Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Slippery Slope of Death

One of the things that Western secular culture finds really troubling about religion is its sense of absolutism. The strong sense of right and wrong, coupled with an attitude that this sense is not negotiable, is very strange when seen from a liberal perspective where everything is a shade of gray, black and white having been excluded because absolutism cannot exist.
It's this way with many things which act as foci of confrontation between religion and secularism but in few places does it play out with as much as passion as it does when death is involved. For most major religions, murdering unborn babies is a crime. For secular culture, it's a form of birth control not really any different from the birth control pill.
And thus it is with euthanasia. No, not kids in China, but rather killing oneself. From a Jewish perspective, euthananasia is forbidden. God has given us our bodies and lives and it is only when He chooses that those lives are ended and those bodies return to the earth. The idea that a human being could one-up God and choose when to end life is unacceptable, about as permitted as murder. This is an absolute.
Unfortunately in secular culture this same sense of the dignity of life does not exist. That's not too surprising. A culture that sanctions death to their unborn is hardly likely to see much value in the life of a person who is crippled, elderly and declining. Further, throughout history, people who have lost a sense of where their life is going, or feel their personal honour has been irrevocably destroyed, have chosen to end their lives rather than confront the challenge of going on. Therefore, the personal decision to end life isn't a new concept.
What is new is how accepted it has been. Until recently, the acceptability of euthanasia has been limited to very specific situations, such as people with extremely painful illnesses or terminal conditions causing great suffering without a hope for a cure. The common thread in all the high profile cases in this area has been sympathy. No one wants to see someone writhing in pain or struggling for each breath. The most effective argument against euthanasia opponents has been: "How can you condemn them to suffer so?!"
But the problem is that a lack of absolutism means that secular culture has no firm red lines, only slowly mobile ones. Decades ago abortion was reserved for health-threatening pregnancies and "accidents". Nowadays it's acceptable for girls to get repeated abortions because they just couldn't care less about using effective birth control. The line on euthanasia has continued to move as well, as this article from The National Post shows:
The head of a controversial assisted-suicide group in Switzerland says he will seek legal permission to help a Canadian woman and other healthy people like her kill themselves, raising startling new issues in the emotional debate over euthanasia.
Betty Coumbias, an elderly Vancouver resident, has indicated she wants to die alongside her husband, George, who suffers from severe heart disease.
Involving healthy individuals would dramatically extend the boundaries of assisted suicide, usually thought of as a way for the terminally ill to avoid an otherwise painful, uncomfortable death.
If successful, the Swiss group, Dignitas, would essentially be aiding in a suicide pact, charged one Canadian critic, while a Toronto-based euthanasia advocate says people have the right to choose the time of their death, whether sick or not.

Pay attention to the major salient detail: Betty Coumbias is healthy. She is completely not the typical euthanasia poster patient. Yet this group, Dignitas, is fighting for her to die when her husband succumbs to his heart disease. Why? Because she can't imagine going on without him.
Leaving aside the obvious patheticity of this case, consider further the following which goes unsaid in the article: commiting suicide isn't that hard, especially for someone like Ms. Coumbias. After all, there are probably several people in her social circle who are diabetics on insulin. With access to that medication, ending one's life relatively quickly is quite easy. You skip lunch, take a large dose of rapid acting insulin, and wait. Why has Ms Coumbias turned to an outside group to assist her? After all, she could simply carry an insulin pen with her and when her husband passes away, inject herself. No one need know. No lawyer need be enriched with endless courtroom dramas. But she hasn't chosen to do it this way and one has to ask why.
And here's my suggested answer: she wants to die with her husband because she can't imagine going on without him. But she hasn't the guts to kill herself. Just as she can't stand the idea of widowhood, she can't stand the idea of raising her hand against herself. Someone else will have to do the dirty work.
Is this what Western liberal culture has become reduced to? A soft social group incapable of handling the least suffering, who expect a life of undisturbed tranquility and happiness? And someone else to step in an painlessly end a life that fails to live up to that unrealistic expectation?
Ms. Coumbias deserves no sympathy. And Dignitas deserved to be abhorred by all thinking, moral people.


David said...

I agree with most of this, but I think you may be overreaching with your claim about secularism. I recently saw a transcript of a debate between noted secularist Sam Harris and noted non-secularist Rick Warren. Harris was not-- and did not consider himself-- a moral relativist.

Many (probably most) secular folks would agree that such things as stealing, murder, rape, etc. are "wrong" in the absolute sense.

I think it's a common misconception among the religious that nobody else can possibly be moral or hold any views beyond moral relativism.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I would disagree and I'll tell you why.

The examples you brought as being "wrong" in the absolute sense all have one thing in common: they are activities that involve hurting someone else, whereas with euthanasia the only person hurt is the person himself/herself.

However, the idea that something is wrong if it hurts someone else is tied into a very basic idea: if I steal from you, you can steal from me. Hence stealing is wrong because I might be hurt by it.

I would submit that the vast majority of secular people who hold that stealing is wrong quitely believe that because they don't want to be stolen from. If you could guarantee them impunity from retaliation, how many would then go steal?

Think of some common examples. How many people swipe towels from hotels when there's no chance of getting caught? During the Rodney King riots or Hurricane Katrina aftermath, how many people who would otherwise insist stealing is wrong take part in the looting because they knew they'd get away with it?

So ultimately it all comes down to impunity. If I run the risk of being harmed by a particular action, I outlaw it for everybody and declare it wrong.

David said...

"I would submit that the vast majority of secular people who hold that stealing is wrong quitely believe that because they don't want to be stolen from."

Not necessarily true, but neither of us has the stats on that. One could be an honest humanist, and simply believe that it's wrong, objectively, to steal. Besides, one could just as easily claim that the vast majority of religious people who don't steal are worried that God would punish them if they did. What's the objective moral difference between those two positions?

"Think of some common examples. How many people swipe towels from hotels when there's no chance of getting caught?"

Plenty. How many of them are religious people? Plenty, I'd wager. The only difference is that believers probably use different rationalizations when they steal. I'm sure that, if you were to ask Rabbi Leib Pinter, shlita, why he swindled the government out of $43 million, he'd give you a great Talmudic reason (or, over the next few years of his sentence, will think of some good ones). If you asked Sholom Rubashkin why he abused his workers and disregarded various federal laws, he'd also have a few good Torah-based reasons.

And I'm pretty sure that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens wouldn't steal or abuse people, even if they thought they could get away with it.

In my own case, while I don't believe that God gave us the Torah, I'd never steal, because I think it's morally wrong. If I were a really clever talmid chacham, I could point to all sorts of reasons in the Torah for why I could be less honest in my business dealings with gentiles than with Jews. Because of my secular values, however, I would never do such a thing, as it shocks my conscience (and, yes, secular people have consciences!).

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