Monday, November 3, 2014

Death With Dignity

The death of Brittany Maynard was brought to my attention today. Brittany suffered from glioblastoma; she ended her life by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates.  In her own words,
"My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that's out of my control," she told PEOPLE last month. "I've discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it's a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying." 
I shall not comment on the death of Brittany or the circumstances surrounding them. What I shall comment on are views or beliefs intimately tied to cases such as this one.  I will only comment briefly in passing on one important issue:  There is no right to death.

Death is an absence, a lack, and not a good.  There are only natural rights--moral rights--to goods.  Technically, there are only rights to actions and states of affairs.  There is no right to food: there is a right to having some food or being permitted to farm land for food.  But there is no right to being permitted to take the life of an innocent--the delimiting case being oneself. Autonomy or self-ownership are not ultimate goods (or at least not the only ultimate goods which trump all others); neither is pleasure nor the absence of pain.  But I shall say no more about the matter in this post.

What I wish to challenge is the notion implied in the above quotation that one who chooses a course of action which involves pain and the ravishing of disease is (or will be) less dignified thereby.

To have dignity is to be worthy of positive appraisal or approbation often taking the form of respect.  With disease one can lose some dignity; for instance, one could lose the respect which comes with holding a political office that one can no longer hold because of the disease.  All honors bestowed by being a political authority are no more.

But one cannot lose one's ultimate dignity which comes with being a human being created in the image of God.  One can only lose that dignity by ceasing to be human (which on an essentialist view of human nature could only come by ceasing to be; and in such a case one does not exist with less dignity).

Yet one can retain dignity--dignity which goes beyond merely being a human--even in the face of great suffering and bodily affliction.  For one can have worth bestowed upon one from others.  In this regard, I recall my grandfather who was debilitated by a stroke and would eventually die from the complications.  Some of his dignity was no doubt gone--the dignity that came from being a good golfer or being the principal of a school, for instance.  Nonetheless, he retained dignity and was dignified to the end--not because of the deplorable physical condition that he found himself in; rather, he retained significant dignity because he was dignified to the end by those who loved him.


  1. Fair enough, Tullius. But there are limit cases, obviously. Your appeal to dignity "bestowed upon one by others" may very well be a form of dignity, I'm not sure. If so, then there are two kinds of dignity, one self-regarding and the other not. Similarly with honor. One can be honored by others, or one could live with honor (having little to do with what others think).

    Dignity, I take it, is a form of self-worth. And, it seems to me, has for the most nothing to do with what others think. On your view, a man dying on a deserted island may very well take his own life because he hasn't worth "by those who loved him."

    Take Ms. Brittany. Her sense of self-worth is diminished...why? Perhaps because she can no longer function without the aid of someone else. Perhaps she once wiped the rear-end of a daughter; now that same daughter must do as much to her. Now, perhaps her self-worth should _not_ be diminished...but that's a different argument from the one that you seem to be making.

    Dignity or self-worth concerns my own bearing, in the first instance. It has, again, little to do with anyone else (excepting God, of course). I hold to certain principles, say, and I judge myself on how well I apply those principles to my life - such dignity has nothing to do with anyone else. So I guess I'm unclear as to why you think appealing to anyone else (in terms of their feelings or thoughts or whatever) has any bearing on what I think of myself.

    Keep in mind: I'm not saying you're wrong about the case at hand. Indeed, I think that there are very good reasons why Mrs. Brittany is mistaken. But I guess I don't understand your account of dignity.

  2. I agree with parts of what both of you wrote, and disagree with parts both of you wrote. Monash, it does not follow from anything Tullius said that "...a man dying on a deserted island may very well take his own life because he hasn't worth "by those who loved him."" Tullius said that there is no right to death and there is no right to take the life of an innocent (and that includes oneself if oneself is innocent). So, this is where I disagree with you, Monash.

    Having said that, it also seems to me that dignity has almost nothing to do with what others think. This is where it appears that I disagree with you, Tullius.

    Now, I absolutely agree with you about challenging the notion that one who chooses to live with pain and ravishing of disease is less dignified thereby. Such persons retain the dignity that comes from being created in the image of God, and they also gain dignity from their choice. There is bravery in choosing to live with suffering and ravishing disease, and bravery is virtuous. There is also the opportunity to develop patience and long-suffering, another virtue. There may be others. Being virtuous in these ways, it seems to me, adds to one's dignity, don't you think?

  3. I understand what you're saying, JS, and I think you're right _with respect to rights_. But then Tullius moves on to talk about his Grandpa. Why does Grandpa have dignity? "Because he was dignified to the end by those who loved him." With this account of dignity, yes, it does seem to follow that those who die alone die without dignity.