I hadn’t intended to turn this into assisted dying week, but that’s how it’s turning out.
After his recent debate with Christian apologist William Lane Craig, Sean Carroll expressed frustration that the debate followed a certain pattern. Craig would make an argument, then Carroll would rebut it, then Craig would simply repeat the same argument as though nothing had happened.
That’s how I felt reading David Klinghoffer’s latest contribution to our discussion about assisted suicide. He merely repeats the same nonsense from his previous posts, this time tricked out with an impressive amount of incoherence. Permit me a few brief replies:
At Evolution Blog, Jason Rosenhouse offers “Replies to Smith and Klinghoffer,” meaning Wesley and myself on assisted suicide versus the idea of life’s sacredness. Rosenhouse insists that “Human origins have no implications for the value of human life.”
The source of his confusion seems to be that in writing about the “value of human life,” Rosenhouse and I are talking about two different things. I’m referring to the idea that a human life per se has an exceptional value, a sacredness, which demands that it be regarded with awe. Hence empowering or compelling doctors to hasten death cannot be readily countenanced. Instead, give maximum comfort to a patient in pain and where appropriate seek to arouse the spark, the awareness, of purpose and meaning in him that many of us believe resides in every human soul. Give love rather than a lethal injection or, in the case of the ghoulish defrocked physician Philip Nitschke whom Wesley wrote about earlier, the suicide bag.
No, we’re talking about the same thing. I agree completely that human life per se has an exceptional value. But it doesn’t follow at all from that, not even a little bit, that empowering doctors to hasten death cannot be countenanced. The actual situation is precisely the opposite, for reasons I explained in my original post. A human life is more than just a heartbeat.
In his first reply to me, Klinghoffer objected that I called him callous. But what else can I think when he refers so casually to “a patient in pain”? We’re not talking about people in pain, for heaven’s sake, and we’re not talking about people who are feeling a little down. We’re talking about people who have been reduced to complete physical and emotional helplessness, and who will linger in that state indefinitely, without the slightest remediation, until their heart finally gives up. In such a situation, it is an act of love to give that person a lethal injection. By contrast, forcing the person to persist in that condition is an act of sadism.
Rosenhouse evidently has in mind something different: that the experience of living a life of a certain quality or comfort has ultimate value. Hence in the absence of that level of comfort, it may be humane to kill or help someone kill himself. If a person is uncomfortable, whether from physical or emotional causes, and says he wants to die, kill him.
Truly it’s hard to believe that anyone would think Klinghoffer is being callous. It boggles the mind that he can look at people being ravaged by cruel, horrible diseases and think the problem is merely that they are uncomfortable.
My position follows from the observation that life gives evidence of purposeful intent, and that the cosmos seems to be designed with us in mind. That is an awesome thing to consider, and it demands that human life be respected. Jason’s stance follows from the opposite view, that biology arose by chance and offers no evidence of objective purpose or meaning, other than the meaning we choose (arbitrarily) to give it.
It’s remarkable. Every part of that is wrong.
His position does not follow from his belief (not observation) that life gives evidence of purposeful intent. Nor does my stance follow from my acceptance of evolution. You could believe that a loving God created us and still not believe that a person should always be forced to live until his heart stops on its own. This, indeed, is why so many religious people have no moral problem with assisted suicide. And you could believe that life arose by chance and still think that assisted suicide is morally wrong. As has already been explained to Klinghoffer, our origins have no implications whatsoever for questions of meaning and purpose.
And of course life has only the meaning and purpose we choose to grant to it. That’s true regardless of whether or not we were created by God, unless Klinghoffer thinks that “objective purpose” is just synonymous with “the purpose for which God created us.” God might have had a purpose in mind for us, but that in no way implies that we are morally obligated to honor that purpose in our lives. Just for the sake of argument, though, let us grant that we are created by a loving God for a purpose, and that we are morally obligated to honor that purpose. What follows? Does Klinghoffer have some way of discerning what that purpose is? How does he know that the purpose was to keep our hearts beating for as long as we possibly can?
He’s not even right to say that if we choose our own meanings, then those meanings are arbitrary. It’s pretty interesting, don’t you think, that despite the tremendous cultural and religious differences among people, we all manage to converge on the same few things as sources of meaning and value? Love, family, friendship, work, community. There’s nothing arbitrary in that. Biology, at least, can shed some light on why these commonalities exist. It is religion, by contrast, that provides a foundation of sand. You must first hypothesize God into existence, then further suppose you have some insight into what He wants from us, and then explain why we should care what He wants, and on and on.
There’s a little more to Klinghoffer’s post, so go read it if you want. But I’m coming up to the thousand word mark and I haven’t yet gotten to the main point of this post.
For a far more sensible take on assisted suicide, let me direct you to this post by Eric MacDonald. You should go read the whole thing, but the part that is most relevant to our discussion here is the opening:
Since someone has asked a question about this (in a comment on my last post — from as long ago as March!) I thought it might be worthwhile commenting on what is taking place in England and Wales, where the Falconer Bill on assisted dying is now before the House of Lords, and upon which a decision will be made this Friday (I believe). In the run up to its consideration a former Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his support for the bill and for assisted dying, and has argued (correctly in my view) that Christianity should be able to accommodate assisted dying, since, quite apart from the church’s responsibility of care for the living, it has an equal responsibility to enable the dying to die with some comfort and dignity. This seems so obvious to me that I wonder what it is that keeps Christian leaders in the opposing camp. Indeed, so opposed are they that they are prepared to trundle out any possible argument they can lay their hands on in order to oppose passage of such bills.
The main objection to the bills has to do with the bills’ danger to the so-called vulnerable. This is a red herring, as a brief study of those jurisdictions where assisted dying has been legalised would show. It is surprising that the argument continues to be made nonetheless. The reason that these arguments are being made, I believe, is that the religious know that religious arguments in and of themselves are irrelevant to the consideration of public policy, so they are consigned to using the weakest arguments around, arguments which have been disproved again and again by the practice of assisted dying where assisted dying is legal. One of the things that the Church of England has never faced head on is that the Swiss have had a very permissive law regarding assisted suicide in their Penal Code since 1941, and no one has yet shown that this law has been misused in the way that Church of England clerics continue to argue that even more stringent laws would be abused if the Falconer Bill were passed.
The Falconer Bill is modeled directly on the assisted suicide bill in the state of Oregon in the United States. It would apply only to those who are terminally ill and have (in the opinion of expert medical opinion) at most six months left to live. Of course, such prognostications are highly fallible, and doctors are today usually reluctant to make such claims. Nevertheless, the use of the bill in Oregon has not shown the slightest degree of misuse, whatever its detractors may say, and it is very doubtful whether it will be misused any more in England and Wales than in Oregon. So the constant harping on such possible misuses is simply a misleading way of expressing the religious objection to assisted dying bills tout court.
MacDonald’s post did make me realize that I might have been too casual about something in my earlier writing. He makes the point that the issue is not really being “terminal.” Rather, the issue is intolerable conditions of life. One can persist for many years in a state of horrifying physical degradation. When I was writing about the morality of assisted suicide, I think I was clear that this was my standard as well. However, in a comment to an earlier post I commented that I thought Oregon’s approach was very sensible, but apparently it only applies to people with no more than six months to live. Perhaps Oregon’s approach is too restrictive after all.
For me, the moral question is easy, and there is simply no merit at all in the views expressed by Klinghoffer. The public policy question is far more difficult.