Monday, March 4, 2019

Assessing Assisted Suicide: Addendum

This article could have possibly been a “Part 5,” but I feel like it is more of a postscript than an actual part of my larger discussion on assisted suicide. That series has a solid conclusion, but this is just another way to chew on the issue. Plus, it is also separated by the fact that what I want to talk about here can be widely applied. It has to do with a number of issues, not just end-of-life ones.

Courage in Suicide?

While in the process of releasing the last few articles, I was discussing them with someone and mentioned my premise that suicide is inherently selfish. The decision to kill oneself always has to do with an undesirable pain, burden, or responsibility. This other person agreed, and I want to be clear that they were totally in opposition to assisted suicide. But they said something very curious that caught me off guard. They said that suicide is selfish, but also courageous.

That left me not knowing what to say in the moment. I knew it felt wrong, but I was not immediately sure why. After mulling it over for a few hours, I pieced the problem together. It starts with the fact that there is truth in what this person said. Suicide, admittedly, comes with an obvious fearlessness. Death is a state of being that none of us has experienced. That unknown, so foreign to us, is something we naturally fear. It is possible to learn to accept death, but to choose it is an extreme in overcoming the terror.

Words matter, though. Concepts matter. And while it may seem like too fine a line to draw, there is an important distinction between fearlessness and courage. The former is simply to be devoid of fear. The latter is to ignore the cause of fear in order to do the greater good. In other words, courage is a virtue because it seeks to do what is right. Other forms of fearlessness can actually be vices because they seek a selfish or foolish end.

Aristotelian Virtue

I’m not making all this up, of course. It actually goes back to Aristotle. He taught that the virtues are characteristics of good men, and that they can be viewed as existing on something of a scale. Courage was one of the examples he used to describe it (Nicomachean Ethics, 1107b1–4).

It can be thought of in three parts. Everything starts with an impetus and an emotional reaction. In this case, that emotion is fear. Emotion then interacts with capacity. Every one of us, by nature, has the capacity for confidence. Finally, emotion and capacity are resolved by characteristics. How we have trained ourselves to respond to our situations is what determines our virtuousness.

The scale, then, measures how we decide to use our capacities. According to Aristotle, vice was on the extremes while virtue was in the mean. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but that basically means each virtue has two vices. When it comes to courage, one of them is obvious. Cowardice is one extreme reaction to fear. Some troubles ought to be faced. Refusing to do so is a deficiency in courage. But the other extreme exists, too. It is possible to make too confident a choice. The other extreme from courage, then, is recklessness. It is not brave to play chicken with a freight train. It is brash.

Virtues never ask for stupidity. When people are being reckless, it literally means they are not reckoning with the outcome. They are not counting the costs. And that is why suicide can never be courageous. As I explained in Part 4, the cost is always greater than the payoff. Suicide is always wrong because it is an affront to the intrinsic value of life.

Culture Shift

So why does this matter? Because our society is becoming an excessive one. It is losing the concept of vice. People’s choices are almost always described in virtuous terms with little regard for whether those choices are actually good or not.

Many people have come to the conclusion that this simply does not matter. The classical distinction was, “Crime is the harm you do to another. Vice is the harm you do to yourself. Sin is the harm you do to God.” But we are losing—or have lost— the concepts of vice and sin. There are plenty of people who think you cannot harm yourself if you are doing what makes you happy. And there are plenty of people who think you cannot harm God because He does not exist.

This is already a destructive place to be, but it can get worse. We can also eventually reach the point that even crime is no longer considered wrong. Why, really, should people avoid hurting one another? What is the nature of good and evil, and how can the distinction be maintained in relation to others if we deny it in ourselves? More importantly, when we deny it has a source outside ourselves? When you tear down the moral law and make every vice a virtue, you have no reason to see the people around you as anything other than tools for your use.

Seeking Salvation

I think that pretty well describes the state of humanity at its lowest point. Before the Flood, it was said of mankind that “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). Morality depends in large part on the ability for self-control. You have to know what the right thing is, and pursue it regardless of what other people it affects, or if they are even watching. The further we define virtue down, the less there is separating us from our antediluvian predecessors. It is becoming easier to see how they became what they were, because it is becoming easier to see the ways we emulate them.

That would be a laugh line for a lot of people. It might bother me more if it hadn’t already been predicted (2 Pet. 3:4–8). Yes, I am talking about judgment and the end of the world. No, I have no idea when that will happen or if we are anywhere close to it. That is hardly the point. The point is that we should not be happy to run headlong into it or to watch others do so.

Virtue has value. We shouldn’t cheapen it. We should not celebrate people for harming themselves. Instead, we should highlight the damage. Shaking them of their complacency is the only thing that will encourage them to change for the better. And it is the only way they will be able to realize it is possible to do evil even when no other human person is affected. Once they can see that in themselves, they can then begin to see it in the way they relate to God. And once they can see their guilt in relation to Him, they can begin to see the need to have the burden lifted.

Salvation is only possible when you know you need to be saved from something. No one will look to Christ if they are convinced their every whim is virtuous. People have to know their excesses. How far can they fall if they aren’t told? That is a bottomless pit, and we are already well on the way down. Praise God that He is willing to carry us up out of it, and commit to not accepting the premises of those who seem to revel in it.

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