unhappiness. To wit: get rid of a disabled infant. Or an elderly parent.

While this type of intellectual debate is taking place, we are witnessing a diminishing of humanity's dignity, At the same time, there has been a growing concern for animal rights, in particular to the area of animal cruelty, which in some cases is merited and morally justified (e,g., hunting and using animals for sport, such as bull-fighting, cock-fighting and dog-fighting). This is due in part to Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975), a book which has become one of the main texts of the animal-rights movement.  When the love of animals supersedes that of humans, it means that such people have essentially given up on humanity and have transferred their allegiances and fidelity to animals, seeing in such creatures nobility and purity lacking in humans. For such people, who are good-hearted, animals need an advocate. Perhaps so.

Junk News

But humans, despite the tendency to commit many evil acts and atrocities, still have the capacity for good. In many cases, it lies dormant, ill-nurtured and ill-fed by a society that has been fed a steady diet of junk news. By this I mean news that does little than defeat the spirit, the soul. The news sellers are selling a product and offer little in the way of comfort or answers.

An over-reliance, or some would say reliance... period, on junk news with their panels of self-important pundits, leaves people ill-equipped to make sound moral decisions. It leaves people vulnerable, and weakens independent thinking. So, the old, the infirmed, the weak are left to the professionals to think about and be taken care of.  To be warehoused in institutions. To use a cliché, "out of sight, out of mind." And that is the reason why enlightened persons with an operating heart and soul take that as a need to protect and nurture small children, the infirmed and the elderly. The opposite thinking is what results when you use pure reason, and only pure reason, to arrive at a particular idea.

In addition, that's what happens when you take utilitarian ideas, seemingly good, obviously taken from rational arguments—doing good for the greater number of people. Except is not good at all. It's deception of the self and others. It seems that people like Prof. Singer, whose grandparents (at least three of them) all died at the hands of the Nazi killing machine, a most efficient and rational apparatus of the state, have failed to make the right distinctions. It's a moral failure on their part, no doubt, that generally stems from ignoring the hard questions of religious morality.

Religious Morality

I raise this issue because the morality and ethics from philosophical thinking is not always in agreement with the morality and ethics from religious sources or narratives. Moral philosophy is essentially a child of the scientific method, having its origins in Ancient Greece. Religious morality, on the other hand, is a child of the Torah, or Jewish Bible, and has its origins in Judaism. Some might disagree, seeing this distinction as overly simple, but it will have to suffice for now. (You are welcome to send me a rebuttal.)

In Judaism, for example, the sanctity of life is the chief operating and guiding principle, over-riding individual freedom or liberty, which marks, for example, the laws of the American Constitution. (Now, in all fairness to jurists, they make rulings from law, or at least that's the intention.) As a Jew, I will quote Jewish law:
Suicide in Jewish law is forbidden. A person's soul is not his to extinguish, and he cannot not direct someone else to assist him in ending his life.
Regarding assisted suicide and the activities of Kervorkian, Jewish law is clear and definite. Under no circumstances may a doctor directly kill, or indirectly provide the means for suicide. Any form of active euthanasia is strictly prohibited and condemned as plain murder. The fact that the patient is in unremitting pain and pleads for assistance in ending his life does not change the law. Murder is one of the three cardinal sins prohibited by the Torah, and anyone who kills a dying person is liable to the death penalty as a common murderer.

Jewish law maintains that one has no absolute ownership of one's body. We are given a body for a fixed time. We are obliged to guard it for safe-keeping and to make rational decisions about its care. We have no rights to tamper with life except for the purpose of preventing its destruction or loss.
There is a good article discussing more details on Jewish law and its interpretation of the Torah.  The religions of Christianity and Islam have similar edicts prohibiting euthanasia in all its forms, including assisted suicide.

The Angel of Death: A common Western image of death carrying a scythe. The advocates of euthanasia want to have a direct line to the Angel of Death. But however appealing the prospect sounds under the guise of individual freedom, this would be a grave error for humanity and the dignity of the person. "To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from longstanding legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who represent the interests of elderly persons with disabilities, and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses, are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the "freedom" to be killed., say the. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Source: Wikipedia

 Can't Avoid The Ugliness

No doubt, death and the process of dying is a nasty business. It bothers us and makes us uncomfortable and we tend to avoid discussing it unless we are directly confronted with it. It's not a happy affair. It probably has always been the case, since the will to live and survive is a primal instinct, and in the healthiest of us is the strongest instinct. In our modern society, which has done much to alleviate pain and suffering and diseases, people are living longer and more healthier. Science and medicine continue to push the boundaries of life ever closer to the biblical marker of "may you life to 120." Yet, it's also true that advances in medical science has left society with a moral dilemma of what to do with older persons who are alive, but not cognitively alert or active.

These include those suffering severe forms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.Or younger persons, including babies, who are medically diagnosed as so severely disabled as to give the view that they are not actively living, lacking speech, movement and other mental activities associated with being human? The parents of such children, and the children of such parents think otherwise, willing to do anything, pay anything to prolong the life of the one they love. Some say the money is wasted on such a person, better spent elsewhere. Of course, the issue of money is always raised by the pragmatists. I wouldn't expect otherwise of prisoners locked in a cell of their own making.

Undoubtedly, it's truly hard to see your mother, father, sister, brother, good friend suffer in the final throes of a debilitating illness. It makes one uncomfortable and uneasy to see death and decay, especially when set against the prevailing ideas of the happiness and positive psychology movements. I have seen it twice, first with my father then with my mother. I was uneasy and felt a range of emotions, including pity, sadness and anger at the injustice of it all. I didn't want to see my father suffer with cancer in 1980, and my mother from the complications of a botched surgery of a broken hip in 2006. But I did.

My story is told countless number of times. It would seem like a good sane idea if humans, with all its intelligence, avoid all that pain and suffering that the dying person is undergoing. And to avoid the pain and suffering of the persons viewing this last stage in a person's life. What is the purpose of pain and suffering?

I admit the option of euthanasia seems to make perfect sense in such circumstances, if you are limited to practical considerations and a standard measurement of happiness. I am not going to bring up the slippery slope argument, which has some validity; or the historical example of Nazi Germany's extermination program. These have strong moral presence and validity. I have raised the moral argument above, mainly because it has kept us anchored as a civilized people for thousands of years. Remember, euthanasia is not a modern idea of the modern mind. It predates modern civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the giving of the Law (Torah) at Mont Sinai.

Calls for euthanasia pop up during various stages in human civilization, notably when pragmatism becomes the overarching view of society's leaders and thinkers. Such might be the case today. Yet, there is something brutish and nasty, even creepy and less than human about the whole business of allowing machine-like thinking to make decisions on life and how it ought to end. It might just be that death, and the horrible business of life's end, has a purpose that is beyond practical considerations. To wit: to make us remember our humanity, our dignity, compassion and our limitations.

So, to make death simple, painless and antiseptic might be the worst choice for us, taking away another part of the mystery of humanity. And its dignity. How we treat the weak in society is a fairly accurate measure of a society's health and morality. Individual happiness should not be the end goal of a society, as it usually benefits only the select few. I am reminded of what Albert Einstein said:  "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

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