How to Think About the War Against Death
1. So my post on Brooks and death got (for me) big ratings and a lot of fine criticisms–both here on BIG THINK and elsewhere.
2. I pretty much agree with many of the criticisms, although I thought my post did too. So I thought about whining that my critics just don’t understand me. Instead, I’m taking the higher and more noble road of trying to be more clear. I’m not going to mention particular critics, for fear that they wouldn’t want the huge fame that comes with being displayed on BIG THINK.
3. If this is what David Brooks meant, I’m against it: People with terminal illnesses should choose to die while they still have all their capabilities and with all their friends around them. This kind of allegedly noble but really control-freak death was recommended by Nietzsche, and some have even contended that it’s the kind of “euthanasia” Socrates chose.
4. If David Brooks meant that we shoud be okay with dying after having lived a complete life, I’m against that too: I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again here. The idea of a COMPLETE LIFE is contrary to the truth about our personal longings. No Darwinian really says I’ve done my duty to my species and so I’m happy now to be replaced by a better model. No follower of Aristotle ever quite means it when he says that I’ve lived a complete life of self-sufficient virtue, and so it’s fine that it’s time for me to go. We self-conscious and loving beings would always rather have more time. We might accept death with resignation or a kind of serenity or even a kind of gratitude as indispensable for everything good we’ve enjoyed. But that doesn’t mean that death isn’t basically bad, and we long to get out of it if we can. Our longings point beyond our biological liimtations. That’s one source of the faithful hope of the believer in the Biblical God, and it’s the source of our prolongation of lives through the techno-conquest of nature. It’s clear to me that the wonderful and not insignificant victories in our war against death are evidence for the personal freedom that was slighted by Plato and Aristotle. (It’s also clear to me that it’s evidence that Darwin doesn’t explain it all, and the Christians are on to something about who we are.) Living longer and with less pain is surely a good thing in itself, and we should take pride in what we’ve accomplished for ourselves and those we love.
5. It was a mistake for me to use the word “unaffordable.” I didn’t mean that we should encourage people to choose to die not to be a burden. I’m basically PRO-LIFE or not PRO-CHOICE or deeply libertarian. So I don’t think women have the right to choose not to have and love their babies, and I don’t people have the right to choose to die whenever they please. That means, of course, we have the duty to make sure they’re not so lonely or desperate that they believe they’d rather be dead.
6. That doesn’t mean that every available means should be used just to be not dead for a few more days. Sometimes the refusal of treatment is perfectly reasonable and loving. And it would make no sense to, say, put someone with advanced Alzheimer’s through the hell of a bypass operation.
7. In our libertarian time, sometimes we seem to be devoted, above all, to keeping the people around right now alive as long as possible. That’s basically a sound impulse, but it does have reasonable limits. But sometimes we’re all about marginalizing and hiding the old, the sick, the developmentally challenged, and so forth because they remind us of the contingency of all human existence and the death that we all face eventually. But it’s better, in every case, that the man with ALS or one with Alzheimer’s be with us as long as reasonably possible, even if it troubles us to be with them. It’s very clear that it’s better for us to be present in love with them.