Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Monday, July 7, 2008

Filled With Joy

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. -Psalm 16:11-

This is a sweet and touching article by Colleen Carroll Campbell on a difficult topic. Her father recently died of Alzheimer's disease, and this piece is both a tribute and a lesson.

Of all of the life-related topics, euthanasia has always been the most difficult for me to grapple with. Abortion, and even embryonic stem cell research are fairly straightforward. If you recognize them as life, or even if you simply cannot decide, you should err on the side of protecting innocent and defenseless life. However, in the case of a terminally ill individual who simply wants early release from the pain, the issues are more complex. You aren't simply protecting someone who can't protect themselves, you are making a choice for someone who is capable of making their own choices. You aren't protecting a life of infinite possibility, you are extending a life that is already winding it's way down.

For me, the most powerful secular argument has always been the slippery slope. Once we start crossing the bright red line of ending life, how can we argue, "this far, but no further?" If it is moral to end the life of a terminally ill patient who is in horrible pain, what about a person who is in terrible pain, but not terminal? How about ending the life of someone who has progressed beyond the ability to choose, but has family members who claim, "they would have wanted it this way"? If we accept both of these scenarios, how much further is it to, "Whether they would have chosen it or not, they are better off this way." From there, it is a simple step to, "Society is better off this way." After all, as government increases it's level of intervention in health care, how can people continue to argue that the taxpayers have no say in treatments they are paying for? As we grow coarser as a society, who is to say that someone won't start to argue that cutting off life support is as legitimate a method of cost-saving as reducing Medicare payments to physicians. Peter Singer received a tenured professorship at Princeton for making these arguments, and we've seem similar ones made by previous generations of Americans, so why should we assume that our generation is immune? I can hear the argument now. "Why not spend this money on lives that are still livable?"

That argument still seems effective to me, but like Colleen, I've always been troubled by the concept of lives that are no longer "worth living". Her father's story is an encouraging reminder that it doesn't always have to be the case. Memory and the faculties of reason are a large piece of who we are, but they are not the sum total of our being. When her father's memories and reason were stripped away, they revealed joy and love beneath. I've met many older people who retained their mental faculties and yet managed to make life unpleasant for anyone (including themselves) who came within range of their vitriol. Whose life would you say is more worth living?


I didn't see this until after writing what I did, but I think it helps illustrate my slippery slope argument quite nicely.