By Bryn Simon
I hope my emotive title has interested you in reading this post…I thought I might put ‘cancer’ and ‘sex’ in the title as well but it just wouldn’t have made sense. Anyway, down to business. “There is never anything exciting to do on this campus” I hear people say. (Add whiney voice) Well desist I say; “Desist!”. There is in truth exciting things aplenty on campus, you just need to keep an eye out. And this post is a recount and discussion of just such an occasion when I had my eye out. (My mother always warned me it would happen to someone)
A couple of weeks ago, the day after the Philosophy Discussion group topic on ‘Euthanasia’ in fact, I attended a talk put on by the Catholic Chaplaincy. Fr John Fleming, President of Campion College, came to discuss a catholic position towards the topic “Dying with Dignity”. Fr Fleming put forward four fairly common argument clusters in defence of an anti-euthanasia stance in the palliative care setting. The first of these hinged on the idea of persons having intrinsic moral worth, and any considerations of the quality of a person’s life are trumped by this. The second based on distinctions between ‘acts’ and ‘omissions’. The third, the importance of ‘intention’ when administering pain relief drugs to palliative care patients. According to Fr Fleming it is ok to knowingly administer a lethal dose of morphine so as to relieve pain, but it is not ok to give high doses of morphine with the intention to kill the patient. And the fourth, the slippery slope argument. Fr Fleming was concerned that voluntary euthanasia slides into involuntary euthanasia. So all fairly stock standard arguments. And to be honest did not pique my philosophical interest as much as what happened next.
These positions are all concerned with how we approach ‘end of life’ issues. But what about those non-voluntary ‘end of life’ issues. Can we be consistent in this approach to euthanasia and still support wars and the death penalty? Conveniently for this article an audience member brought the very issue of the death penalty up. (Not this writer I add) Fr Fleming responded in this way. We have to consider two elements in metering out the death penalty, ‘prudential judgement’ and context. ‘Prudential judgement’ seemed to be about proportionality, we don’t kill someone because they are about to punch us, but we take all reasonable steps to protect ourselves. Indeed this is a principle in Australian law. Fr Fleming brought out the issue of context through reference to the Jews wandering in the desert with a ‘homicidal maniac in their midst’. He argued that they should kill him and rightly so, as there was little alternative. Today we have prisons and a judicial system, thus our context has removed the necessity of having to act in that way. But this argument has not removed the permissability of judicially sanctioned death. Fr Fleming said to this that on top of the above mentioned issues, when dealing out the death penalty there is always the potential to get it wrong. This gives me my philosophical itch. Fr Fleming has not ruled out the acceptance of the death penalty. If we had unequivocal evidence of someone having murdered, and the knowledge that they are going to murder again, (perhaps like in that movie, you know the one) and we do not have any way to incarcerate him, then on Fr Flemings reasoning the death penalty may be acceptable.
I am prepared to accept that the above reasoning seems consistent with an anti-euthanasia stance. But I still have my itch. I want Fr Fleming, as a representative of the Church, to make reference to the inherent moral worth of this fictional murderer. Yet no mention of this as a reason against the death penalty, only the mention of technological problems. I want the Church to rail against wars and the death penalty as much as they do on issues of euthanasia. I grant that sectors of the Catholic Church do indeed do just this. And yet we also have the Church as a key player through the ages in maintaining and developing the ‘just war’ tradition with its genesis in the Roman Empire. (A residual ethic at best)
Since I have touched on a number of somewhat mammoth issues I should bring this to a close. What I essentially got from this talk was something I like about philosophy- the discovery of oneself, one’s attitudes and reflection on how one should live. From ethical debates on a particular issue a swathe of issues are brought up. This gives an the opportunity to think on thinking, to practice reasoning, to reflect on what motivates you to hold a position. Arguments and reasoning aside, I want the Church to stand dogmatically against war and the death penalty as well as dogmatically for euthanasia because I have some highly romanticised view of what religion should be (or at least an element of it); radical compassion, come what may. I hope some of the myriad of issues I have ramblingly touched on give someone pause for reflection!
So exciting and interesting things do indeed happen on campus. All this from one 50 minute talk. Happy whoring!