Self-determination in the middle-ages and subsequent centuries
It is often claimed that atheists have no respect for life. In no small matter this is because atheists are often known to be ‘pro-choice’ (defending the right for available, clean, safe and legal abortions) as well as ‘pro-death’ (defending the right of people to request euthanasia on the account of permanent suffering.) Though about as many atheists maintain that atheism is about nothing except ‘not-believing’. There are even ‘pro-choice-’, ‘anti-euthanasia-’ atheists out there, whom kind of prove the point of the former.
However, though I have strong opinions on atheism, I will not comment on how atheists ‘should’ stand in order to be atheists. I will venture how I, being an atheist, stand and how I think this is the position everyone should adopt, in spite of their religious views. As it is, we may assume that the theist will find it harder to swallow this then the atheists, which kind of negates the notion that atheism, when applied to reality, is only about “God = null”.
What I say here will however not help in the reputation that atheism disrespects life while, actually, I would argue that my points in fact flow from a deep respect for the thing we call living.
The trigger for this blog is this post. What it deals with is that while the average age of citizens in western countries seems to rise, the manner in which they do is very diverse. While some manage to shuffle around their garden before finally stroking-out at 84, many others spend much of their 70-90’s twilight as a shriveled puddle of humanity, looked after only twice a day with care focused on preventing death. This is what is legal in most countries around the world, though it would appall many older, so called “primitive”, societies. It is a fate many don’t think about before it is actually happening to them, or perhaps to a parent. Of the others that do consider it earlier there are many, like me, to whom this is the worst nightmare; A fate worse than death.
Though Belgium is remarkably on the forefront of laws permitting ‘mercy killing’ under various conditions, undoubtedly pressured by the economic realities of an inverted demographic pyramid, there is neither clarity nor exhaustiveness regarding those conditions and still plenty of scenarios that lead you to the same nursing-home-bed and bed-soars.
But let’s not be too focused on age-induced-vegetative state as to lose sight all those other circumstances that make life unbearable and self-determination a necessity. Imagine you’re a runner. You’ve ran since you were 7, won tournaments, lived for the adrenaline and the lean-mean-sprinting-machine that is your body. You made a choice that favored your legs instead of your brains, the only thing you like to read is sports-magazines where they talk about other runners, runners you’d love to beat. You are often heard saying the ‘running IS your life’. At age 30 a car runs you over and leaves you quadriplegic. Does this automatically mean your life is over? No it doesn’t. Does it mean that you will never ever be happy even for a single moment? No it doesn’t. Does it mean that, for some, they will never adapt, find new goals, deal with the impotence and the daily humiliation involved in bodily waste and hygiene. I can imagine it most definitely does. Sure there are moments for all of them that will be better than the norm, but equally it is clear that for many of them the best moment will not beat an average moment from before the accident. I insist that it is up to each of them individually, with mandatory timelapses and re-evaluation-moments to determine if this is still a life worth living, but I consider it an unalienable right for each of them to make that decision without duress in favor or in contra.
Looking at it from a theistic viewpoint, assuming the major religions that frown upon non-spontaneous cession of life (and not on one of those religions that died-out because it mandated mass-suicide at some arbitrary but very anticipated moment), life itself meets the quality criteria as long as it can sustain itself (and even way beyond that point). That is because life for them is just a means to an end. The real goal being a fantasy afterlife for which any measure of suffering is at best irrelevant and at worst much desired (a fortiori by those NOT doing the suffering). And even from the cyclic religions, for which we could imagine suicide/reboot could be desirable theologically (because the believer reincarnates in a potentially better life, contributing more to the group), we see that they don’t actually support life-termination. Religions are evolutionary-systems (like organisms) in that way, those that support suicide do not last long. They are not ‘the fittest’. In that respect they resemble rapid killing viruses as these are often not well adapted to spreading and often ‘die-out’ rather quickly.
But if we go beyond the theistic view we may take from atheist-consensus that there is no purpose to life except for the purpose we define within it. Life is not a means to please some divinity; it is just something that is. Whether or not that life has any positive value remaining for the future all depends on what you value. It is perfectly right to spend the rest of your life in a torture chamber (actually still too many people do) if what you value is mostly to test and demonstrate your will and endurance. Perhaps the idea that you have a choice in the matter is insulting, but the torture chamber is partially metaphorical. On the other hand our runner in the preceding case may value little or nothing in the quadriplegic life and judge it worthless or worse. The current laws of the land still reflect largely the religious values instead of the personal values of individuals.
It is certainly no easy question this ‘right to decide on the continuation of your own life’. On the one hand we could take the extremist viewpoint and say that this is a strictly personal matter which the government must facilitate lest there be brain-matter-squirt all over the nation. On the other hand we can see the extreme opposite which happened in the past where suicide-remains were ‘executed’ for murder prior to being denied burial in holy ground. Atheists usually don’t mind the latter which may explain why religiously inspired governments decided upon the former deterrent. Neither of these positions is very satisfying but as we showed, neither is the present status quo. Take the extreme individual position. Imagine you are the man handling the pump that pushes oxygen to a deep-sea-diver below the ocean surface. I know we don’t do things this way anymore, but we did do so once. The person is completely dependent on you but you can’t be bothered with this slave-existence and decide to ‘off’ yourself. Understandably society may have a little bit of a problem with that. Still, if your life is entirely yours the consequences after you die, the consequences of your ‘not-being-there’ can’t be your responsibility can they? And though this example is somewhat unrealistic, in a way we all are pumping oxygen to society through hoses of various thickness.
How ‘thick’ or ‘slim’ must your hose be before your right to self-determination trumps the flow of whatever it is you are pumping? How heavy must the suffering get before you obtain license to a mercy-killing, never mind the thickness of your hose to society.
They should horses don’t they?
With the death of Robin Williams the debate on euthanasia has not inflamed much. This is because the link between hanging yourself and disconnecting the breathing tube is missed, even though both are an expression of self-determination or at least of the reduction of suffering through death. What did come into focus with his death though was the question regarding mental health. Do you have the mental health to judge the value of your future life? This is an unanswerable question as, for some, the very inclination to end your life is proof of mental illness. They did so for mr. Williams: ‘he was suffering from depression’, which was meant to explain the suicide while preserving much of the hype that was to assure viewer-ratings for the coming week. The suggestion being that if Robin had been ‘mentally healthy’ he would have agreed that suicide was not the way to go. This was subsequently reinforced with fragments of a film where Robin himself said : “suicide is the permanent solution to a temporary problem”. But that’s a script – writer’s words and, though it is sometimes true that the problems are temporary, it is not always the case.
Robin Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Like our hypothetical runner it meant that he would soon not be able to ‘run’ anymore. At his age, with his unique and fragile talent disappearing with it’s central position in who he was, simultaneously lacking religious fantasies that would justify any suffering, I most definitely understand the decision he took and placed in his position I would hope I would make the same one!
With entropy being what it is and age working the way she does any rational human being of sufficient age has found himself contemplating death one time or another. The more mature among them can face up to this terrible end to ‘all-they-are’ and come to dread mostly the moments just leading up to it. I wonder how many of them, like me, considered a gun ‘just in case’ to assure their own self-determination in case the government, the theist-opposition or the medical community fails them. I even wonder in what way this has aided the pro-2nd amendment position in the U.S..
Gun’s perhaps make suicide messy, but at least very efficient and readily available. This is also why the anti-weapon associations point to suicide as a severe argument against guns. They are not wrong! Gun’s make suicide so easy that a large percentage of the gun-related suicides are of the “permanent solution to a temporary problem” variety. It is one thing to have and exercise self-determination, it doesn’t mean we have to be casual about it.
Weighing the worth of your future live with regard to the values you have can never be only rational though; simply because ‘running is fun’, ‘football is fun’ and ‘chess is fun’ are not objectively true values and for the part that they are subjectively true, they are not shared by everyone. In that respect judging the mental capacity to decide on the continuation of your life is not objective either. Are you depressed because you have emotional difficulties coming to terms with your untreatable illness? Or are you depressed because you live in an inescapable torture chamber which, for you, is sufficient reason to shake hands with death?
Remember when I said this was no easy matter? Well this is the part where I tell you I do not have the answer. I do know though that currently we are not debating the right for Robin to take his own life but whether and in what measure a deteriorating condition entitles you to medically assisted life-termination. There are many that had a problem with Robin’s suicide who find it normal that some people end their lives as a vegetable in a nursing home, cared for in an economically optimal way with more respect for profit margins then people. I do not find the latter very appealing and furthermore see that the only difference between Robin’s situation and the latter was time. Time and a diminishing window of opportunity during which Robin could control his destiny as not to end like that. I know not the answer, but I know in which direction the status quo must move if it wants to maintain that it respects life more than profit or make-believe afterlives that only some of us believe in.
I do not wish to exaggerate the control I’ve had over my life thus far, yet I forced my destiny at some junctions and I assure you I will do what I can to ‘not go gentle into that good night’. When I see that I must become something that is not me, lead a life that is not living I will say ‘no’ with whatever means available. I hope that by that time these means are legal, but if they are not too fudging bad. I will not fizzle. I will just end.
And it will be ME and not my living corps that gives you