Monday, November 6, 2023

An unapologetic recommendation of absolute prohibition on killing: the stopped clock

By Gordon Friesen

President, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Gordon Friesen
As Lewis Carroll once pointed out,  a stopped clock is right twice a day. But a clock which loses only one minute in twenty-four hours will be right only once in two years.

Like the stopped clock, the multi-millennial moral precept "Thou shalt not kill", is a simple blunt instrument with no moving parts. Easy to understand. Generally easy in application. Its principal benefit (and over-arching civilizational significance) is that it points clearly to an absolute moral conclusion: killing of any sort (including killing of oneself) is wrong. Full stop.

Unfortunately however, in the complexity of human life, situations necessarily arise, where such invariable conclusions lead to apparent injustice. The idea becomes very appealing, therefore --for legislators as for watchmakers-- to seek ever-more subtle mechanisms, which will enable more finely adapted judgments, in more cases.

But in this pursuit, the watchmaker has a huge advantage over his legislative counterpart: being the fact that he is able to verify the accuracy of his work, through direct observation (of the sun, or other time-reliable phenomena). For the lawmaker, on the other hand, it is the intellectual and spiritual crisis of our time, that there exists no such agreed higher standard, which might allow us to effectively verify, and reset, our moral bearing; and should our complex post-modern legislative construct go slightly out of whack (like the minimally slowing clock), we have no means to verify or correct that fact.

In other words: once simple moral maxims are set aside, subtlety in judgment will be inversely proportional to shared agreement on the justice of those judgments.

Moral simplicity is not always bad

Today, for instance, there is a tendency to examine, not the act, but the intent. In this view, the act of killing, itself, has no moral attribute. Killing may be right or wrong depending on why it is done.

And perhaps that might be true for a perfectly informed, perfectly disinterested, ideal intelligence. But in the real world, such thinking immediately leads to subjectively indulgent attempts, to morally justify acts, which just happen to coincide with the personal interests of the perpetrator.

In a simpler time, on the other hand, it was assumed (however problematically) that there might be exceptions to a rule, without invalidating its core meaning. An aggressor, for example, might be killed in self-defence, but that killing, although understandable, was still considered a regrettable wrong.

This in no way solves the problem of agreeing on which exceptions are legitimate, and in which cases; but it does impose a certain solemnity of deliberation, when compared to the nonchalance of admitting, from the start, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about killing.

It is a very significant fact, I submit, and too often ignored by clever social theorists, that in spite of our post-modern philosophical malaise, the vast majority of people still instinctively think, feel, and behave in this manner.

Advocates of assisted death are therefore faced with a strong social discomfort before the facts of suicide, and homicide. And to the extent that relativist arguments have proved insufficient to counter this bias, they have undertaken to perpetrate a direct assault on the foundations of common language, and understanding.

When killing is not killing

With astounding simplicity it is declared (and in my country, decreed, with the full force of parliamentary power) that euthanasia is a positive "good".  And since "killing" is universally considered to be "bad" (regardless of intent), it therefore follows (by definition) that euthanasia (although technically identical in every respect) is not killing.

There may be a small satisfaction in remarking the complete rational bankruptcy of such a position --similar to that of a small child who covers his own eyes in order to become invisible-- but that satisfaction in no way compensates for the vandalism incurred.

Most importantly, as with our touchingly deluded child, wilfully ignoring the basic facts of assisted death --whether assisted suicide or euthanasia-- does not make the deeper social implications of those practices go away.

Examining our three options, side by side...

First of all, the absolute prohibition of homicide (including the killing of oneself) implies an affirmation that life must be protected. This shared conviction offers the greatest support, both internal and social, for all those who are struggling on the cusp of existential despair. It does not make the universal relief of suffering any more immediately possible, but it does imply a constant civilizational effort (and hence a reliably constant progress) towards that goal.

Secondly, The simple social permission of suicide, including assisted suicide, is postulated upon the idea that for some people, in some circumstances, life is simply not worth living. But from this first theoretically admitted exception, the practical bar of application is arbitrarily lowered, through a general liberty of autonomous subjective choice. In the end, therefore, the threshold of "intolerable suffering" is set by the most marginal suicidal wish among us. And the despair, of that one, is allowed to justify and to nourish the despair, of all others.

In third place, the justification of assisted death as a positive medical benefit (objectively appropriate for the treatment of suffering in defined clinical situations), leads directly to a pseudo-scientific crusade, aimed at the elimination of all defective (suffering) life. For in the Canadian view, deaths by euthanasia (in keeping with the Greek etymology) are literally "good" deaths. And the promotion of such deaths thus becomes, itself, a worthy goal.

Furthermore, since death is now embraced as a simple and infallible cure, there will quite naturally be less perceived urgency, in any other relief of present suffering, or in any committed social effort to improve the means of that relief.

And again, since both the social acceptance of suicide, and that of euthanasia, imply that there is no intrinsic value in preventing death, these phenomena are rooted in a philosophy which is optimally suited to validate suicidal desire and despair; and to validate the self-perception of those few who --for whatever reason-- abandon themselves to those forces.

The "stopped clock" of the absolute prohibition of homicide, on the other hand, is optimally suited to socially sustain the efforts of that majority who will ultimately choose to survive. And since it is these survivors (and perhaps their descendants) who alone intend to live, in the future world governed by present policy, it is my belief, that their interest should be given far greater weight, than that of their more ambivalent counterparts.

The best choice: simple prohibition

Clearly there is no easy solution. We must weigh the scale of comparative harms.

Is it really so egregious, that a few people be asked to live a little longer, in order to unambiguously protect the lives of those --much more numerous-- who do not wish to die or be killed?

To conclude, it is my sincere belief that jurisdictions studying the assisted death question need not allow themselves to fall into the trap of that curious (but uncommitted) potential customer, who has allowed the clever salesman to impose a choice between the red one, and the blue one.

On the contrary, there is no urgent necessity to make any choice at all. The current, time-tested, absolute prohibition of homicide (including assistance to suicide) carries much less social hazard than either the Canadian, or the Swiss model, of assisted death.

Gordon Friesen, Montreal

1. "The two clocks", from Further Nonsense Verse and Prose, Lewis Carroll, posthumous, 1926   accessed Nov 5, 2023


Sara Buscher said...

I have always thought the biggest problem with euthanasia and assisted suicide is the collaterol dammage inflicted on the rest of us. You have explained it in a way that is hard to resist. Well done.

gordon friesen said...

Thank you, Sara. Your opinion means a lot.