“The technical management of life and death implies an avoidance of the necessity of love, or put better, it implies a kind of falsification of love and its fruit.”
“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”1
I. The unthinkability of life and death
An interesting—and, from a Christian perspective, sad—feature of contemporary society is its treatment of life and death. Clearly, the ceaseless development of medical technology, by its very nature, invites or implicitly embodies a new anthropological and ethical perspective. At first glance, this new perspective seems, paradoxically, to both relativize and absolutize life.
The relativizing tendency is perhaps more visible, given contemporary debates over euthanasia and “physician assisted suicide.” The social movement in favor of these options, sometimes wrapping itself in the slogan “death with dignity,” represents a willingness to end life purposefully when it no longer seems worth its cost in suffering. Here, an extrinsic standard is used as a calculus for evaluating a life’s worth. The value of life is measured based on the quality of experiences it supports, its pains and pleasures, the degree to which it promises “happiness,” “contentment,” “wellbeing” and so forth. But the implications of this calculation are clear. Life constitutes a platform for various kinds of experiences, both desirable and otherwise. Hence, it is a relative good in relation to the experiences it both makes possible and imposes. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II criticizes this very sort of relativization, to which he attached the lapidary phrase “culture of death.”
The modern tendency to absolutize life, however, is also prominent. We see this second tendency in any number of developments, such as the sometimes obsessive attempts to prevent suffering and death, whatever the ethical cost and by whatever technical means. If doctors are sometimes asked to take positive steps to help end life, they are also sometimes asked to take every measure, however extraordinary, to maintain it. We also see this tendency in what seems at times to be a fixation on health and safety, which are frequently taken as themselves constituting ethical first principles. While of course illness, accidents, and death remain a normal part of human existence, they are often treated as a failure of either medical technology or social policies, as though the narrative of modern progress is identical with a gradual movement toward their abolition. If the death with dignity movement sees death as a good to be achieved, the health and safety movement sees death as the absolute evil to be avoided. In this sense, the latter would appear to treat life as an absolute good.
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1. Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).