One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This is the end, my friend.

There has been a bit of back and forth lately between celebrity Catholic, Christina Odone and celebrity moral philosopher, Mary Warnock. The former has written a paper called 'Assisted Suicide: how the chattering classes have got it wrong'. (download) Marnock, meantime, has written 'Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics', which was discussed on R4's 'Start the Week' (prog available online).

Then from The Grauniad comes this debatelet between the two.

To take Odone's argument first, she holds that the 'chattering classes' - a term she says she's using deliberately to emphasise a class-based point* - that legalising assisted suicide will benefit only the monied, educated, articulate while the the poor** will come under pressure to end their lives for the convenience of others. She argues instead for better care for all near the end of of life.

It's a reasonable (and original) point, and I'm somewhat disappointed that Warnock didn't address it directly***. It's a variant of the 'slippery slope' argument, and for euthanasia (although that's a different thing altogther. Isn't it?) there's a precedent for medicalised killing spreading in scope. But I'm not entirely convinced. Assuming a properly constructed set of legal checks and balances in which the views of prospective suicides are sought, there's no reason why the poor should be less capable of expressing their wishes than the wealthy. There are various professions outwith the chattering classes who assist them in doing so daily. Plus that class has the same issues in relation to managing the end of their lives as the 'consumerist élite'.**** Then there's the sad fact that when it comes to palliative care - or medical care in general - the poor get a worse deal than the rich, whether in private or state system. So surely the class argument evaporates if the net effect is a worse end of life? Unless one believes that a suffering life is inherently of more value than an easy death. Which is, I understand, Catholic doctrine - but don't get me started on how that leads down the slippery slope towards fetishising the suffering of the poor.

Incidentally, we should question whether Odone's argument is disingenuous. Note that her paper was published by The Centre for Policy Studies - an outfit not normally regarded as being on the right (i.e. left) side of the barricades in The Class War. But give them their due - even conservatives may, from time to time, have compassion for the poor. It's possible that they are not simply siding with religion on the usual ideological grounds.*****

Interesting, though, that when it comes to her reasoning, it's not the class issue she talks about but her personal experience. Now...there's nothing wrong by being informed by experience - but which is it? The fact that she couldn't stomach helping her father to die is entirely up to her. If she derived satisfaction from her relationship with her desparetly sick and disabled brother than one must believe her. In the context of assisted suicide, incidentally, the latter is a bit of a red herring, except that she uses it to make a more-or-less God-based point on the Catholic belief in the automatic sanctity of human life. So which? Of course, it could be both. If so I guess I could ignore the religious argument about which it's impossible for me to have any opinion other than 'that's irrelevant' and have an honest, secular disagreement about the class issues. But I'll expect to see her (and the CfPS) taking a consistent attitude on class issues elsewhere. Otherwise I'll suspect a smokescreen.

On to Warnock. I read her justifications for assisted suicide as being refreshingly grim. And honest. Lately the public narrative has been taken over somewhat by the Swiss model of terminally ill patients bravely checking in to an appartment and gently slipping away surrounded by loved ones. Well...the reality is actually that the end of life is often shitty - not only for the elderly person but also their loved ones. Warnock regards 'not wanting to be a burden' as just a legitimate reason for seeking death as pain. Or we might consider how poor the quality of care is in many hospitals and care institutions. (And note that, while palliative drugs can remove pain, fixing the psycho-social aspects is harder). 'So why not,' Warnock seems to be saying, 'Just get it over with?'

It's a counsel of despair, isn't it? An obvious counter-argument is that we would not have to consider assisted suicide if we fixed other things. We ought to have better elderly care. We ought to take the burden off relatives, etc. etc. Except - to mangle a phrase - you can't get an is from an ought. If wishes were fishes, etc. And I'm doubtful of a hypothetical causal link: if we allow assisted suicide we won't be motivated to improve standards of care.

So this is where I think Odone has the class argument backward. Let's assume assisted suicide were legal. The poor, suffering the most intolerable health and social care conditions, would be more likely to wish recourse to it. So I will happily join Odone on the barricades to fight for equality - but assisted suicide is not the battleground.

NOTE: It's pretty clear from the above that I come down on the Pro- side. It's not a done deal, though. I have some sympathy for the slippery slope idea and am willing to listen to arguments. My only objection is when it's, per Odone, false argument in which underlying motives are hidden. But these issues are tricky ones and worth debating. It's not a topic in which either answer is particularly pleasant.
Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. Whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

* Note that, despite her own impoliteness, Odone has previously bemoaned the 'stridency' of secularist/atheist commentators, which, the behaviour of some of The Usual Suspects granted, seems to be catch-all religious speak for 'They should shut up.' Interestingly, Warnock has been garnering praise for the civility with which she has been putting over her 'repugnant views', as in this review in Odone's old organ.

** Sigh. I desparately need a better term than 'the poor'. 'The working class' doesn't (ahem!) work. Lower class - meh. But 'the proletariat' just sounds silly.

*** To be frank, I'm not a huge admirer of Warnock. For example, it seems to me that the recommendations of her Commission which were taken up into the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill failed as soon as real life intruded. Like when Diane Blood was unable to be legally impregnated with her dead husband's sperm until she hopped on a plane to Brussels.

**** Those words from the link. I suspect 'consumerist' is a weasel word here. In Catholic circles, there's a tendency to - deliberately? - confuse 'materialist' = 'wants lots of consumer goods' with 'Materialist' = 'there's no such thing as the supernatural'. What's one to do when one encounters the word in a discussion? One has to either let the - deliberate? - misunderstanding/insult pass or go off-topic to explain.

*****Odone herself does not appear to be entirely right-wing herself. Although the Catholic Herald, which she edited, is regarded, unlike The Tablet, as establishment, she also did a stint at The New Statesman. (Now she blogs for The Telegraph - but journos tend to be political whores anyway).

[Personal note: I've had relatives who, I believe, would have wished help to die once they got beyond a certain point. And it's generally assumed that my father, having had a severe stroke, hastened his death by refusing food until diabetes took over. For myself - yes - I'd like the choice, and assistance with a speedy, painless method.]

Sigh. It's all about death today. Reggae great, Gregory Isaacs.


Dan | thesamovar said...

I don't think it actually is an original argument against assisted suicide. I remember hearing it, from some lefties on the old ZNet forums, at least 10 years ago, and wouldn't be at all surprised if it didn't go back further than that. I was initially very skeptical of it, but in the end had to concede that they had a strong point. We know that most every aspect of law is used in a way that disproportionately benefits the rich over the poor, so why would this be an exception?

Despite that, I think I'm still, like you, on the Pro side. It just seems too cruel not to allow it as a possibility. Of course every effort should be made by campaigners to have it introduced in the most fair and egalitarian way possible, and if it doesn't work like that in practice, action will have to be taken. But the current situation is intolerable.

I also share your view of Warnock - her arguments in the abortion stuff were terrible. (Disclosure: not read anything she actually wrote herself, only what other people have told me, so I may be being unfair.)

Btw, I restarted my blog too. Nothing much exciting yet, just a video, but will try to put a few bits and bobs there when I can. I might do another entry on belief in God, in which case I might use some of the stuff from the last email you sent me.

Edward the Bonobo said...

It's true that law inevitebly priveleges the wealthy. Book recommendation: 'Eve Was Framed' by Helena Kennedy. That's largely about the way the law priveleges men over women - but also touches on class issues. (I'd read the book long before I discovered a close connection with a relative of Kennedy).

My wider point, though, is that I may take that kind of argument from somebody with a track record of taking the right side in Class politics. I'm rather more sceptical of it coming from an apologist for a reactionary religion.