What is the Counterpart of Bioethical Ignorance?

Many know about contemporary debates concerning euthanasia (or at least one side of the debate, as is most often what happens). While on this blog I try to make my posts as philosophically analytic as possible, I think there is a peculiar moral intuition that is often captured not merely by arguments, but by real world events which “hit the heart”, so to speak, of human beings on a deep, phenomenological and existential level. Today I received an email from my former philosophy teacher Paul Coates entitled “Another Euthanasia First”; the contents, however, were much to my surprise and distress. It is to this end that I want to display the email contents in full and make a few comments on what exactly is being said.

Here is the post by Michael Cook in full from BioEdge:

“Today is a landmark, of sorts. It marks the first time that a child has been euthanised under contemporary euthanasia laws. Of course, euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die. The death occurred last week in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, although it was announced today by Belgium’s euthanasia supremo, Wim Distelmans. His words were very sober and solemn, as befits the occasion, but I suspect that he and his colleagues are quietly happy to see the boundaries of euthanasia spread even further.

Ultimately this is a triumph for out-and-out nihilism, not just Belgium’s inventive euthanasia lobby. Nihilism is a philosophical fad which seems to catching on. Below we feature a report on three American bioethicists who argue the case for population control to fight climate change and a defense of infanticide by a Finnish bioethicist. I’ve also just discovered a new book by South African philosopher David Benatar. In it he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.) He concludes his book with these cheerful thoughts:

Every birth is a future death. Between the birth and the death there is bound to be plenty of unpleasantness … Inflicting serious harm—or even the risk of it—on one person, without his or her consent, in order to benefit others, is presumptively wrong.

If I’m right, euthanising a child is not an terminus for Belgian euthanasia, but just a bus stop en route to pure nihilism. What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself. What do you think?”[1]

There is a lot to be unpacked here. So, let me make three entry ways as follows:

(1) The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action

(2) Socio-phenomenological apathy

(3) Nihilism, Moral Nihilism and Bioethical Nihilism

I think that (1)-(3) are ways in which we might approach this post. Indeed, I suspect that these are the most appropriate entry points if the real content of the post is to be interacted with and fully understood. So, let me begin with (1).

The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action is manifestly easy to detect. If one thought that life is ultimately valueless, one might make no prescriptive moral judgements on oneself or others, and conclude that any action—no matter what socio-political laws might be in place—is inherently amoral, that is, without any moral quality whatsoever. This person might conclude with Dostoevsky with the death of God results in everything being permissible, with Sartre that without God there is absurdity and facticity, with Camus that life is absurd, with Beckkett that “life as meaningful” might be no more than a good joke, with Freud that aggression is the preferable state of human beings for happiness, with Nietzsche that without God the foundation of all goodness and wrongness is thrown into the abyss.[2] One can see that moral prescriptions like “love thy neighbor” on this view is not even wrong—but inherently meaningless. On the other hand, if one sees persons as ends-in-themselves, enriched and infused with intrinsic moral worth, then the way we treat them is valuable as it might—as Christians, for instance—think that moral actions are necessary reflections of God’s holy and loving nature. Clearly, on the former view anything goes. It is here that we bring to mind central passages of the post: “In it [David Benatar’s book] he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.)”. It is rather interesting that the following argument is made:

(1) Life is hard.

(2) Therefore, having children is bad. (1).

At first glance, this isn’t even an argument (or at any rate it is just a really bad argument). It simply doesn’t follow that just because life is hard, bringing children into this world is wrong. As my pro-life friends like to point out, when asked “who is your favorite role model?”, a pro-choicer will most often say someone who has struggled and conquered their obstacles and trials. It makes that person a good, hard-working, stoic and archetypal person. Analogously, just because pain is hard to go through, does not mean it is always bad (sometimes we have great lessons to learn from painful experiences). A rather disturbing literary example of this exact point is to be found in the wonderful novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Clearly this argument does not work.

Consider a sub-point: “euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die.” There might be a host of questions to this: What is a non-arbitrary minimum age requirement for a person to consent to their death by lethal injection which is constructed in a framework capturing our moral intuitions? Why is euthanasia so widely accepted, based on obvious, more productive and moral alternatives i.e., palliative care? Why should we think that a child (or even fully grown adult) has the moral ability to choose when they want to die? Does this not presuppose subjectivism, a self-referentially incoherent standpoint? These questions, I think, are not even half-addressed in policy making concerning these issues. Obviously policy makers are not bioethicists, but a good Platonic question is manifest to come out here—should they be?

I have always defined “socio-phenomenological apathy” as an orientation in the world which is apathetic to valuable and meaningful questions i.e., God’s existence. It is rather unsurprising then that this should come up in the context of bioethics because unlike in philosophy of religion, even if one’s arguments are bad, socio-phenomenological apathy is so pertinent to Western culture’s “autonomous” lifestyle, that bioethical questions are of second-order importance and ultimately without conclusive answers. While I regard this is mistaken, many do not agree and think that “science has shown that the unborn aren’t people” or that “life does not have meaning”. While both these claims are false (and the latter metaphysically impossible), it is important to see here the consequences of apathy generally. Apathy requires one to give up their presuppositions and regard any presupposition or proposition as without value. It is not valuable, says the apathetic, to go on in the world worrying about trivial questions i.e., bioethical questions. While this is, of course, problematic (morally and existentially), the consequences are felt when death is the result. Instead of inquiring into the meaning of life, one says “who cares”, and policy makers make policies which allow children to die. Not merely to suffer, but to cease to exist on earth. There is no way to put this philosophically—one must have, genuinely, a cold heart to turn their eyes away from this injustice. But this apathy has a deeper root, namely, nihilism.

Nihilism, moral nihilism and bioethical nihilism all need defining. Nihilism is view that life has no objective and subjective meaning, moral nihilism the view that there are no moral truths and bioethical nihilism is the conjunction of nihilism and moral nihilism (life and morality being worthless). Obviously nihilism is part in parcel of atheistic and naturalistic worldviews—or from their propositions, not always proponents. Since we life in a secular culture, it is no surprise that this is the dominant philosophy of the West. In one form or another, the void of meaning people experience is a reflection of their inner inability to come to terms with reality, that is, the objective reality of value, meaning, morality and so on. Take the following passage, for instance: “What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself.” This is an admission of the fact that on atheistic and naturalistic worldviews, since there are no values, pleasure is the best method of achieving a well-lived life (one can see Benthamian and Millian roots here); and, therefore, once pain is all there is left, life is meaningless. This is, I suggest, a reason why bioethical questions have been disregarded, and consequently dying by choice is now legally permissible. It is because our inability to conceptualize deeply into the nature of human persons, their intrinsic value and so on, that we have turned our attention away to those who will now pay the price of our ignorance.

If, like me, one is disturbed by the story given, it is not enough to write and conceptualize—one must put their conceptualizations into action; it is not merely intellectually rewarding, but life saving.

[1] Accessed September 17th, 2016: http://www.bioedge.org/tools/newsletter2013/

[2] All references (in full) can be provided upon request. But to be brief: Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche, The Gay Science; Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism; Beckett, Endgame; Freud, Civilization and its Discontents; Camus, Myth of Sisyphus.

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