Christians, Pagans, and Doctor Assisted Suicide

The argument about doctor-assisted suicide (and its kin) is really, really old. Like, it’s around 1,600 years old. Maybe older.

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that doctor-assisted suicide should be legal in Canada. A report on the CBC website described the decision as follows:

The Supreme Court of Canada says a law that makes it illegal for anyone to help people end their own lives should be amended to allow doctors to help in specific situations.

The ruling only applies to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives.

The same link above includes the text of the court’s decision, where you can read it for yourself.

On reading some of the things said by people who disliked the court’s decision, I was struck by how often the discussion was framed in the terms defined by two very basic, and very ancient, worldviews of value.

One, the idea that human life is a thing of such special moral importance, that its existential moments of birth and death are not to be interfered with. To do so is to commit the moral wrong typically known as “playing God.” Let’s call this the “Sanctity of Life” worldview. Usually, although not always, it comes from religious arguments concerning how we are all “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27)

Two, the idea that the thing about human life which makes it so valuable is not the mere fact of membership in the human race, but rather the happiness, the joy, the flourishing, of each person’s experience of life; and whether that happiness outweighs whatever misery or suffering that person may also be experiencing. Let’s call this the “Quality of Life” worldview. It tends to appear in arguments grounded in the logic of utilitarianism, or humanism.

Today I just want to point out how old is the rivalry between these views. Here’s Augustine of Hippo, from the 4th century CE, author of The City of God, and Christianity’s most important early theologian, describing what annoys him the most about the Pagans of his time:

I am at a loss to understand how the Stoic philosophers can presume to say that there are no ills, though at the same time they allow the wise man to commit suicide and pass out of this life if they become so grievious that he cannot or ought not to endure them. But such is the stupid pride of these men who fancy that the supreme good can be found in this life, and that they can become happy by their own resources, that their wise man, or at least the man whom they fancifully depict as such, is always happy, even though he become blind, deaf, dumb, mutilated, racked with pains, or suffer any conceivable calamity such as may compel him to make away with himself; and they are not ashamed to call the life that is beset with these evils happy. O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it! If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy?…

And therefore those who admit that these are evils, as the Peripatetics do, and the [philosophers of the] Old Academy, the sect which Varro advocates, express a more intelligible doctrine; but theirs also is a surprising mistake, for they contend that this is a happy life which is beset by these evils, even though they be so great that he who endures them should commit suicide to escape them. (book 5, part XIX, chapter 4.)

What you should see here is that Augustine thought that Christianity and Paganism (late Roman imperial Paganism, anyway) was separated by precisely those two aforementioned categories of moral value: Christians held to the Sanctity of Life worldview; the Quality of Life worldview was Pagan.

Augustine exaggerates for dramatic effect the idea, which he attributes to Stoic philosophers, that one could find happiness in the embodied world even while being tortured on the rack. The idea appears in Cicero’s Discussions at Tusculum, but other philosophers of the time criticized him for the obvious absurdity. It certainly wasn’t the universal opinion of the pagan philosophers, not even in Cicero’s own tradition.

Augustine’s bigger mistake is the way he attributes to the pagans a logical error that they do not commit. The meaning of the Pagan claim that “human life is happy” is certainly not the unqualified and childish thing Augustine says it is. Rather, the pagan claim is that we are all responsible for our own happiness; and that if happiness is to be found anywhere at all, it’s to be found in this life, in this world, here and now. Therefore if by some bad turn you are unable to find your happiness in this life, for instance if a disease were to make your life so unbearable that its continuation would only prolong your suffering, then it is right to end the prolongation of your suffering.

That long guiding theme, that human happiness is to be found in this world if it is to be found at all, appears in nearly all the early Pagan philosophy: from Socrates– it’s in the Apology he made when he stood on trial for his life, on charges of blasphemy– to Porphyry and Plotinus and the last Pagan philosophers before they were all put out of work by Emperor Justinian.

But that’s a red herring anyway. For suppose that Augustine admitted that he misrepresented the Pagan view. It wouldn’t alter his view that “the supreme good” isn’t to be found in the embodied world anyway. It’s up there in Heaven:

If, then, we be asked what the city of God has to say upon these points, and, in the first place, what its opinion regarding the supreme good and evil is, it will reply that life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly…

As for those who have supposed that the sovereign good and evil are to be found in this life, and have placed it either in the soul or the body, or in both, or to speak more explicitly, either in pleasure or in virtue, or in both… all these have, with a marvellous shallowness, sought to find their blessedness in this life and in themselves. Contempt has been poured upon such ideas by the Truth, saying by the prophet, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (or, as the Apostle Paul cites the passage, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise”) “that they are vain.” (cite: ibid.)

So there you have it: the oldest documented account (that I could find) of the debate between these two points of view concerning the meaning and value of human life and death.

It’s interesting, I think, that the Supreme Court has sided with the Pagan view– interesting, because the decision was unanimous among the nine judges, six of whom, a clear majority, were appointed by Stephen Harper, our conservative Christian prime minister.

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