"Those who don't believe in God are obliged to play God. Playing God on the slippery slope is not very comfortable, but unless you are religious, there is no alternative." Minette Marrin, 'An Acceptable Way to Arrange Our Death' (The Sunday Times, May 14th 2006)
"Purveyors of postmodern ideologies must consider whether it is possible to diminish human beings in theory, without, at the same time, making individual human lives worthless in the real world." David Hirsch, The Deconstructino of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991), p. 165.
I have already had a number of posts about Joffe's Bill to legalize physician assisted suicide in Britain. In this article I would like to explore the theological, philosophical and historical background to this debate.
Worldviews in Collision
We need to start by asking ourselves how Britain has got to a point that it has, where laws which would have been unthinkable even fifteen years ago, are now accepted in stride. The simple answer is that we have got to this point as a result of rejecting the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview is rooted in the Genesis account of creation where we are told that mankind was made in the image of God. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27) This is the basis for the sanctity of human life. Our life has a value to it that plant and animal life, though important, does not share. Thus, when God expressly forbad murder in Genesis 9, the reason He gave is because man was made in the image of God. “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning… Whoever sheds man’s blood by man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.” (Gen. 9:5-6)
Western society has acknowledged the sanctity of life in a way no other civilization ever has and that is because the foundation of our society has been rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. At the centre of this worldview is the dignity of man as a being uniquely created in the image of God.
At the time of the ‘Enlightenment’, this worldview was challenged. The spiritual understanding of reality was replaced by a purely mechanical understanding of things. This gave rise to the worldview known as ‘Materialism’ or ‘Naturalism.’ Materialism, according to the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the view that “all entities and processes are composed of – or are reducible to – matter, material forces or physical processes. …materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct from, or independent of, material changes or processes.” Put more simply, the universe of the materialist is one in which everything, including you and me, is reduced to physics and chemistry.
Materialism’s Chief Casualty: Man
This worldview was appealing to the people of the Enlightenment because it meant that God became irrelevant. The reason this was appealing was because it seemed to make man, instead of God, to be the measure of all things. Human experience rather than God became the central hub for making sense of our world and experience. Mankind and non-spiritual explanations were now the ultimate criterion for determining value. If you read the writings of the 18th century, you can sense a great deal of optimism about this new worldview, because by getting rid of God, they were elevating the role of man.
Or so they thought. But actually, the opposite happened. When you get rid of God, what are you left with to call man? A meaningless collection of particles that are separated from the beasts only by virtue of complexity. Getting rid of God did not elevate man, rather, it dragged man down. Human beings ceased having the dignity that derived from being created in God’s image. Thus, ironically man became the chief casualty in a worldview that originally sought to glorify him.
Now the important point to grasp is this: although the worldview of materialism robbed man of his value as an image of God, the effects of this worldview were not actually felt at the time of the Enlightenment. The materialists of the Enlightenment still believed in the innate value and dignity of man because of the residue of the Christian worldview. When a civilization moves from one worldview to another, it often takes hundreds of years for the old worldview to wear off, even in the thinking and practice of those who reject it. So the materialists of the Enlightenment really had the best of both worlds: the could advocate materialism with the corollary that God was no longer an inconvenient obstacle, while still working on the borrowed capital of thousands of years of Christian heritage. Though in theory man was now no different to the beasts, both being collections of predetermined chemicals in a universe bereft of any higher spiritual meaning, in practice everyone still acted and thought as if mankind had innate value.
This state of affairs continued for a long time. Even when Darwinism charged the materialistic worldview with an enormous boost in the 19th century, the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview still continued to function, lending innate value to our concept of man. Even those who no longer believed that man was in the image of God, still acted as if he was.
The Borrowed Capital Runs Out
In the later half of the last century, this barrowed capital ran out. Well actually, it wasn’t quite so defined as that, because it has been a very gradual process. We see this progression in how artists depicted man. Ever since the Enlightenment, the paintings of man have gradually became more and more fragmented, obscure and meaningless. But it wasn’t until very recently that we have felt the full force of the materialistic worldview on every level of society. Abortion is only one example. If mankind is not the image of God, then the value of human life becomes a matter of ‘choice.’
With something like abortion, it’s easy to see the impact wrought by materialism. What is harder to grasp is the more subtle ways this worldview has permeated every level of our society. The worldview of materialism does not need to be stated, defended or spelled out in order to affect us. This is because materialism is the worldview that exists by default whenever things are not explained spiritually. If something is not understood spiritually, then by definition it is understood in terms of the non-spiritual, that is, the material. This means it is very easy for a Christian to be a practicing materialist. Many Christians believe in God and the Bible, they believe that Jesus died for their sins and they are saved, but still they do not view all of life through the lens of the spiritual – they are practicing materialists. Harry Blamires points out that materialism remains
"the unexamined presupposition in the very air we breath as thinking beings. The average citizen these days is a victim of daily, hourly brainwashing by the media, the press, the radio, television, the adverts and so much else in our cultural environment that is hammering into his head the notion that this life in time is the only thing that matters – that all questions of meaning, purpose, good and evil are exclusively a matter of a seventy year life-span on this planet. You don’t have to keep on saying this explicitly in order to convey it. All you have to do is to provide a ceaseless flood of entertainment, news, discussion, comment which bypasses all questions of spiritual reality and ignores even the possibility of supernatural life."
That is, I fear, an apt description of the situation in which we now find ourselves. You may still be hard pressed to find actual atheists around, yet our whole environment is atheistic in so far as it gets on and functions without reference to God. This means that questions of value are addressed, discussed and answered without reference to the spiritual.
This means that when people consider why it is wrong to kill, they cannot appeal to principles like the sanctity of life or the innate value of human beings, since such principles are ultimately rooted in a spiritual landscape. If man is not in the image of God, but simply a random collection of molecules, then it is a leap of faith to believe he has any special significance, let alone innate value. As I already mentioned, for a long time our civilization still held to these principles unthinkingly, as the residue of the Christian worldview. But that borrowed capital has run out.
As the borrowed capital runs out, the result is not social anarchy. People still have to have some kind of ethical framework to function with. In the materialistic worldview of today, the ethical framework is an implicit consensus that actions should be promoted which promote the general welfare. This general welfare is seen as the collective happiness of mankind. Now you won’t hear very many people talking like that, but it is still the implicit principle people fall back on to defend public policy or personal choice. This can be seen in the way personal choices are viewed as legitimate so long as they promote my own welfare without infringing on anyone else’s. In fact, it has become an unspoken axiom that so long as these conditions are met – that an action is going to make me happy and it isn’t going to interfere with anyone else’s happiness - that you cannot criticize the decision. On the larger scale, to convince someone that a political decision is legitimate, all you have to do is to show them that it promotes the public welfare (that is, happiness, security, stability) of the citizens, without radically infringing on anyone else’s welfare, and then the case is won. This approach to ethics is called utilitarianism. In his book Postmodern Times, Gene Edward Veith writes that
Utilitarians decided moral issues, not by appealing to transcendent absolutes, but by studying the effect of an action upon the system. Stealing is wrong, not because the Ten Commandments say so, but because stealing interferes with the economic functioning of society. Something is good if it makes the system run more smoothly. Something is evil if it interferes with the cogs of the vast machine. Practicality becomes the sole moral criterion. If it works, it must be good.
If I had more time, I think I could show that the contemporary concept of ‘human rights’ is based on this same model. Although people talk about human rights today as if they are innate and inviolable, they are really derivative of this utilitarian ethical framework. The right to pursue my own autonomous path, rooted in a deep sense of entitlement to my own well-being, is the basis of all the human rights today.
The Ethics of Suicide
The utilitarian framework can still say that murder is wrong. Obviously, it would not advance the general welfare of society to allow murder. But what happens if I want to kill myself? Moreover, what happens if I think killing myself will be in my best interests?
Traditionally, our legal system has always prohibited suicide on the basis of believing that human life had innate value. But if personal value is derived from personal welfare and happiness, then suicide can be justified provided I believe it will benefit me. For example, if I am suffering or depressed and suicide relieves me of this burden, then why shouldn’t I have the chance, even the right, to take my life?
This is the reasoning of the euthanasia lobby, and the reason why Lord Joffe has introduced this bill that will allow physician assisted suicide. This Bill should not surprise us since it is the perfectly consistent outworking of the materialistic worldview and utilitarian mindset that follows from it.
The Joffe Bill and the Slippery Slope
Because the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview has run out, the Joffe Bill is just the beginning. If we analyse the utilitarian principles on which the Bill is based, we find, alarmingly, that these principles justify a lot more than merely suicide.
Consider, for example, the principle of preventing suffering, which is the primary argument urged in support of this Bill. Now the prevention of suffering, though important, is not itself sufficient to ensure that an action is morally right. If it were otherwise, as the defenders of this Bill imply, then we would be compelled to kill people who are perpetually unhappy, or eliminate groups of people that contribute to the unhappiness of society. The result for England would almost definitely be a situation similar to Holland, where the utilitarian principle on which euthanasia is based is carried to its logical consequence. Dutch judicial authorities have made an agreement with the Groningen university clinic, that authorises euthanasia in children under 12 without their consent. Dutch parents who choose to raise disabled children have been known to hear comments like, ‘Such a thing should have been given a lethal injection.’ In August of 2005, the primary association of Dutch doctors asked the Health Ministry to create an independent board for considering euthanasia cases for terminally ill people ‘with no free will.’ Among those with ‘no free will’ were children, severely mentally retarded people and those in an irreversible coma. Is England now going to descend down this same slippery slope? Lord Joffe has himself said, revealingly, ‘We are starting off, this is a first stage… I believe that this Bill initially should be limited, although I would prefer it to be of much wider application… But I can assure you that I would prefer that the law did apply to patients who were younger and who were not terminally ill but who were suffering unbearably, and if there is a move to insert this into the Bill I would support it.’
For many people the Joffe Bill has a common sense appeal in cutting short pain and suffering for the dying. It is seen as the compassionate course for those whose suffering is unbearable. Someone, it might have been Chesterton, once said that compassion is the last refuge for those who have no morals. It is dangerous when appeal to compassion overrides more fundamental ethical principles. Eugenic selection can be masked by compassion just as easily as assisted suicide. Provided that more people benefit than are harmed, social engineering might be defended with similar utilitarian arguments.
The Joffe Bill would have us believe that assisted suicide brings ‘healing’ in a more general sense, since it releases the sufferer from pain. But once the distinction between healing and harm is blurred in this way, involuntary euthanasia can also be defended on grounds of ‘healing’ for those who suffer. To go one step further, it might be argued that it is ‘healing’ for our nation when certain segments of society are targeted for elimination. For example, in Germany in 1920, a document was published which suggested that killing mentally ill, retarded and deformed children was a ‘healing treatment.’ If the Joffe bill can treat the death of one individual as a ‘treatment option’, what is to stop government from treating the death of thousands – for example, minority groups – as a ‘treatment option’ for society?
Only by maintaining the conventional distinction between healing and harm in the small areas, will we be protected from their confusion in the larger areas. Yet what is conventional can never be maintained for long without being rooted in a worldview. The worldview of materialism does not give us a sustainable criteria for distinguishing between healing and harm in these difficult areas. Utilitarianism offers no safeguard against those who would confuse these categories on a wider scale, in the name of general welfare.
Vulnerable People at Risk
History has shown that utilitarianism usually always exploits those who are weak and vulnerable. Veith points out that “Utilitarianism was the view that justified slavery, exploitive child labor, and the starvation of the poor, all in the name of economic efficiency.” In a consistently applied utilitarianism, it is always the vulnerable people who suffer, usually the really young, the really old and the disabled. This is the logical result of determining a person’s value by how that person benefits either himself or society. On the other hand, those who are vulnerable, disabled, weak or dysfunctional are protected when we affirm that human life is intrinsically valuable. Because the Joffe Bill undermines the intrinsic value of life – suggesting, by implication, that value is derivative - it puts vulnerable people at enormous risk. Consider some of the ways.
First, the Joffe Bill puts vulnerable people at risk because it could create conditions whereby vulnerable people would feel pressure, whether real or imaginary, to request early death. The elderly, lonely, sick or disabled may ‘choose death’ so as not to be a burden to others. No amount of precautions to ensure the death is voluntary can stop such pressures from effecting a person’s decision. In the state of Oregon, for example, the number of people who requested assisted suicide because they felt a burden to their families or carers raised from 12% in 1998 to 63% in 2000. In the minds of such people, the ‘right to die’ became a duty to die.
Another way the Joffe Bill puts vulnerable people at risk is by assuming these people can handle a dangerous degree of autonomy. People whose minds have been worn down through pain, depression or senility gain enormous security from knowing they can trust their doctor to make decisions in their best interests. The Joffe Bill will directly undermines this sense of trust.
If the Joffe Bill passes, those who are responsible for providing or financing palliative care may begin to resent the ones who choose to ‘stick it out.’ Here again, vulnerable people are put at risk. Professionals responsible for offering palliative care may cease to meet the emotional and psychological needs of those who suffer acutely yet reject assisted dying, on the grounds that ‘this person’s suffering isn’t necessary anyway, because they can always have a PAS (physician assisted suicide).’
Another way the Joffe Bill puts vulnerable people at risk is by endangering terminally ill patients who do not choose to have a PAS. In the Netherlands, the progression from assisted suicide to involuntary euthanasia is well documented. The Remmelink Report analysed that one in three of the deaths caused by euthanasia were ‘without explicit request.’ Even though doctors in Holland are legally required to gain consent, once they begin looking upon death as a ‘treatment’ option, it is something they feel compelled to give. In 1990 Dutch doctors killed more than 1,000 patients without their request. Five years later, another study found that out of 4,500 euthanasia deaths, 1 in 5 occurred without the consent of the patient. These figures do not even include the thousands of cases of indirect euthanasia where treatment was withheld with the direct intention of shortening life without any explicit request from the patient. Despite the precautions the Joffe Bill would put in place, it is impossible to guarantee that these precautions would be observed in England any more than the precautions in Holland. Evidence from Holland suggests that some patients with terminal diseases or disabilities fear their doctors who may regularly offer euthanasia. Many Dutch patients are asking to be transferred to German hospitals because they fear their doctors. Further, patients who are opposed to PAS on moral grounds, may fear their own decisions once their rationality has been worn down through pain or senility.
Again, vulnerable people will always be at risk so long as the value of human life is seen to rest with the mental state of the sufferer. Vulnerable people are the first casualty when personal value or identity is dependent on conditions of consciousness. This can be seen in the case of Tony Bland, who was in a permanent non-fatal coma. Philosophers such as John Harris from Manchester University and Peter Singer from Harvard, argued that Tony may have been human, but he was not a person. Tony Bland’s consultant neurologist, a follower of Harris, also took this view. When asked whether he saw Tony as a person, Howe replied, ‘No, his personhood had gone when his chest was crushed; he was not a person in the sense that I understand it, in an ethical sense. A person is someone who has the capacity to value their life: that’s the definition given by Professor Harris from Manchester, and I think it’s the best one I have seen. A person is that creature, that sentient creature, which has the capacity to value its own life, so by that definition chimpanzees and gorillas are persons; we should not kill them, any more than we should kill other human beings who don’t want to be killed.’ Tony was allowed to be slowly starved to death.
One hopes that most people, whether they are Christians or not, would have an instinctive revulsion to this definition of a person as someone who has the capacity to value their life. One also hopes those who find this distasteful would back up to consider whether their worldview can actually sustain a more stable criterion of value. If human beings are, after all, simply highly evolved apes, if human beings are separated from the animals merely by virtue of complexity, then it is hard to see how personal value and ethical standards can be rooted in anything more stable than consciousness. In the end, a totally consistent materialism cannot even fall back on consciousness-derived-value. Someone once asked George Wall, a professor of Harvard University, who Shakespeare was in his view. Wall replied that Shakespeare was a random collection of molecules that existed four hundred years ago. None of us can boast to be anything better if the materialism is correct – we are all random collections of molecules. Now here’s the point: who cares if that random collection of molecules values it’s consciousness – there can be no real value, not in the objective sense that makes that thing we call ethics possible. For that, you need the Biblical worldview.
What We Can Do About It
To conclude, I’d like to encourage Christians to do everything they can to ensure the Joffe Bill does not pass Parliament. You need to start writing to your MPs, asking where they stand, and you need to put forward the case against assisted suicide. At the same time, however, we must realize that the Joffe Bill remains only a symptom. We must fight the Bill, but we must also think bigger. Since this Bill is the result of our society rejecting the Christian worldview, our task must be to realign our culture with the Christian worldview. Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” By advancing the Christian worldview in our own lives, families and communities, we can begin to rebuild the foundations. Already this is happening with so many different families wanting to give their children a Christian education, and so many different ministries devoted to articulating and applying the Christian worldview to every aspect of life. So there is a lot to be encouraged about. For many years the church was living on the borrowed capital of the Christian worldview just as much as the world was, without properly thinking things through. Now that this borrowed capital has run out, Christians seem to be waking up, returning to their foundations and really trying to articulate the Biblical worldview. That has been a good thing, something which I think the devil never anticipated. We should be encouraged.
See my other posts on this subject:
To receive automatic notification every time new material is added to this blog, send a blank email to largerhope @ tiscali.co.uk with “Blog Me” in the subject heading. To unjoin, send a blank email with “Unblog Me” in the subject heading. Note: for anti-spam purposes, the above email address has had spaced inserted before and after the @ sign. The address will only work after deleting these spaces. This is not my personal email address which I check every day but one which I only check once a week. For anti-spam purposes, my personal email address cannot be displayed on this website although it will be given to anyone who contacts me.