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On reverence for human life
Symposium on Animals: Part IV
The past couple of essays in this Symposium, including my previous one on human intelligence as animate intelligence, have emphasized the continuities between the lives of non-human animals and our own, indeed, the animal character of our own lives. All of our essays have taken note of the importance of non-human animals for understanding ourselves.
I am committed to these points, but I want to explore the idea that part of our instinctive self-knowledge, the awareness that we typically and naturally develop as we come to be conscious of ourselves – and other human beings – as creatures of a certain kind, is that there is a certain limit to the purely animal dimension of our lives beyond which lies a kind of mystery.
I am not speaking of life after death, but rather something we learn to notice about ourselves and one another in the ordinary course of things. (The fact that we must learn this awareness, of course, opens to the way to the skeptical thought that we are merely projecting it; as with most skeptical claims, the best antidote is to point out how much of the intelligibility of the world we would lose if we adopt them.)
We can gesture toward this mystery in different ways, for instance, in the secular language of human dignity and in the theological language of the imago Dei, the Jewish-Christian idea that we are made in the very image of God.
But even ordinary practices like praise and blame implicate it. In fact, the strangeness to us of the ancient practice of the scapegoat — ritually assigning blame to a non-human animal as a form of expiation — indicates the very limit I am describing. The mystery, then, is ineffable without being unfamiliar: by the very possibility of engaging in practices of issuing and being subject to praise and blame, we are also subject to the demand of attention that any human being can place upon us, whatever our prior dealings with them, no matter whether we end up friends or enemies or something in-between. (It is an interesting question whether analogues of the full-blown practices of praise and blame exist in our relations to non-human animals, but I am focusing on the former here and the conditions for its possibility.)
There are times in our practical lives where we stand in need of a clear notion of this limit of our animality. Yet the theoretical understandings of it that are typically available constantly threaten to fall into incoherence. So we face a difficulty.
This difficulty has been on my mind recently as I have been grappling with the dramatic expansion of access to voluntary euthanasia in Canada, which I wrote about for Bulwark this week. At times, as I was reading journalistic accounts, government documents, and philosophical essays in the course of working on the piece, I was overcome by something I can only describe as nausea, at once a psychological and a physical experience.
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Part of this, no doubt, was due to my firm conviction of the wrongness of voluntary euthanasia, especially in the case of those who are not terminally ill or whose only or main plight is social isolation or lack of access to resources or medical care. But I think some of it was due to a more general feeling of coming unmoored, that is, of feeling that I did not quite understand the world I would have to inhabit if I were to absorb the terms of the ongoing conversation over voluntary euthanasia in Canada (and in Belgium and the Netherlands), the language of policy-making and aggregate societal benefit that seems to me to fail to address the gravity of each decision, each human life and human death.
When it comes to non-human animals, as Myles Werntz wrote movingly in his guest essay in this Symposium, the difficult decision to euthanize a pet can reveal some of the gaps that inevitably remain in a relationship that ought to aspire to both love and mutuality. But voluntary euthanasia of human beings represents a full-blown rupture in our moral lives, where compassion and respect seem to be at odds. The difficulty here is articulating the limit that marks the difference between these two cases – which is the very limit I noted above between our animality and something that lies beyond it.
Most people agree that all human beings are endowed with dignity, a status that grants each of us special entitlements and protections. In fact, the achievement of the sort of moral consciousness that at least purports to accord dignity to every human being is regularly described as a distinctive and important achievement of modernity, the dignitas (rank) of Roman male citizenship extended beyond the reach of all social hierarchy.
It is well known that this idea of equal human dignity finds its roots both in the universalism of Stoic philosophy and in the Jewish-Christian theological ethic that elaborates the imago Dei. It is less often noted that both Stoicism and the Jewish-Christian ethic have a dim view of what human beings, as individuals and as whole societies, typically achieve on their own.
Dignity, then, does not depend on achievement; this is an ethic of vulnerability, not mastery – precisely why Nietzsche thought it was so damaging to the human spirit. What Nietzsche missed is that humility is often the best antidote to a smug self-satisfaction that stands in the way of genuine aspiration and that community is essential to the finest human endeavors.
This notion of equal human dignity does important work in our political lives. It is invoked prominently in human rights discourse, where dignity is sometimes taken to be the ground of basic rights. It is also used to characterize certain types of wrongdoing, like torture and other dehumanizing forms of treatment.
Despite the modern notion’s part-religious origins, defenders of human dignity typically hold that its value can be appreciated from a wide range of perspectives, secular and religious. A problem arises, however, when these perspectives clash.
In fact, both the supporters and the opponents of voluntary euthanasia in Canada invoke dignity. The main advocacy organization in favor is called Dying with Dignity Canada. Meanwhile, its secular opponents – notably disability advocates such as Inclusion Canada – have argued that MAiD in its current form is part of a broader culture that denies the dignity of people with disabilities.
Even the more juridical and seemingly precise language of human rights have been brought in on both sides. The Supreme Court of Canada case (Carter) that led to MAiD invoked the right to life as a defense of the practice of voluntary euthanasia. But that very right has in the past been thought to rule out the permissibility of such a practice.
My own view is that the language of human rights, dignity, and entitlement to respect is not a secure foundation on which to hang normative arguments, but an imperfect – if perhaps necessary – attempt at gesturing toward what more there is to human life than our transit from birth to death.
Writing forty years ago as part of a working group on euthanasia in clinical practice, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe rejected the framing of debates over euthanasia around dignity, particularly the dignity of freedom and self-determination. She begins instead by pointing to the awe and respect that human life always commands, even when you fight someone to the death, as might happen licitly in wartime. One can elaborate on Anscombe’s point by noting that the taking of life in such circumstances involves moral injury to the soldiers who kill, which they might seek to avoid or mitigate by thinking of their enemy as unworthy of respect. But holding on to one’s own humanity depends on holding on to the humanity of others.
In treating the essentially “grave and tragic actions” of war together with the issue of euthanasia, Anscombe reminds us that there may no action that does not involve serious regret, in a hospital as much as on a battlefield.
Anscombe takes our awe and respect at the gravity of the taking of human life as a sign of our awareness of what I have been calling the limit to our animal nature. But she also tries to indicate what lies beyond that limit, despite its status as a mystery. In particular, in relation to justice in war as well as capital punishment, she describes human beings as “spirit” as well as flesh, because we “move in the categories of innocence and answerability and desert”. (Anscombe’s insistence on the fact that the intentional killing of the innocent, in war as well as peace, is always forbidden remains one of her most significant contributions to ethics.)
Anscombe takes this idea to imply that we cannot ever treat a human being’s suffering as a reason to kill them. Mercy is a matter of mitigating punishment. But suffering is not punishment. Once we treat suffering as a reason to kill, we have lost hold of our “respect for the mystery of life”, a mystery that is recognizable to anyone who has reverence, an attitude that is proper to us as human beings.
Anscombe, of course, was a Roman Catholic, but she takes pains to suggest the availability of this perspective outside any single religious system, a perspective that utilitarian moral philosophy, for instance, degrades in representing us simply as flesh, subject to pleasure and pain and a calculus between them.
Whatever we think about these difficult issues as matters of individual conscience, it is disturbing to find that an entire society – particularly one with a public health system strained by a lack of resources – might move so far from a reverential attitude toward human life, one that would counsel caution and even fear in these matters. As I wrote for Bulwark, Canada’s euthanasia experiment is charging ahead without adequate space for societal reflection or due regard to marginalized people who are protesting it.
But even thirty years ago, when Robert Latimer murdered his disabled daughter Tracy and was sentenced to prison for it, two in five Canadians thought that his actions should not have been criminalized. If Anscombe is right, the very notion of a mercy killing is incoherent. Doctors, no less than other private citizens, have no standing to end a human life, even with consent.
What is entailed — and this is a difficult teaching — is that we are called on to endure the suffering of others, including our loved ones, as well as our own sympathetic suffering in the face of it. It is perhaps not surprising that this view is increasingly unpopular. Our culture, after all, tells us that suffering is wrong. It is difficult, but necessary, however, to accept that there can be evil (in the traditional sense of something bad) without wrong.
The attitude of reverence we ought to have in these matters is not confined to human life, though it finds a special application there. Other animals, the natural world, the whole marvelous order of things are proper objects of reverence, too, albeit in different ways. We must find ways, in ordinary life and not only in extraordinary moments, to cultivate this virtue, without which we lose something that is essential to ourselves.