Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, …
Posted by Eric MacDonald
I want to spend a few moments — though, in the end, as you will see if you keep reading, this post kept getting longer and longer — considering the central Roman Catholic argument against things like contraception, abortion and assisted dying. At one level, we are told, this is an argument from the natural law, that is, the natural moral law which describes the essence of being human, and the normative implications of this essential nature of humanity. This, though seldom mentioned, is the central Roman Catholic moral position; but what they often concentrate upon in public debate are the consequences of breaking these supposedly natural laws.
Roman Catholic morality, however, is not consequentialist, although it often pretends to be. Consequentialism is the moral belief that the consequences of our actions are what make our actions right or wrong. Utilitarians, who hold, in the classic version of utilitarianism, that the aim of moral action is promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number, are consequentialists. The whole aim and purpose of utilitarianism is to promote that consequence — namely, to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Now, while Roman Catholic morality is not consequentialist in this sense, it uses consequentialist arguments all the time. The reason for using consequentialist arguments is not to show that certain acts are right, but to show that some acts are utterly wrong, and that we should never do them. The real reason they are wrong is because they contradict the nature of being human, but the reasons they give in public most often are arguments purporting to show that, if we do accept certain acts as morally good or at least not morally bad, the consequences of doing so will be disastrous for human welfare.
For example, in her submission to the Quebec Consultation on “Dying with Dignity” Margaret Somerville says this:
Euthanasia and assisted suicide involve extinguishing human life. Research shows that humans have a basic instinct against killing other humans, which might be a source of the widely shared moral intuition that it’s wrong to do so.
People who oppose euthanasia and assisted-suicide believe these interventions are inherently wrong — they can’t be morally justified, and that even compassionate motives do not make them ethically acceptable — the ends do not justify the means.
Legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide causes death to lose its moral context and us to lose our proper emotional response to it, a loss which research shows detrimentally affects our ethical judgment. 
She goes on to say that research shows this to be so, but she only cites research about damage to parts of the brain which process emotions, leaving rational judgment centres intact, damage that seems to lead people into making inappropriate moral decisions, which is not the issue at hand. And then she goes on:
Euthanasia delivers a “better off dead” message that treats dying humans as disposable products … 
quoting an Australian politician who spoke in terms of a person’s “best before” or “sell by” date. And then she describes assisted suicide in the US state of Oregon in deliberately tendentious ways which suggest that the moral centre is somehow deadened when we think in terms of assisted dying. In fact, as is common with Margaret Somerville, she becomes increasingly shrill, making all sorts of connexions with indicators (or at least what she thinks of as indicators) of moral decline associated with assisted dying, a decline which shows, in her opinion, that people who practice or approve of assisted dying, lose their moral way so badly that moral judgement itself becomes culturally unhinged. But the supposed decline is in her imagination. She provides no evidence whatsoever that the cultural changes that she fears have or will take place.
I suggested in an earlier post — much earlier, in fact, on 4th December 2010, just two days after I started this blog — that what governs those who oppose assisted dying is fear of chaos. We can see this fear at work in Margaret Somerville’s account of assisted dying. As she says (from the quote above):
Legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide causes death to lose its moral context and us to lose our proper emotional response to it.
This is very telling. In terms of the natural law ethics of the Roman Catholic Church the moral order is governed by laws, laws of nature, and once we breach those laws, as the Flood Story in the Bible tells us, mere chaos is unleashed upon the world. The Flood Story is emblematic. It speaks to the danger of breaching natural moral law, and how chaos supervenes upon ourselves and society when this is done. We put ourselves and we put society under such extreme stress by our misdoings that the danger of sheer social and moral chaos is imminent.
Recall the victim spirituality that I discussed in a post just the other day. There is a widespread belief in Roman Catholic moral theology that suffering is something that serves a purpose. Of course, in normative Roman Catholic theology, suffering (or evil) as such does not exist. It is a mere absence of something, not a positive thing at all. As Edward Feser helpfully points out, according to Aquinas evil is simply the absence of good. “Hence blindness (for example),” he suggests,
is not a kind of being or positive reality, but rather simply the absence of sight in some creature which by its nature should have it. Its existence, and that of other evils, thus does not conflict with the claim that being is convertible with good. [Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, Kindle edn., loc. 668]
The problem is that Feser uses the word ‘existence’ to characterise blindness — “Its existence,” as he says, “and that of other evils” – and so ascribes being to it. The privative notion of evil does not get rid of the problem. Blindness exists, even if blindness is convertible with a claim that a person who is blind lacks something, namely, sight, and to be deprived of something is unquestionably an evil; therefore being is not convertible with good. In other words, you can’t say the same kinds of things about being as you can about good.
However, strenuous attempts have been made to remove pain and suffering from the realm of existence into the realm of mere privation. This may be more clearly seen by considering how Christians have traditionally thought about suffering. We normally think of pain and suffering as the result of things that happen to the body, and therefore as the result of genuinely existing harms or injuries to the body. But traditional ways spoke about pain in a way similar to the way that Feser speaks of blindness as merely the absence of something. In her article, “The Animated Pain of the Body” (The American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 1 (February 2000), 36-68), Esther Cohen points out that:
All major late medieval discourses on pain in theology, medicine, and law view “physical” pain as a function of the soul. 
That is, pain, in this view, does not directly pertain to the body at all. In Augustine’s theology, this was so even though the pain seems to have a bodily location. The body was merely the gateway through which pain was experienced by the soul. But its being experienced in and by the soul meant that it had a spiritual function, a view which had, as Cohen suggests, momentous effects:
The placement of sensory pain within the Christian soul, and thus within a theological framework of salvation and damnation, made it transcendentally meaningful in a fashion the Aristotelian tradition never could. 
According to Augustine the fact that pain is of the soul explains why martyrs feel no pain (a myth widely believed), and why the Virgin Mary, who was (as Pius IX determined) immaculately conceived, and therefore without sin, experienced childbirth without pain (another myth also widely believed to be true).
Thus pain serves two functions. Christ suffered pain on the cross, just as his mother suffered pain in beholding the suffering of her son, for the sake of others. They were the first victim souls — and the emphasis is placed on soul because this is where suffering occurs. This is why Mary is called co-redemtrix, and is given the Roman goddess Juno’s title, Queen of Heaven. Mary’s suffering, as well as Christ’s, was salvific; it was, like the suffering of victim souls, beneficial, in that it relieves the suffering and sins of others; and it becomes so only – as is assumed about both Mary and Jesus – when suffering is freely accepted — and, therefore, felt within the soul. But pain can have another spiritual function, as warning or as punishment. For just as the damned suffer the pains of hell, so those who are morally imperfect, that is, those who have sinned, suffer bodily pains while alive, and they experience them as bodily. This is important. The souls in hell are reunited with their bodies so that they may suffer bodily torment. Our earthly pains and suffering should be a reminder of our need to repent. Thus those dying in pain still have important moral work to do. That is why it is wrong (according to the Vatican Declaration on Euthanasia, or it at least raises serious moral and theological issues) to use drugs which induce unconsciousness near death. To assist someone to die, then, is morally dangerous, because it interferes with so many important aspects of what should be a “natural” death — something that should be experienced, not as bodily, but as a spiritual transition, that is, as “soul work” – and by doing so, by overturning the natural moral law, assisted dying threatens moral chaos — because you cannot tamper with the natural law without risking disaster (as the warning of the Flood story emphasises).
There is a graphic illustration of this in a little book by a Roman Catholic priest, Cahal B. Daly, who was made a cardinal in 1991, although the book itself was published in 1966. I need to quote in some detail so that you get the complete picture, so I hope you will be patient. It’s worth the journey. He begins with sex and ends tellingly with death:
Sex has never been found in history without associations with religion and morality. Sexual love is one of the great revealers of man’s need for absolutes and for values. It is one of the most moving and disturbing of human experiences, showing man to himself in his loneliness and incompleteness, in his unworthiness and need. It is the source of propagation of human life, satisfying the deep human desire for paternity, touching human existence in its central mystery and wonder and self-interrogation. Small wonder that men could explain sex only by religion, accept sex only as from God, and should demand that sex union be consecrated by divine blessing through religious rites. Religion is not superimposed by history upon sex; men from the beginning experienced sex as sacred; they could not understand it except in a religious setting. The integrating of sex with man’s total experience, and therefore also his moral and religious experience, is profound and enduring and, indeed, irrevocable. It is proved to-day by the fact that scientific humanists can hope to change men’s sexual mores only by abolishing their religion and altering their whole philosophy of man. Sexual behaviour is not an isolable part of human conduct; to change it is not to leave the rest of man’s personality and behaviour untouched. A sexual revolution involves a new philosophy of man and the world, of time and of human destiny, of sickness and health, of life and death. The Family Planning experts in India and Puerto Rico, for example, are finding that they can make no appreciable ‘progress’ because the whole philosophy of life in these societies is opposed to neo-Malthusianism: the experts must begin by effecting a total “change in those attitudes which determine the … culture pattern.” The works of the scientific humanists are there to prove that man’s attitude to contraception determines whether he will think it wrong or right for a mother to kill her defective child, or for a doctor “gently and humanely to extinguish his patient’s life.” [Morals, Law and Life, 44-45; final italics mine]
We will ignore the obvious gender bias of this long, morally dubious piece of “reasoning”. But notice how Daly moves from the breaching of one absolute to the breaching of another until, at the end, euthanasia follows with the same inevitability as night follows day. Breaching one absolute, having to do with sexuality, leads remorselessly to what Daly considers to be a total disrespect for human life itself. If you study any Roman Catholic or religious claim that euthanasia in the Netherlands, Beligium, Luxemburg, Oregon, etc. is out of control and subject to massive abuse, you will find the same kind of reasoning at work: the natural law has been breached, and there is no way to stop the abuse except by outlawing the practice of assisted dying altogether.
This is the very same argument that Margaret Somerville is using when she remarks that assisted dying would place death in a different moral context (compare Daly’s “culture pattern”), a context which would inevitably devalue human life, and turn life into a disposable product. Daly holds the same to be true of contraception. Once we place artificial limits on reproduction, we have at the very same time devalued human life and put the lives of vulnerable people at risk. This is the constant refrain of Roman Catholic critics of assisted dying, a refrain which has reached beyond the Roman Catholic Church to be accepted in principle by Anglicans and many other Christians as well.
The Archbishop of Canterbury expressed this very clearly in his letter to me. Speaking of the votes of those who opposed Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, he said:
Those who vote have to balance the possibilities of acute suffering against what many see as a perfectly real and concrete risk to the vulnerable. I don’t think it helps to suppose that this is either an unreal choice or one that is settled just by unthinking dogmatism. To have a conviction about the risks of legalised assisted dying is a matter of conscience.
In Yeats’ words, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world — that’s why he speaks of it as ”a matter of conscience.” As I pointed out in my response to this letter, by biased use of rhetoric the archbishop turns the absolutely certain suffering of some of those who are dying into a mere possibility, while, at the same time, thus minimising the suffering of the dying, he magnifies the risk to the so-called “vulnerable”, by speaking of the “perfectly real and concrete risk” to those who, for purposes of argument, are considered to be vulnerable. And he refers specifically elsewhere in the letter to a member of the House of Lords (Baroness Jane Campbell) who says that her life would be jeopardised by the legalisation of assisted dying — a person who, throughout her life, has been so insistent on the value of her life that there is simply no way in which her life could possibly be put at risk.
Besides, it is not a matter of conscience. It is a matter of fact, and the archbishop, by making it a matter of conscience has put it beyond all possible reason. He is suggesting that this is a matter of moral conviction, not of empirical fact. But whether the so-called “vulnerable” would be put at risk can be determined empirically, by studying what has happened in places where assisted dying is legally available. Switzerland, for example, has had assisted suicide legislation in place for seventy years, and there is absolutely no sign that vulnerable people are being placed at serious risk in Switzerland. Of course, vulnerable people may be considered to be always at risk. That’s why they are thought to be vulnerable. But showing that they are at risk from assisted dying legislation is something that has to be shown, not assumed as a matter of conscience. Yet the archbishop in an attempt to put his position beyond rational criticism has made it into a matter of conscience. This is unconscionable play-acting, and if the archbishop cannot see this, he should try to learn how to think more clearly.
The category of the “vulnerable” is working here as a place-holder for the chaos that Christians like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baroness Campbell, the pope, and others, think will ensue upon the legalisation of assisted dying. The suggestion is ludicrous. It is not based upon any research at all. There is no sign of this chaos in jurisdictions where assisted dying has been legalised, and it is simply a presupposition of the natural moral law theory that underlies the suggestion that chaos and mere anarchy will follow any legalisation of assisted dying. While I will not comment on this at length here — it deserves much more detailed treatment — the plain truth is that, while it is possible to make it seem as though there are all sorts of abuses of the euthanasia provisions of Swiss law, or the law in Oregon, there is no substantive evidence that these abuses are either widespread or destructive. Where there are genuine abuses, of course, the law should be applied, and those responsible held responsible under the law.
No law is going to be proof against all and any abuse. One Member of Parliament in Canada, in the debate on Francine Lalonde’s assisted dying bill, said that if there were a danger that one person would die because of assisted dying legislation, he would not be willing to vote in favour of such a law. But this is ludicrous. I am sure the member has already voted in favour of laws which led to the inevitable killing of the innocent. For example, if he voted in favour of Canadian intervention in Afghanistan, knowing that collateral civilian casualties are a near certainty in war, he has already approved legislation (or at least parliamentary decision) that has led to the deaths of more than one innocent person. It is simply fatuous to suggest that laws will never to abused. But is there no abuse now? Are people not now being ushered out of life in Canadian hospitals or nursing homes to relieve suffering, despite the fact that the persons involved did not ask to be helped to die, and may never even have thought of the possibility, simply because a doctor or a caring loved one was merciful? It is simply absurd to make this kind of argument, when there are a number, perhaps only a small number of people who want help to die when their situation is hopeless and they are suffering intolerably. Can we leave it up to the lottery of whether or not a doctor may feel secure enough to offer such assistance despite the fact that they put their careers in jeopardy by doing so?
The threat of moral chaos which people like Margaret Somerville and Cardinal Daly hold over our heads is an empty one. It is doing duty for their conviction that there are absolute moral laws built into nature which, should we breach them, would threaten moral chaos and disaster. The threat, as I say, is an empty one. There are no such moral laws built into the nature of things in the way suggested. This is merely a chimaera devised by the religious to threaten the rest of us. It is, in a sense, the temporal aspect of the threat of hellfire and damnation. It’s time we put this particular genie back into the bottle, and began to look at the world, not in overly-imaginative religious terms, but in terms of the realities of human good and harm that really confront us; and in those terms, assisted dying can be a positive human good, the denial of which is actually a denial of freedom, and a form of tyranny and enslavement. For, as Ronald Dworkin has so eloquently and truly said:
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]
Posted on 22 September 2011, in Abortion, Archbishop of Canterbury, Assisted Dying, Assisted Suicide, Christianity, Death cult, Euthanasia, Holy suffering, Human Rights, Legalisation, Legislation, Natural Law, Pope, Religious Lunacy, Roman Catholic Church, Sanctity of Life, Switzerland, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.