Thursday 5 January 2012

Falconer's brave new world and the Stoics

           A modern medical practitioner on a house call as envisaged by Lord Falconer

Lord Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying has finally produced its report. It apparently (and unsurprisingly) has concluded that allowing doctors to provide patients with the means of killing themselves is a good thing.

Although the 'Commission' itself is a joke -it is a commission only in the sense that my asking a few Catholic mates at the pub what they think of euthanasia is a 'Commission' (for the record, having seriously deliberated for thirty seconds, we can report that we are all against it)- it doubtless marks the beginning of a new round of the attempt to turn doctors into versions of the executioners dressed as Charon who dispatched the fallen in gladiatorial games (see photo above).

More to say on all this in the future no doubt. But for the moment, it reminds me of a point that keeps coming back to me in this area. The Stoics are often (rightly) pointed to as an ancient philosophical school which favoured suicide in some circumstances. Moreover, modern proponents of euthanasia often base their arguments on the value of autonomy which -with some caveats- is also rightly to be seen as the basis for the Stoic position.

But the modern supporters of euthanasia miss the point that assisted suicide or having a doctor kill you is a very poor illustration of autonomy. The Stoic suicide is a dramatic enactment of the sage's indifference to death or pain. Indeed, the Stoics emphasized how easy it was to die once you'd made your mind up to do so:

Cleanthes for example killed himself thus:

And he died in the following manner. His gums swelled very much; and, at the command of his physicians, he abstained from food for two days. And he got so well that his physicians allowed him to return to all his former habits; but he refused, and saying that he had now already gone part of the way, he abstained from food for the future, and so died; being, as some report, eighty years old, and having been a pupil of Zeno nineteen years.

Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) was even more self-controlled:

The manner of his death was as follows. As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking a toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line ...:

'I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?'

and died on the spot through holding his breath.

Instead of these actions which dramatically embody the Stoic virtues of courage, self-control and indifference to the views of those who are not wise, we have commissions, 'eligibility criteria' and 'comprehensive sets of safeguards' (see here for all this). 

I am not a Stoic. As a Catholic, I believe that, whilst the value autonomy has its place in ethics, that place is strictly limited by the overarching context of our dependence on God (and, moreover, I would argue that a natural human dependency and the values consequent on that should be evident to non-Catholics, even atheists). But one of the constant threads of this blog is that serious consideration of the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition -which provides a model of  natural reason uninfluenced by direct revelation- is a way of engaging modern culture without the sort of obviously religious premises that modern secularists reject. Within that general methodology, the Stoic position provides an interesting critique of modern euthanasia and indeed much of modern liberalism. Instead of the rather rugged autonomy of the ancient world, we have a cod autonomy, the sham of autonomy which is produced by state and medical control. (A similar transformation of autonomy takes place with same sex 'marriage' debate: instead of homosexuals having the freedom of just getting on with their lives, the debate has become about state creation of an institution, and state crushing of dissent.)

I don't think people should commit suicide. If you are reading this and you are thinking of doing so, please rethink your position: human flourishing is generally better displayed by enduring natural harms than by avoiding them. But if you are (wrongly) obsessed with autonomy like the Stoics, then exercise that autonomy. Don't run around trying to get others to give you social approval. Get on with your own lives and your own deaths. 

I don't pretend that autonomy is the only argument used in favour of suicide: relief of suffering is clearly another major reason offered -and the above reflections have little directly to say on that. But as far as autonomy is concerned, the Stoics should remind modern secularists quite how thin many of their ethical approaches are, and how dependent on a view of human beings as simply creatures of the state, whose moral actions have to be endorsed and even acclaimed by others.

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