Rant Number 494 21 June 2012
The terminally ill demand a right to die. Hhhmmm...could there also be a duty to die? A moral or legal obligation to terminate one’s existence? To vacate the stage of life? To do moral self-murder, so to speak? Sounds counterintuitive and yet...
Authorities like Aristotle and Aquinas argue against self-destruction as entailing a triple crime. Against God, against society and against oneself. How could there then be a dutyto sin against those three grounds? Impossible, no?
Alas, no longer. God, frankly, is passé. Today only nutters, evangelical Christians and Muslim fundamentalists invoke arguments from the rights of the Creator. When I mentioned transcendence, the super-natural, on Colourful Radio to back up my horridly reactionary views on gay marriage I could hear the interviewer’s gasp of astonishment. Guess it served me right. Priests are passé, too.
Nor would Socrates fare better. In the Phaedo the Greek philosopher says that men are sort of slaves of the gods. Can’t top yourself. It is wrong to rob owners of their property.Wot? God as a slave-owner?! Do me a favour! Slavery is over. Finito! That argument is as dead as a dodo.
Crime against society? But that begs the question. What if society feels your prima facie right to life is overtaken by a higher claim? Such as a duty to die? After all, hundreds of thousands of youths serving in wars knew pretty well they would be killed. (Such as in the butcheries of WW1.) And yet a soldier accepts dying for his country is a duty. Peacetime is not intrinsically different. There is a duty not to drop litter. Another not to drive when drunk. Because such practices have noxious, anti-social results. Similarly, society may claim self-extinction as a serious communitarian duty – when the well-being of the whole is concerned.
Crime against self. The idea is that human beings are naturally self-loving. The Commandment implies it - ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Loving others presupposes a standard, that of self-love. Both natural and rational. Again, a resistible argument. Self-love at bottom is selfish. What’s so valuable about yourself, a mere ant on an ant-hill? Too many ants crawl about pointlessly in our chaotic, atomised cosmopolis. Harsh language? Cruel to be kind. Cruel to speak the truth! Anyway, the point is that higher values can override self-love. Even voluntarily so. A man dies to save his dog. Parents sacrifice themselves for their children. A working-class mum works herself into an early grave to give her kids comforts, an education, security. She knows she will shorten her life and yet she does it. She is happy to die daily. She may not think of using duty-language but...it comes down to the same thing, surely.
Who should feel dying is his duty? Obviously, first candidates are the oldies. Western society gets top-heavy with geriatrics. People live longer, too long in fact. Statistics are boring, check them out online. The NHS soon won’t be able to cope. Local councils will not afford care for the elderly. Relatives will be burdened, having to sell family assets, go through inconveniences...you get it.
Fanciful? Pandora’s box? Doctors would never stand for that? No, it is already happening. Some years ago the priest was in hospital, recovering from a minor op. A few beds away I overheard a most instructive conversation. A consultant was advising an elderly patient about possible surgery: ‘Well, Mr Bloggs, you know you are 80. I will not mind if you tell me you prefer not to have the operation.’ I swear it, that is what I heard. Gently, the doc was insinuating the old crock’s duty was not to clutter up the surgery list’s queue. Decrepit as he was...what was the point? More useful to die...well, sort of. (Glad to say the wily old codger declined the kind offer.)
Of course, the wealthy can get round those hitches but the poor won’t. The elderly poor are the problem. They should be made to realise it. To feel their duty. Unless they are monstrously, intolerably selfish, their duty is death. Social cohesion, social harmony, the good of the community must have to take priority over selfish concerns.
But their relatives would never stand for that! They love their oldies... Are you so sure? As a parish priest, it was my job to officiate at funerals. (Hatch, match and dispatch: a clergyman’s jolly lot.) The conversations I heard amongst the mourners stick in my mind...it pains me... All too often, money, not love or grief, was the chief element. Awful? No, simply human, all too human.
Not just the old, of course. Vast categories of human beings could be involved. Forget the clichés, the corny fantasies, such as Nazi extermination of the unfit. That is bunkum. Pabulum for the mentally lazy, the Guardian and Independent readers. Our democratic paradise is better than that. At the other end of the life spectrum, take the young. Like it or not, too many are poor, unqualified and unemployed, maybe forever. Graduates from bog-standard colleges with Mickey Mouse humanity degrees. Grants must be repaid, debt a lifelong burden...consider o youth, death may be an easy way out for you. Both an existentialist goal and a service you render to the rest of society. Let us get the indigent young to brood on Sartre’s Nausea or Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych. Readings that edge the thoughtful into the abyss. Or into doing your duty to yourself. Catch two birds with one stone, be both dutiful and happy, self-destruct!
Whose duty will it be to cater to the duty to die? The docs? For a suitable honorarium no doubt most will comply. Failing that, consider the bridges, the skyscrapers, the railways tracks...the exit is open. Ya Allah! No, I don’t mean that, most assuredly. It would be messy, irresponsible, unsafe. The State is best here. A sensitive, ethical State will cater to its citizens’ sense of moral duty. Caring executioners, that’s it! It will provide jobs, invigorate people, and inspire ideals...O brave new world that hats such people in it!
Revd Frank Julian Gelli