Death with Dignity: Questions, Concerns, Dangers | Catholic World Report
Philosopher Robert Spaemann talks about the dangers that would result from the legalization of assisted suicide, and also discusses organ donation and the brain-death criterion. Interview by Julia Wächter (Diocese of Regensburg).
Regensburg, January 29, 2015 (kath.net/Diocese of Regensburg). Internationally renowned philosopher Prof. Robert Spaemann speaks in this interview with Julia Wächter about the paradoxical shifts in the concept of dignity, about the dangers that would result from the legalization of assisted suicide, and about the duties of the Church and of every individual human being.
Julia Wächter: The expression “death with dignity” is used both by advocates and by opponents of assisted suicide. How did we arrive at this apparent shift of meaning in the concept of dignity?
Prof. Robert Spaemann: A human being possesses dignity, not as an exclusively organic living being, but because he is a spiritual subject, an “I”. However, increasingly intense efforts are being made to separate the human being as a biological entity from an “I” that hovers over matter. Advocates of suicide say that this “I” will disappear with the occurrence of death. Consequently the human being, who would then no longer be a human being, would cease to have dignity. In this view he is not understood as a body-soul composite but rather—you would actually have to say—as a mere soul. That is of course paradoxical, because most of these people adhere at the same time to biologism and materialism. Actually they ought to be advocating the diametrically opposed theory. All modern ideology suffers from a deep internal contradiction, and this is apparent precisely in the double meaning of the word “dignity”.
Wächter: Assuming that a person who commits suicide is convinced that everything ends at death: how can such a person, despite the harshness of his existence, prefer what from his perspective is “nothingness”?
Spaemann: This person’s existence becomes increasingly unpleasant to him, and this leads to a calculated suicide [Bilanzselbstmord]. Someone weighs the advantages and the disadvantages and then decides which side outweighs the other. The person thereby makes himself into a thing. Here we need to recommend solidarity with the sinner but clear disapproval of the sin.
Wächter: Is it possible to justify, even for non-believers, the view that a human being cannot be the absolute master of his own life?
Spaemann: That is not a Christian invention. Even Socrates wrote that life is given to us as a gift. A non-believer, nevertheless, does not believe that a human being has a master. At most he might regard arguments based on the natural law as meaningful. Thus the prohibition against helping to kill can be elucidated in terms of the requirements of public safety. In relation to all his fellow human beings, a human being must be perfectly sure of his life. And he is no longer sure of it if there is a permission to kill. A human being is not the absolute master of himself but must respect others also. If he really is a non-believer, he may not even respect his duty toward his neighbor. Then arguing with a stubborn non-believer does not lead to success.
At any rate there are few people who are really certain that there is no God. Most people today [in Germany] are agnostics: “I do not know whether there is a God, maybe yes, maybe no.” With such a person you can still argue, for example with Pascal’s Wager: If nothing were at stake, it would perhaps make no difference whether God exists. But if it is a question of eternity and if someone harbors just a hint of a doubt about the utter absence of a God, then it makes sense to act as though it were true [that God exists]. Faith is a great joy and a consolation. What would you have lost if [it turned out that] God didn’t exist? Nothing at all.
Wächter: Is there an objective right and wrong in the case of dying, or can everyone decide for himself what is “dignified”?