On Campus Philosophy Whoring; Death.

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!


7 responses to “On Campus Philosophy Whoring; Death.

  1. The Church does seem to be inconsistent here. The intrinsic moral worth of all human life is applied to the unborn human life and to adults who are suffering and want to die, but not to adults who have strayed.

    Regarding the human fetus/embryo, the Church’s position is almost as absolute as it can get. They forbid abortion even to save the life of the mother, because to do so would be to give the mother’s life greater value than the child’s. If the same reasoning is applied to capital punishment, we would conclude that it is impermissible for a society to kill the ‘homicidal maniac in their midst’, because to do so would mean giving greater value to the lives of future victims than to the homicidal maniac herself. The unborn child and the maniac are both going to cause death, and yet they are treated differently.

    The Church may argue that the unborn child is innocent and does not intend to kill, whereas the maniac will kill intentionally. I don’t see how this outweighs the imperative of intrinsic value. According to the Church, all human life is equally valuable, without exception. It seems a little strange that the maniac’s intrinsic value can be forfeited just because she has committed (or will commit) some crimes. The Church may also argue that killing the maniac will prevent future deaths. This argument does not succeed in demonstrating consistency, because killing the unborn child will prevent the death of the mother. The Church does apply the principle of equal and intrinsic moral worth consistently.

    Interestingly, the only permissible way to destroy a fetus/embryo, according to Catholic morality, is to do so unintentionally. If a medical procedure other than abortion is required to save the mothers life, and this procedure has the unintended consequence of causing the destruction of the fetus/embryo, it is permissible.

  2. Ahem. In my previous comment, the last sentence in the second last paragraph should read: The Church does not apply the principle of equal and intrinsic moral worth consistently.

  3. Fr John Fleminbg

    I am pleased that my presentation at Uni NSW has provoked discussion. Three things: First, the report on my talk was reasonably accurately presented but I did not sya that lethal dose of morphine could be applied to a patient. What I did say was that when morphine is applied correctly for pain management it usually has the effect of the patient being able to live longer as well as comfortably. The theoretical question about the intensification of pain relief with the foreseen but undesired second effect of the patient dying earlier (not really a factual case) is acceptable on the application of the principle of double effect. Second I also argued that euthanasia was contrary to international law on the basis of the inalienability of fundamental human rights. Third it is consistent to accept the intrinsic value of every human being and at the same time provide for self-defence provided that the means of self-defence against an unjust aggressor is proportionate. It is always wrong to kill an innocent human being. It is not necessarily wrong to use lethal force in self-defence. Might I also add, following the remarks of David, that I would be very pleased if those who say they oppose all capital punishment and all wars (and don’t we all reprobate war?) would also be supportive of the protection of the human rights of embryos, fetuses, newborns, the very sick and the demented elderly. The philosophical literatur eis redolent with cases of people who are squeamish about society protecting itself by the use of proportionate force but not all squeamish about the killings of the unborn. Pity really.
    Fr John I Fleming

  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for your comments. Your participation here is very welcome.

    You said:

    “Third it is consistent to accept the intrinsic value of every human being and at the same time provide for self-defence provided that the means of self-defence against an unjust aggressor is proportionate. It is always wrong to kill an innocent human being. It is not necessarily wrong to use lethal force in self-defence.”

    We are comparing two cases: the unborn child who will cause the death of his mother, and the aggressor who will cause the deaths of her victims. The distinction you make between these two cases is that the unborn child is innocent whereas the aggressor is acting unjustly and is therefore presumably not innocent. But why does it follow that we may kill the aggressor? Why does self-defence and proportionality override the aggressors right to life? Why is it permissible for me to use lethal force in self defense, when this means choosing my life over the life of another? I don’t intend these questions as an attack on the Church or it’s ethic of life, and I hope it hasn’t come across in that way. I suppose I’m just trying to understand the idea of intrinsic value, as I’ve never found it very convincing.

  5. Thank you Fr Fleming for the clarification regarding morphine use. I am glad you consider it a fair representation of your talk. I intended to ensure faithfulness to the material, given I am not in the business of misrepresentation and cheap Church bashing.

  6. Fr John Fleminbg

    Hi David, sorry to be late in reply. I believe that the two cases are different and call for for different ethical responses. Where the continuance of the pregnancy will put the woman at imminent risk of death (in fact such cases really do not occur) it is permissible to induce an early birth (by caesarian if necessary) but not to directly kill the unborn child. Then you would attempt to save both. Abortion involves the direct killing of the child. This approach would be to remove the child recognising that a foreseen but unintended side-effect may be that you could not save the the child as well. This is why the removal of an embryo from the fallopian tube is permissible in the case of an ectopic pregnancy. Where one is faced with an unjust aggressor you have the right to live and the obligation to preserve your own life. You do not want to kill the aggressor and would do everything to avoid it. But it is the aggressor who is choosing to act as he does and is in that sense choosing the consequences. The right to self-preservation is understood in all religions as well as by those who don’t have a religion. If this were not the case then civil society could not exist. Theologically it comes down to the question of sin and its consequences. but you don’t need theology to defend the proposiution that one has a right to self-preservation and self-determination. Hope that helps. I really appreciate the respectful way in which contributors present their arguments on this site.

  7. And if I may add a further point about intrinsic or inherent dignity, this is agree to by all the UN human rights documents. If it is not the case then it is difficult to make out a case for natural rights. Intrinsic value means having worth by virtue of being a human and not because of the colour of skin, sex, ability or disability or any other extrinsic factor. Again, without inherent dignity then there are many pathways down which one could go to justify why only some humans need to be protected while the weak and the vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

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