Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Cult of Suffering and Assisted Suicide

Andrew Stuttaford at the Secular Right has a post on what he calls the Cult of Suffering and assisted suicide.

I was struck by Stuttaford's objection to a certain Sister Constance Veit:
That last paragraph is, I have to say, disgusting. Sister Veit's argument that those wrestling with the later stages of a cruel disease are on a "mission" on behalf of the rest of us, a mission that they never asked to be on, is an expression of fanaticism, terrifying in its absence of empathy for her fellow man.
The "a mission that they never asked to be on" reminds of Chesterton's discussion of this point in the chapter "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy:
 A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag, long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In other words, we are born on a mission, and have accepted that mission, long before we ever have the chance to "ask" whether we want to be on it. GKC calls this the "primary loyalty" to life and, like all primary principles, it can be difficult to defend because it is generally what one argues from rather than what one argues to. Historically this primary loyalty was taken for granted as obvious and commonsensical, like patriotism and loyalty to one's country - in this case, "cosmic patriotism."

Life begins in suffering - birth is a traumatic experience - and involves suffering of some sort until death. Until very recently, regular and persistent pain was a fact of life. Imagine having a toothache before novocaine or a kidney stone before modern surgery. My grandfather's generation would pull their own teeth with a pair of pliers. And I remember reading about an instrument people once inserted in themselves all the way up to their kidneys in order to crush kidney stones so they could later be passed in excruciating pain.

And yet, historically,  persistent suffering of a physical variety was not what generally drove people to suicide. Those reasons were typically emotional - Romeo and Juliet or stockbrokers jumping off buildings after the 1929 crash - or matters of honor: Roman (or, recently, Japanese) generals doing themselves in after a defeat, or pederasts caught in the act (King George V: "Good grief! I thought chaps like that shot themselves.") If persistent suffering were something that could only be answered with death, everyone would have killed himself 200 years ago. So much for the human race.

The problem with suffering is that it is a fact of life that doesn't go away whatever your philosophy. (Well, that is not quite true: Death makes it go away.) Mr. Stuttaford speaks of "empathy for your fellow man" but I wonder what his "empathy" actually means in practice. The Little Sisters of the Poor minister to the dying who are beyond hope of recovery. Whatever Stuttaford thinks of their empathy, they at least make sure the dying do not die alone or friendless. And they offer them the hope that their suffering is not meaningless. Does Stuttaford spend any time with the dying, or does his "empathy" extend only so far as the abstract position that they should be offered a lethal syringe? I find such "empathy" far more horrifying than anything Sister Veit says - and in fact is not empathy at all but merely an embrace of the Cult of Death. To that I prefer the Cult of Suffering.

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