It’s not yours!
Posted by Eric MacDonald
I asked Doerflinger, Is it immoral to end a dying life? Even if it is one’s own?
“If what?” he asked from a cell phone in Seattle.
“One’s own,” I repeated.
“It isn’t one’s own.”
(Richard Doerflinger is “the associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.”)
Now, I know where that idea comes from. St. Paul says, in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body. [1 Cor 6.19-20]
So of course Richard Doerflinger thinks this, since he is (or at least purports to be) a Christian. But what weight should that belief have with other people? In what sense could it be said that my life is not my own, and your life is not your own? Doerflinger thinks that it is appropriate to say to someone who does not (or at least may not) share his beliefs that her life is not hers. On the strength of what evidence does he make this claim?
In the USCCB declaration itself the only candidate for evidence that our lives are not our own is the discussion of the idea of inalienable rights. The founders of the American republic named these as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in true Enlightenment terms. Life, the bishops say, is named before liberty and happiness, since liberty and happiness are premised upon having life. “Therefore,” they say, “the right to life is the most basic human right.” Other rights can only be enjoyed if we are alive, but these other rights “lose their foundation if life itself can be destroyed with impunity.”
Now, all this is doubtless true, although there is a sense in which even the dead have rights, the right not to have one’s body desecrated or disposed of without due regard, or the right not to be blamed for things which one did not do in life, as well as the right to have one’s testamentary will respected. But being alive, or having been alive, are certainly the basis for having rights of any kind. And while the bishops’ declaration goes on immediately to say that,
As Christians we go even further: Life is our first gift from an infinitely loving Creator. It is the most fundamental element of our God-given human dignity,
there is absolutely no reason for anyone to follow them in this, unless they accept the bishops’ religious premises, and indeed many good reasons not to.
Much of the American conception of inalienable rights was first clearly explained by John Locke, who expressed his idea of the natural freedom of the individual by saying that “In the beginning all the World was America.” (2nd Treatise of Government, quoted by A.C. Grayling, Towards the Light, 123) And what he meant by this is that, in the beginning,
all men are naturally in … a state of perfect Freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any Man. [loc. cit.]
However, there was one exception to this freedom to dispose of possessions and persons as individuals think fit, and that is that no one is entitled to take away his own life or to transfer ownership of it to another. Locke concluded this on the dubious assumption that we are (as the bishops hold) God’s property, and do not own ourselves. Grayling suggests that it is a moot point whether a person can in fact enslave himself to another (Ibid., 124):
It would certainly be an odd situation for a person to claim the freedom to cease being free, but oddity is a human characteristic. [loc.cit.]
And certainly, if inalienability is based on God’s ownership, then it is very insecure indeed. For there is simply no reason for a person who does not believe in God to accept the idea of God’s ownership. Indeed, it would probably be more true to say that it was the sense of the dignity of being human which led to the idea that life is a special gift, rather than the other way about. Humans first ascribed dignity to themselves, as the Greek and Roman philosophers did, and then in time came to ascribe this dignity to their relationship with God. But this was a second thought, not a first one.
Dignity and gift are two entirely different notions. Indeed, life as gift is fraught with great ambiguity and even irony. For we might, like Job, suffer so much that we should curse the day that we were born and call down imprecations upon the moment we were conceived. As Job said:
Blot out the day when I was born
and the night that said, “A male has been conceived!”
Make that day dark!
No god look after if from above,
no light flood it.
Foul it, darkness, deathgloom;
rain-clouds settle on it;
heat-winds turn it to horror.
Black take that night!
Some gift! For many people life is indeed a “gift,” something they value, and even those for whom life has become a parade of disasters and torment may well still retain a sense that, for all that it has been a curse, yet it is, after all, their own, and that is what lends life its dignity, and not its being a gift — for it may well not be that — that is, that our lives are things that we can shape as we want through our decisions, our choices, preferences, plans, purposes, hopes and ideals. It may be a long way from being perfect, and yet for all that it is the achievement of the person whose life it is, and that, even if it lacks “true” dignity, in the sense that one has not made the best of one’s opportunities, still, in being a life capable of choice and self-determination, it retains at least the rudiments of human dignity.
Dignity is at once a capacity and an achievement. The inherent God-given dignity that Christians and others claim as God’s gift is just a will-o-the-wisp, a strange ethereal light that the religious claim to detect in humanity. The other name for this religious ascription of dignity is the sanctity of life, a concept which, as I will try to show in a later post, is incoherent. The immediate point, however, is to show or to claim that God does not own us, and no substantive moral claim can be based on the idea that he does. In the tradition, human dignity is always associated with the power of reason and moral choice; it is, to my knowledge, never attributed to an organism in virtue of its being born of human parents and composed of human tissue. I will return to this point in a later post, but it is clear that Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and almost all philosophers and theologians agree on this point. It is only with might be called the human dignity mysticism of Pope John Paul II that we come upon dignity used to account for the ultimate value of human life, and thus extended to situations to which the classical idea of human dignity is inapplicable. A “person” in a permanent vegetative state no longer possesses the higher brain function necessary for the possession of dignity, and this applies as well to “persons” who have never acquired personal consciousness, such as those, like Tracy Latimer, in whom mental function was profoundly retarded.
The claim that we do not belong to ourselves, such as the one made by Richard Doerflinger, is, and was intended as, a challenge to the claim that our lives are our own, and that we have a right to make decisions regarding the end of our lives, a right that is wrongly restricted by law, for our right to life, paradoxically, perhaps, but no less truly, includes the right to end our lives, and to receive assistance if necessary, when it is clear that the conditions of life will be such as to make life no longer worth living — a judgement of worth that is vested solely in the individual. For, as A.C. Grayling has pointed out, dying is a part of life, and just as we are our own when it comes to decisions like those of career, marriage children, recreation, social participation and other variables, we are also our own when it comes to bringing our lives to an end in ways that are consistent with the plans and ideals by which we have shaped and lived our lives. Ronald Dworkin has rightly said that
Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious form of tyranny. [Life's Dominion, 217]
This is the tyranny which the Roman Catholic Church is endeavouring to impose on everyone, without exception, and this bid for tyrannous control of our lives should be forbidden it. It already has far too much power, and needs to learn to live in societies as a good citizen, rather than as a dictatorship in waiting, sharpening its tools.