Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 454 End of Life Issue

This is Retirement Talk. I've entitled this episode "End of Life Issue".

Sleepless night. "You Don't Know Jack" is a fairly recently movie concerning death: real death; your's and mine. That's why I didn't sleep. It's always a bit disconcerting to contemplate your own morality. The movie tells the tale of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his effort to alleviate the suffering of individuals when death is imminent. He believes in the right of individuals to choose how and when they might end their own life. It seems like that would be a pretty basic decision that might be agreeable to all; like free speech, or free expression or religious freedom. But it isn't.

It is hard to make an argument that the idea of alleviating painful suffering that many times precise death is wrong. It is your life. Shouldn't that be your decision? That is about as simple as it gets. Your neighbors, your relatives, your friends and your government can just butt out. they aren't the ones doing the suffering. Yet that right is denied across the land. As of today only three states have legalized the procedure - Montana, Oregon and Washington. That leaves 47 states where it is considered illegal. You can go to jail for assisting in the ending of the suffering of the terminally ill person through suicide. It is against the law.

Of course, we are talking about taking a life here. A lot people have a big problem with that. I think we pretty much all have a problem with that. We like to believe that we wouldn't kill anyone or assist in the killing of anyone. Now you will notice the change of words used. In one instance we talk about ending the suffering in the other we are talking about killing. Words we choose to use are so powerful.

It is like being opposed to killing but yet agreeing to participate in a war as a soldier or killer of human beings. "That's different', I heard someone say. Or not believing in killing but yet approving of capital punishment. "Well, that's different", I heard someone else say. That state makes laws that approve of killing in war or killing of criminals. Do we really want the state to have ultimate authority over how much we should suffer before we die? No question about the fact we are going to die.

Being against the law is enough of a reason for most folks. Anything that is against the law is wrong. Long ago I studied moral development or reasoning in a summer intensive session under Lawrence Kohlberg at Harvard. We read, thought and talked about different level of moral reasoning. He thought there were five or perhaps six stages of moral development that we all go through or may go through. We can get arrested at any level: two, three, four or five. We can get stuck. Most of us never reach the highest level. But there is a hierarchy. We proceed from one to the other in a very logical way. We must have one before two and two before three and so on. The mind does not skip a level. The models for the highest levels were Buddha, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. It is hard to argue that they would disagree on anything.

The highest level of moral reasoning does not rest on law. It focuses on ideals and principles. these principles are universal in nature and apply to all people, rich and poor, white and black, old and young. They involve the idea of reciprocity and universality and the cloak or veil of ignorance. Meaning that we don't know what role we might play in a moral dilemma.

In this particular dilemma the participants are: the suffering individual who desires to end their own life and suffering, a relative or friend, and the society as a whole. If we were to throw a cloak or veil over the participants and assume one of the roles not knowing which role we would be assigned, how would we choose? Kohlberg though that we would always decide in favor of the less fortunate. In this case the person facing suffering and immanate death. This is a sinfully short description of Kohlberg's thought but it give you an idea. HIs were based on a book by John Raws entitle, A Theory of Justice.

My point being that the laws come from these principles or ideals, or I should say, they should come from these principles and ideals. Many times they don't. They come from political leaders or power brokers of the moment. When this happens they can be bad laws. Bad laws sent Thoreau to jail. Bad law sent Martin Luther King to jail. Bad law forced Jesus and Gandhi to suffer persecution. History is filled with examples.

No one should play God and that is what taking a life is all about. This argument is voiced in opposition to medically assisted suicide all the time. Kevorkian argues that we play God every time we give you a shot to keep you alive, every time you take a pill, every time you are immunized, every time surgery is performed. We play God on a daily basis and welcome it. If we left all of these actions up to God our lifespan would be very short and brutal. We accept playing God without a thought. At the moment three different medications keep me going; maybe six. If it were left up to God I would have died long ago.

"You Don't Know Jack" is very apply named. I knew who Jack Kevorkian was and what he has done but I had never spent a couple of hours in his mind. The movie takes us there. Even if you are in opposition to what he has to say it might be good to a least hear him state his case. Today I feel like I do know Jack. and I'm glad I live in Washington State.

This is Retirement Talk with something to think about.

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