Friday, June 27, 2008

How not to discuss euthanasia

Canada's pop-ethics guru Margaret Somerville has made yet another pronouncement from on high, this time on the subject of euthanasia. She's against it.

I don't want to make light of the issue at hand. If ever there was a matter that is simply fraught, it has to be the question of taking human life for a good end. Can it ever be right to do so? Where is the line to be drawn? How do we ensure that voluntary euthanasia doesn't slip into non-voluntary euthanasia? Is there a clear difference between passive and active euthanasia?

There are important discussions to be had on the subject. Euthanasia, in fact, demands detailed analysis at the level of law, public and social policy, morality and ethics, all of which are brought into relation by the issue. An indication of the complexities of the debate may be found here.

Somerville has spent, she tells us, three decades researching euthanasia and assisted suicide, and she's written a substantial tome on the topic. I haven't read it. No doubt she explores a lot of the issues in some depth. But that's not the point. She is taking a stance as a public intellectual, assisted by editors who like to have a stable of "experts" on hand to fill the op-ed pages. If her article is any indication of how she approaches her students, however, small wonder that she ran, as she puts it, into a "steel wall" when she tried to persuade them of her point of view.

As was the case in previous articles (I analyzed one of them here), Somerville tends to deal more in assertion than argument. I looked in vain in the present piece, in fact, for any semblance of analysis. A good part of the article was about Margaret Somerville, and her difficulties in persuading her young charges at McGill that letting a person die screaming in pain is their moral and social duty. The rest amounts to a collection of moral truth-claims.

Back in the day, she says, there was that ol'-time religion and "Thou shalt not kill." But now we have a secular society based on "intense individualism." We have to argue, she says, that "harm to the community trumps individual rights or preferences." Well, sometimes it does,
of course. But I suspect that students of any intelligence, not to mention a person dying in prolonged agony, require more than a blanket principle to be convinced that the latter's death is for the good of the community.

On to the "arguments":

[L]egalizing euthanasia would harm the very important shared societal value of respect for life, and change the basic norm that we must not kill one another. It would also harm the two main institutions -- law and medicine -- that paradoxically are more important in a secular society than in a religious one for upholding the value of respect for life. And, it would harm people's trust in medicine and make them fearful of seeking treatment.

But these aren't arguments, Margo. They're bald, unsubstantiated assertions, simply oozing with petitio principii.

She moves on quickly:

There is nothing new about people becoming terminally ill, suffering, wanting to die, and our being able to kill them. So why now, after we have prohibited euthanasia for millennia, are we debating whether to legalize it?

Just who, precisely, is "we?" Since when has euthanasia been prohibited "for millennia?" Since when is there anything new about this debate?

Somerville rightly notes that "
[d]eath has been professionalized, technologized, depersonalized and dehumanized. " That's hardly a new observation: the noted conservative historian of death, Phillippe Ariès, points out that this has been going on for at least a couple of centuries.

In fact, I suspect she's familiar with his "The Hour of Our Death," because she agrees with
his observation, in similar terms, that the desire to banish death, to make it invisible, is accompanied these days by a tremendous amount of "death talk." No longer confined to times of ritual and religious observance, death is now part of our daily lives. Euthanasia is being debated precisely as an instance of "death talk," and its legalization is the focus of discussion because the "secular cathedrals" of our society (Parliament and the courts) have replaced religious ones.

From assertion, we've moved at least to supposition. But still no arguments. She tells us about the arguments, or rather, complains about how difficult they are to construct:

The arguments against euthanasia, based on the harm that it would do to individuals and society in both the present and the future, are very much more difficult to present visually.

All this death talk has overwhelmed our sensibilities, she suggests, dulling us to the "awesomeness of death and...of inflicting it." One of her students responded with the obvious:

If anything, I think many of our reactions come not from an overexposure to death, but from an aversion to suffering, and an unwillingness or hesitancy to prolong pain.

As another philosopher might put it, "Well, duh." But Margo gamely ploughs on: and this is where it gets, er, interesting. Her response, which concludes her article, needs to be quoted in full in order to get the flavour:

Finding convincing responses to the relief-of-suffering argument used to justify euthanasia is difficult in secular societies. In the past, we used religion to give value and meaning to suffering. But, now, suffering is often seen as the greatest evil and of no value, which leads to euthanasia being seen as an appropriate response.

Some answers to the "suffering argument" might include that:

- even apart from religious belief, it's wrong to kill another human;
- euthanasia would necessarily cause loss of respect for human life;
- it would open up an inevitable slippery slope and set a precedent that would present serious dangers to future generations. Just as our actions could destroy their physical environment, likewise, we could destroy their moral environment. Both environments must be held on trust for them;
- recognizing death as an acceptable way to relieve suffering could influence people contemplating suicide.

Might the strongest argument against euthanasia, however, relate not to death but to life? That is, the argument that normalizing it would destroy a sense of the unfathomable mystery of life and seriously damage our human spirit, especially our capacity to find meaning in life.

The poverty and sheer duplicity of her "argument" really speaks for itself. She begins by talking about the "value and meaning of suffering." I presume she's not referring to her own: it's always easier to glean that value and meaning when someone else is doing the suffering. And then her "answer" to the student's common-sense point is simply to repeat her original assertions. I'm still waiting for those "arguments" of hers.

But her piece, of course, isn't really an argument for a case. It's a statement of faith. The concluding notion of the "value and meaning of suffering" is the central notion of Christianity: the figure of Christ on the cross comes immediately to mind. Once again, it appears, we're getting a Christian homily from a crypto-Catholic. (If you follow that last link, you will be edified by her address to the faithful on tactics and strategy in a secular age.)

I don't have the slightest problem with Somerville making Christian pronouncements, by the way. But I do wish she'd put all of her cards on the table.


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