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March 02, 2005

The Ethics of Death, Strength and Weakness

Life is real! life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

-- Longfellow

I've been thinking about how often recently I've come to bump heads with LaShawn Barber, our populist conservative, and out of all things we collide on the one that has aggravated me the most has to do with her 'pro-life' stance on the matter of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. You see, I've been a big fan of Kervorkian for a long time.

I'd imagine that my sentiment first got the better of me when I went caroling at the old folks home in the 7th grade. It was my first experience with the gawdawful pathos of abandoned, weak and dying human beings. This was no shady acres. This was smelly joint right next to a hospital which has had at least three different owners. In the not so nice part of the 'hood. Specifically, on Western north of Adams Boulevard, one block from the freeway. The one image that remains with me to this day is that of a man of about 80 some years with no teeth whatsoever, soiled, drooling with his mouth agape sitting in a wheelchair in the hall. He was little more than a skeleton and his mouth seemed so large that we were all in danger of falling in. Like a dementor from Harry Potter's world, you could not look at him without feeling the suffering of the entire planet on your shoulders.

We were told in no uncertain terms that for many of the people there, we were the only visitors they ever got. They loved to touch us, these oldfolks. They smelled our hair and hugged us. It was clear to me that we were, for some, their only joy, indeed their only reason to hang onto life. Forgotten by families, abandoned by all but the periodic nurse, they waited to die.

Growing up in Catholic school, we were made very aware of the ethics of euthanasia. I was for it, and still am. And I paid a great deal of attention in those days to the development of hospices, although I had long lost my nerve to volunteer again. But all of these were fairly distant and vauge notions merely abetted by quotes like Einstein's, that it is a wonderful thing that at the end of one's life it can be appreciated as a work of art.

Then I read Robert Nozick's 'The Examined Life' and his chapter on Death, the very first chapter in the book, struck me with its clarity. In such a short space, it became apparent to me that nobody talks about death but the grieving and the violent. We often think of the President as one who gravely thinks about the consequences of his orders. Perhaps we think about firefighters, soldiers, cops and doctors as people who might think about death, but what about us? How do thoughtful people die, and what is the state of the average American's approach to death? I was left at the time with a big question mark, an empty space within which I could write my own ideas from scratch.


I amd not sure, however, whether we should be so attached to existing. Why do we want to be told that we continue in time, that death is somehow unreal, a pause rather than an ending? Do we really want to continue always to exist? Do we want to travel with our rickety identity forever? Do we want to continue in some sense as an "I," a (changed) center of consciousness, or to be merged into a wider already existing one in order not to miss any of the show? Yet how greedy are we? Is there no point when we will have had enough?

At some point later, I encountered the Akan. In the cosmology of the Akan, death is non-existence and is accepted simply. The Akan have two prime-movers, the Creator and the Demiurge. The Creator created life and death, being and nothingness, and then he created the Demiurge. Into the ear of the Demiurge he whipered the laws of the Universe and ordered him to create. When the Demiurge turned around there was nothing, and so built the universe. For the Akan it makes no sense to look for life after death, for the Creator created death in divine inspiration, and respected his own creation by dying.

Even as a fairly young person, at the age of 19, having been three years initiated by Confirmation into the Episcopal Church, the notion of eternal life was useless to me. A Christian must take the notion of salvation on faith, it is only by grace that we are saved. Then what of our earthly good works, should we do them only in order to procure Heaven? How is this different from the most vulgar of transactions? Why not make a deal with the Devil instead? Why not make a deal with God? What is the price of the ticket? No, it is the goodness of the acts themselves, and the selflessness through which they are given which are the currency of salvation. We can know this because we possess the vision of God, literally the divine sense of good vs evil without which we might as well be talking about morality as if it were ultraviolet light. We bit the apple, and it is the core (hah) principle that holds us accoutable to God. Without it there is only predestination.

Death become irrelevant except as a period at the end of our sentence on earth. After death we are no longer subjects, but objects. Our will is meaningless after death. We commend our spirits into the hands of God - out of our own hands.

But what are we to make of the death of those around us? In that I am prompted to this discussion also by a comment on the life of Hunter S. Thompson, I should speak specifically about suicide. Catholics see suicide as a mortal sin, one which like murder, invalidates salvation. How then should we consider Nozick who says:

After an ample life, a person who still possesses energy, acuity and decisiveness might choose to seriously risk his life or lay it down for another person or for some noble and decent cause. ...a person might direct his or her mind and energy toward helping others in a more dramatice and risky fashion than yonger, more prudent folk would venture...I have in mind the kinds of of peaceful activities and nonviolent resistance that Gandhi and Martin Luther King engaged in, not a vigilante pursuit of wrongdoers - or in aiding people in violence-ridden areas.

I am struck by the beauty of such a notion. In fact, I think we all are. Soon I will be re-watching the Eastwood classic 'Unforgiven' and I will be thinking of his character as one who not only knows he is beyond redemption but also as one who knows his death is imminent and living in the moment, he must do right by people. It is this heart-wrenching example we have of 'Shane' as well, riding off never to return.

But is it suicide when you run into the burning building to save the puppy? No. The difference between taking your life for the sake of someone else and out of self-pity is the entire moral difference. It is this moral distinction for the Christian, at least, that gives us the primary guideline which allows us the power over life and death. I cannot say at which point such a utilitarian equation begins to break down in the hands of groups or governments. But at the level of the one, it seems fairly clear that the proximate cause of ones personal choice to live or die outweighs the fact of the death itself. One can choose to die righteously for the sake of their neighbors or in the case of suicide, selfishly.

This is the context out of which I pass judgement on Terri Schindler-Schiavo. If she is so alive that she grasps the weight of the burden of her continuing existence, then she is guilty of greed. Is she or is she not a moral actor in this drama? If she is, then she is wrong for dragging her family through this anguish for over a decade. If she is not, other considerations take precedence. Legally, she is not responsible and so the decision falls to her family.

I think of strength and weakness in terms of the ability to accomplish moral tasks in this light. Gandhi was strong despite his physical frailty, he was hugely influential. In our society, people's agency is constrained by our social contract to be bound by law. In some ways, it seems heroism is only possible by outlaws; that is a measure how limited our liberty is. Perhaps this is why the Western film is our best vehicle for moral instruction, the panoptics hadn't yet been constructed, nowhere was on the grid. Consequently, in our contemporary society of laws generated from a mishmash of criss-crossing ethical systems there are fewer ways that the individual decision and action makes a difference. This is a theme that I will begin to harp on as an expression of libertarian activism. What I sense is perhaps well described as 'creeping socialism'.

In our civilization, we are overreaching in matters of social equity. I perceive that this is being done in disrespect of the African. I'll only touch on this for the moment. Put crudely, doing for the black man has been more an act of charity than an act of recognition and respect. And this wellspring of charity has overflown in all directions rather indiscriminantly. It is suggested that we do for fags, cripples and retards what we did for niggers, and I use those perjoratives consciously. I question the motiviation of the actions of mainstreaming. I think we do it because we have the capacity, but not necessarily because we have the will and determination, and certainly not because of a Douglassian concession of power. What we are manipulating is our perception and our sense of tolerance - we are creating an equality that is not truly equitable. We are creating an arena of perceived equality without regard to reality. It is delivering this sense of judgement in the proxy of laws and governments out of the hands of individual self-determination that gets under my skin. We are going from political correctness to legal correctness.

We have created a national building code of ramped sidewalks and blue parking spaces to mobilize the immobile. What we have failed to do is recognize or realize what the immobile might do with their immobility other than pretend and desire to be us. This is what gay marriage does. It disrespects and flattens reality and undermines the truth of difference. It makes us all less able to deal with finite limits. This comes from the same place as the denial of death, because it suggests that all vitality is the same.

So I take to task those who are 'pro-life' because I think they have it wrong and their fudging with the ways and means we make it legal to live and die in this country takes us further away from individual liberty and further into the panopticon. They want us to live in the same subset of life's possibilities. If we are all the same, then we should all be born the same way, then we should all live the same way, and consequently we should all die the same way. I don't think so.

UPDATE: Some others have come around to the discussion

  • Amy Sullivan

  • Posted by mbowen at March 2, 2005 12:03 PM

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    The Ethics Of Death, Strength, And Wea from Booker Rising
    The moderate-conservative Republican discusses how he bumps heads with black conservative blogger La Shawn Barber (both are our Conservative Brotherhood blogmates) over her stance on the Terri Schiavo euthanasia case: "What I sense is perhaps well de... [Read More]

    Tracked on March 2, 2005 02:06 PM