The Ethics of Life and Death

A few days ago Brittany Maynard took her own life, on her own terms, at a private residence in Oregon. Like many I’m deeply saddened by Brittany’s cancer and passing. Any condolences I can give on an obscure blog are weak at best, but I offer them anyway. I am both impressed and troubled by how public she made her choice to end her own life. Impressed by how articulate and open she was about her choice, troubled because I often wonder what good can come of making something so important fodder for an unthinking press. But she did make a point of taking her story public. From this I take it that Brittany wanted to bring awareness and debate about “death with dignity” and so I launch into these waters with trepidation – but I have to get these thoughts out.

First – some questions I’ve pondered…

Is suicide ever justifiable? Many people believe killing is justifiable, especially if it will end suffering (as in engaging in war to defeat an evil foe)…

Is there a difference between committing suicide because one is in despair or because one knows that her or she is terminally ill?

Why is suffering considered undignified? Is the indignity caused by suffering the correct pivot point when deliberating on this issue, or is there something that trumps, but does not deny the weight of indignity?

What is the nature of what some call redemptive suffering?

From a religious standpoint I realize there are many views on suicide, but Scripture is remarkably silent on the topic. Judas ignominiously commits suicide after he betrays Jesus, but this is hardly something to build a doctrine around. John Piper makes a theological argument against suicide here, but in my opinion it’s pure biblicism. Unless I can be corrected I believe there is no biblical injunction against suicide, or as I will now refer to it, self-imposed death. Undoubtedly the act of suicide can be utterly selfish – but I do think there are distinctions to be made here between suicide and self-imposed death. If someone where to commit suicide in an impulsive act of despair I believe that would be sinful. Especially if their death irresponsibly caused suffering and hardship for loved ones. It would also be a sinful act from which there could be no repentance.

Ever since I started mulling this over there is one scene from the movie, Schindler’s List, that I have not been able to stop thinking about. The SS are “liquidating” the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. As the soldiers flush the Jews out from hiding places, indiscriminately killing many along the way, a pair of doctors in charge of an invalid ward hear the soldiers coming. They know their charges will be killed by the SS because they are terminally ill. In an act of moral defiance they administer a lethal yet painless drug to each patient before the soldiers can murder them. When the SS storm into the room they shoot the first few patients closest to the door, but then quickly realize, because none of them are reacting to the shots, that they are already dead. In the last frame of the scene you see the doctors, a husband and wife, give the soldiers a look that says nothing short of, “F*** you and your Nazi ideology.” It should be noted that at least one of the patients is shown willingly taking the lethal medication.

Now, keep in mind that both in Brittany Maynard’s case and in the case of the terminally ill Jews - they are going to die a terrible death. What the doctors did in the movie and what the physician did in real life for Brittany Maynard could be considered merciful, ethical, and moral. If you object to these words being used ask yourself these questions: Is there any distinction between what the doctors did and what the Nazis were about to do? Is there any difference, ultimately, between the Nazis and the cancer in Brittany Maynards’ brain? Is there any difference between what the doctors did in the movie and what a real doctor did in Oregon (there’s actually little distinction because those doctors in the movie were real people and that is a true story)? If you think there is no distinction between what the Nazis were about to do and what the doctors did do, then should the doctors be prosecuted?

With all of this in mind I now state that I think there is a difference. There is a difference between suicide and self-imposed death, just like I think there is a difference between what those Jewish doctors did and what the Nazis were about to do. If I help you die before you suffer a certain and terrible death, and I have not forced you or coerced you, then that act is a loving thing to do. But if I take my own life in an act of despair, that is a hateful thing to do, towards my own being and towards those who love me; it would be no different than what the Nazis attempted.

Some might object at this point and say that this is simply an exercise in situational ethics, and that there is more at stake here. Brittany made a point of saying she wanted autonomy in her choice to end her life. I willingly admit that no one is purely autonomous. Choices aren’t made in a vacuum. We can’t make choices like this without affecting other people, especially those closest to us. Whether Brittany’s choice either has good or bad effects on society as a whole is an open question. I think it should stay open. But some things are simply more complicated than making broad statements about how such choices devalue life. It ignores how we qualify life worth living. I don’t think redemptive suffering arguments hold much water in these types of cases. Family members still suffer the loss of their loved one if they die with dignity. Individuals still suffer because they have to stare death in the face. Things can be learned from those experiences that make individuals better people, but there is nothing redemptive in watching my loved one lose their mind. It is suffering that can be prevented.

In the end it can be merciful and loving to help someone end their life and I don’t think that’s unbiblical or unethical.




Filed under Bible, Culture, Ethics, Life, Philosophy, Religion, Scripture

Musings on Irony: There’s Too Much to Go Around

Before too much time gets away from me… I need to punch the blog clock and pen some pensees as it were. First, this piece by Caryn Rivadeneira over at Christianity Today is just awful. Not only because it isn’t cogent, but because it’s just plain wrong. I don’t even know where to begin: an aversion to kids praying in public school as a matter of public practice, bad generalizations made in bad faith, students can learn about God without actually talking about God, the denial of persecution, or a petty reference to truly bad theology that covers up the horrendous theology which pervades the article. As a matter of disclosure I am a public school teacher – and I’m all too aware of the thorny issues of Church-State relations. But just today, as in the past 12 hours, I witnessed open hostility from a student to See You at the Pole, one the last vestiges of anything remotely Christian that our public school students are allowed to do. How have we grown so dull? We’ve imbibed too much of the gospel of modernism, which adamantly proposes that our God is not for the public good. She says God has never left our public schools. My bet is that is that she missed the Ichabod scratched on every classroom door. Maybe she was too busy thinking about how those kids were finding God while reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

In other musings – a few words about the dust-up between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. There is a very interesting conversation within American liberalism right now about whether it’s ok to criticize Islam. It reached fever pitch when the well-known pundit of HBO’s Real Time show, Bill Maher, came to the defense of Sam Harris (one of the “New Atheists”) when Affleck confronted Harris over his views on Islam. Affleck’s hostility towards Harris was very telling and I’ll post the video here, but I’m more concerned with what has happened in the aftermath.

The segment was actually supposed to concentrate on Harris’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In the book Harris attempts to make a rational argument that the self, what Christians would call the soul, does not exist. There is only consciousness and it’s contents – there is no thinker of thoughts. That there is only consciousness is the key to Harris’s solution to suffering. Once one reduces experience to consciousness simply observing mental, emotional or physical pain, the idea of the self melts away and there is liberation from the trap of self and suffering. But Harris overlooks two things: intentionality and language. When consciousness is used to form thoughts intentionally (like when an author writes a book) those thoughts come from somewhere, somewhere or someone that can’t simply be reduced to nothing. But notice also the paradoxical use of language. Harris can’t avoid using personal pronouns when he talks about how certain methods help him realize that he’s not really there. For a neuroscientist to ignore this kind of cognitive dissonance is troubling. I’d write a letter trying to point these things out, but apparently nobody’s home. And for the life of me I still can’t tell the difference between what Harris calls a person and what we as Christians would call a living soul, but I digress to my main point.

Shortly after his appearance on Real Time two of Harris’s enemies, Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald, started smearing Harris on Twitter and television interviews calling him a fascist and a bigot. Now, at this point I should say I have high regard for Harris. He is much more clear and rational than his enemies (though I see some points that Greenwald makes). Unfortunately Harris has had to go on the defensive. Look at the following tweets:

Harris has fought back against the defamation of his enemies and rightfully so, but in the thickest of ironies Harris doesn’t really believe there is someone who is actually being defamed. There is no Sam Harris, only consciousness and it’s contents. The smears by Greenwald and Aslan have obviously bothered him, but why? By denying that there are thinkers, or to be more concise, souls, Harris has left his own thoughts and intentions and those of his enemies meaningless.


Filed under Atheism, Christianity, Church, Culture, Faith, God, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Secularism, Theology

So Many Voices: A Need for Vision

As I sit here, listening to the voices swirling in my head, I realize the need isn’t for more information. An enthralling podcast. A good sermon. An even better book. The most experienced of us out there know those things can only take us so far. No, what’s needed is vision. We’re like victims of a shipwreck, jumping from life raft to life raft, thinking this one has better supplies or more comforts. What we need is a ship. A ship with a destination. We treat so much of our Christian life like we’re simply getting by – each church service is like a cold drink on a hot day. But then the hours and days, months and years go by and that frosty Coke, even if it comes in a cool-looking retro glass bottle, isn’t enough. Jesus constantly talked about the kingdom and what it looked like. He asked people to pursue it with all their hearts. He knew where He was headed. Do we?

A lot of us are tired of denominational squabbles, and we should be, scripture makes as much plain. But could it be there’s something to it, despite the disparagements and divisions? I’m not talking about a movement. I’ve grown to hate that word. A “movement” is a counterfeit vision. Something that plays on ill-informed biases and loyalties. It transcends for about 2.2 and then the emotions fade and your left with, what? Policy? Yuck. Nostalgia? Even worse. People don’t realize it, but I think we treat sermon series in this way. Or small group curriculums written by our best gurus. Those things aren’t bad, but what are they aiming at? Is there something bigger? Something that we live instead of digest and then…? You get the idea.

I guess what this amounts to is a plea to God – help me out here. I don’t live on dry land. My shipmates and I are out to sea, shipwrecked, floating amongst the jetsam of denominations and movements. We need a ship with a Vision. Destination: Kingdom of God. I’m thinking of becoming a shipbuilder. But I need some help. Can’t do this one alone…

As a side note – perhaps to continue with the theme: I’m putting up a flare. Hopefully the light will expose some dangers in the water, or help others see where we really are. Better yet – can I offer some food to stave off the delirium? Nothing is more counter-productive to the kind of vision I’m talking about than bad eschatology. You know, the kind that finds itself on the big screen. Nothing says, “I love you” more than “Man, can’t wait to leave my clothes behind while the rest of you perish in flames!” If people see we have nothing more to aspire to other than disappearing then the world may in fact call us out on cheap magic tricks and some cool fireworks at the end of the show. We need to convince the world that the offer is life in Jesus Christ, not Nicholas Cage. All satire aside, this is where we must start.

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Filed under Christianity, Church, Culture, Faith, God, Life, Religion, Secularism, The Church, Theology

Well Needed Humor

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A Question of Ethics?

Do ethics have an ontological status? Is there such a thing as metaethics? Regardless of the answer ethics cannot be informed without referring to experience. In other words – ethics is meaningless without the people we love and love to hate.

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Political Musings

Secularism is not anything in itself per se, though some challenge the assertion that secularism has no “position.” I take this to mean that they believe secularism itself is a stance, that is has substance in both a political and philosophical sense. But this obscures what secularism really is – it is a vacuum. It is a political and moral vacuum into which fly all sorts of ideologies and moral systems. The danger is that this secular vacuum takes the form of, morphs into, whatever zeitgeist holds sway. At one point it is a mostly homogeneous, Protestant, and white America; the next it is a heterogeneous, spiritually nebulous, and diverse America. The only meaningful way to talk about the failure of secularism is if the vacuum, the messiness of what we call the American experiment, takes a permanent form. And it does not matter if the permanence is theocratic or totalitarian – they are the same thing.

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Filed under Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Secularism

Controversy in Texas

A strange convergence of medical ethics, the debate over abortion, and family rights has people talking in Texas. The New York Times is reporting the story of Marlise Munoz – a 33 year-old woman who is now brain dead after collapsing due to a blood clot in her lungs. Unfortunately she was pregnant at the time of the incident, but remarkably the baby is still alive, and is now being kept alive because Marlise is on life support. You can read the story for yourself, but here is a quote from Munoz’s father:

Mrs. Munoz’s father, Ernest Machado, 60, a former police officer and an Air Force veteran, put it even more bluntly. “All she is is a host for a fetus,” he said on Tuesday. “I get angry with the state. What business did they have delving into these areas? Why are they practicing medicine up in Austin?”

The complexity of this situation leaves one with more questions than answers and I feel for the family caught in this horrible situation. That being said I’m honestly shocked by the family’s stance on this – their grandchild, the only connection they will have left to their daughter is alive, yet they wish to end the pregnancy by taking their daughter off life support.

Despite my shock the issue is better left to the family to resolve. But does the state of Texas have a right to interfere is what is clearly a delicate and complicated family affair? In a state where abortion politics are a hot button issue it will be interesting to see what public opinion is on this horrendously sad situation.

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Filed under Abortion, Ethics, Life, Politics