Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Life under the Microscope: When, if Ever, is Life Not Worth Living?

HUMAN LIFE HAS ITS TRAGIC INSTANCES; at its extremes, life can appear checked at every turn from flourishing. It can be burdensome, toilsome, fraught with pain, suffering, and hopelessness. It is not difficult to encounter or to envision what the consequentialist or "preference utilitarian" Peter Singer, in his Practical Ethics, calls "lives not worth living."* Jonathan Glover, another consequentialist beau, reasons that it is not life, but "how much the person himself gets out of life," that is crucial in the moral decision-making process. Oderberg, 153 (Oderberg gives no source). Opponents to the sanctity of life seize on these instances to carve exceptions to the law of the sanctity of life. Hard cases make bad law. While that may be true, there are hard cases, and there must be law even in hard cases. Hard cases do not take us into lawlessness. But that is where these sorts of consequentialists would have us go. They do not ask what is right or what is wrong, they ask such questions as:
  • Is the life in question "worth living"?
  • What effect does the effect of killing the life not "worth living" have on other people
  • Would the preference of these other persons be satisfied?
  • Would these other persons be traumatized by the continued existence of the life not "worth living"? Would they be relieved? etc., etc.
This is a collapse from law to expediency, from morality into barbarity. The lawlessness into which these "life-not-worth-living" folks would take us is apparent even to them. They acknowledge that it is difficult, if not impossible, to delineate with any sort of adequate precision when a life is "worth living," and when a life is "not worth living." Yet this sort of stuff is bandied about in the halls of academia, and in the board rooms where ethics are discussed, where decisions about life and death of some of the most vulnerable and suffering of our brothers and sisters are made.

German Euthanasia Propaganda Poster**

One might point out the frighteningly parallel thinking of the Nazi moralists who, in arguing for euthanasia in the 1930s (Aktion T4), spoke about "life unworthy of life," lebensunwerten Lebens. Are the likes of Singer and Glover dogs returning to their own vomit? In the matter of moral reasoning on euthanasia, if in nothing else, are they Nazi bedfellows?

It would seem so, and they are carrying many with them. But the apparent similarity between the apologists of the Nazi Euthanasia Program and modern proponents of euthanasia is not the only reason for rejecting these folks' reasoning. Perhaps we would be accused of engaging in an ad hominem attack. So we might also show that their moral reasoning is not objective reasoning at all--though it purports to offer some objective tests to determining when life is "worth living" and morally and legally protected, and when it is not "worth living" and may be dispensed with. In fact, the whole enterprise is a collapse into subjectivism, which is cousin to arbitrariness, which is the same thing is being lawless. To get to those whose life these folks deem is not worth living, these folks have laid the laws prohibiting murder all flat.
And when the last law was down, and the hard case turned round on you,
Where would you hide, Dr. Singer, the laws all being flat?
This county's planted thick with laws from coast to coast
Man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--
And you're just the man to do it--
D'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
Yes, I'd give the hard case benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.***

We will get into these folks' reasoning in a little greater depth in our next blog posting.
*Singer would allow for the putting to death of a child with hemophilia, or even a mature handicapped, but well-adapted adult. What must be maximized in his utilitarianism the desires and preferences of people. So if the desires and preferences of one group of persons weighs greater than the preferences of a single individual, the desires and preferences of the many overcome the desire and preferences of the one, to the disadvantage of the one. So it is that the hemophiliac child or the handicapped adult can be put to death, since preference utilitarians "must allow that a desire to go on living can be outweighed by other desires."
**The poster reads "60000 RM kostet dieser Erbkranke die Volksgemeinschaft auf Lebenszeit. Volksgenosse das ist auch Dein Geld. Lesen Sie Neues Volk Die Monatshefte des Rassenpolitischen Amtes der NSDAP." Translated: "60,000 Reichsmarks is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the German Community during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is also your money. Read Neues Volk, the monthly magazines of the Office for Race Politics of the NSDAP." [NSDAP = Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei = Nazi party]
***Compare Roger Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Random House, 1990), 66.

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