The philosophy of Aktiv Dødshjaelp
Captain Stephen Dean Paul
Voltaire / 1729
“I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health, but there is no reason why I shouldn’t choose to be dead, and that would be even better for it.”
Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher, expressed the idea that individuals should have the choice to determine their own fate, including the choice to die. Philosophers as far back as 2000 years ago were discussing individual’s right to die.
In my last two articles I’ve been a little bit too “clinical” in my arguments for Aktiv Dødshjælp.
In this article I’m going to appeal to your senses, your philosophical mind.
Before recently I wasn’t very well acquainted with philosophy. I started looking into it specifically to see what the ancient stoics and the great modern thinkers had to say about suicide or euthanasia.
I think I’ve learned a couple of things from studying Hume and Kant. The result of which is an apology to people who are against aktiv dødshjælp. An apology for my over simplified beliefs and convictions and an apology for expressing them to simply, without enough context.
David Hume (1711-1776) was a prominent intellectual of the Enlightenment. His books and essays generated radically innovative theories of human understanding, knowledge, religious belief, moral practice, aesthetic judgment, and political theory.
Believe in utility
Hume believed in utility. Utility being defined as usefulness. Things that were useful to the largest amount of people were accepted as “good”.
In my very simple way, I suppose this meant that over the hundreds of thousands of years of our sapien existence, we are prewired to accept things that have utility, things that are useful to the largest group of us.
I guess more simply put, things that were useful helped us survive and our sense of approval comes from things that benefit our society. Being kind, being moral, not stealing, not abusing. When we see someone showing kindness to another person, we feel it first.
Before it becomes a thought, it’s a feeling, something that we can’t control. Then we say aww, that’s the right thing to do. That it is “good”.
Hume also discussed Moral Progress. Moral progress can only happen when we learn to think of “others” as ourselves or a “part of us”. Not as confusing as it sounds. Women are a good example of this.
How long in our recent human history were women subjugated by men?
Long time. It was only when men (the subjugators) began to describe women (others) as part of “us”, not seeing them as others, but as a part of themselves. Then things began to change, slowly. Very slowly.
The idea of “the others”
I think another excellent and current example would be the Israli / Palestine conflict. Neither group as far as I can see are adopting the idea that the “others” are “part of us”.
Intent is another big player in Hume’s deck of cards. What is your intent from a large social scale point of view. Is it good? Does it help us? Does it benefit society on a whole?
I can only be sure of my intent, that it is good, but I can’t be 100% sure of yours. I can’t know that your intent is pure with 100% certainty.
Not to bore you too much with 1700’s philosophy, but Hume also believed that we determine whether something is good or bad, not by some pre-programmed sense of morality, but by what we have learned through our experiences. What have we seen, heard, touched, felt…
When I look at aktiv dødshjælp through some of these 18th century lenses I can see very clearly why people would react poorly to it.
From a utility or usefulness point of view it’s difficult to sell that aktiv dødshjælp is “useful” to society on a whole or beneficial to the masses. It’s a deeply individual choice.
From a moral progress angle, it’s especially difficult to see them (terminal patients) as us. We can’t imagine what it would be like, and we’ve spent most of our lives actively ignoring anything to do with pain suffering and death.
From an intent point of view, how can we be sure that the intent of both the patient and the doctor are true. How can we know they aren’t being coerced or pressured?
Stack all these things up and it’s easy to understand why people would be hesitant about medically assisted dying.
Because my experience is different my view is different. I’ve seen it, felt it, and literally held hands with death.
It was useful to my mom. It would be useful to many people who are suffering. It will be very useful to a generation who knows that if things become unbearable, they have a dignified and socially accepted way to say goodbye if and when they choose.
Having the choice and the option lying firmly in your hand is calming. Fear of death, fear of suffering can be put aside leaving you free to enjoy your life and not have anxiety over losing control in the event of terminal illness.
My mom and I couldn’t have been closer at the end of her life and caring for her when things got tough intertwined our lives in a way that is difficult to express. There was no us and them, no “others”. We were bonded and together. My opinion or feelings regarding Aktiv Dødshjælp didn’t matter, I was only there to support her, her right, her choice.
When it comes to the doctors and nurses who do these procedures, I have two ways of thinking about it. I was half a meter away from the doctor when she administered the drugs that would end my mother’s life. She did it with tears falling from her eyes and what I can only describe as a deeply empathetic presence.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to put into words the selflessness and courage it would take to do that. How do I know her intent is 100% true? How do I know she wants to help? Literally delivering another human into death requires nothing less. You wouldn’t be able to do it if your weren’t 100% true in your intention.
For this same reason I know my mother’s intent was true. Do you know how brave and committed you need to be to allow someone to kill you? I don’t, hopefully I’ll never find out. I know for certain though if you weren’t sure, you couldn’t go through with it.
Justice is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t think we often analyse what it means exactly. Hume did quite a lot of it for us though.
Legal justice is again based on utility or what is best for society on a whole. We only treat people with justice when it leads to utility or public good of the community. This is balanced however with the idea that if you have no power you may not find justice.
History is littered with groups of people who had no power. This lack of power could have been because of where you were born, the color of your skin, who your parents were or who they weren’t, whether you were a man or a woman. No power = No justice.
History with some clarity shows us that people without power frequently get no justice.
I can’t think of a group of people who are literally more powerless than terminally ill patients. 70% of terminally ill patients in society are over 70 years old.
This is a group of people that have frequently been marginalized, pushed aside and sometimes barely able to scratch together a dignified day to day life.
If Hume was right and our sense of approval is an experienced based exercise in finding a societal scale good, then it will be difficult to change people’s opinions.
This problem I compounded by a lifetime and culture of not discussing death and dying. From childhood death has been discussed as a negative. Death = Bad
“Let us rid death of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects. . . . It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. . . . He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Captain Stephen Dean Paul
From Canada to the open seas as a superyacht captain, Stephen set anchor in Odense to open a business and be with his family. After the death of his mother last year, Stephen decided to write a book and be a positive voice for medically assistance in dying here in Denmark and abroad.