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The Good, Short Life and Human Dignity



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The NRO web briefing and Yuval Levin draw our attention to today’s column by David Brooks. And rightly so. As Yuval points out, our modern pursuit of health as “the primary good” is making it almost impossible to prevent it “from overwhelming every other good” and bankrupting us in the process.

But there is an unsettling oddity about Brooks’ column. He opens by uncritically praising Dudley Clendinen’s essay, “The Good Short Life,” in The Times’s Sunday Review section. And he closes by recommending three other essays:

. . . let me provide links to three other essays, which offer other perspectives on why we should accept the finitude of life and the naturalness of death. They are: “Born Toward Dying,” by Richard John Neuhaus, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” by Leon Kass and “Thinking About Aging,” by Gilbert Meilaender.

But all three of these authors would firmly reject the central argument advanced by Clendinen: that his life will soon no longer be worth living:

I have a plan. If I get pneumonia, I’ll let it snuff me out. If not, there are those other ways. I just have to act while my hands still work: the gun, narcotics, sharp blades, a plastic bag, a fast car, over-the-counter drugs, oleander tea (the polite Southern way), carbon monoxide, even helium. That would give me a really funny voice at the end.

I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.

Brooks surely knows that Neuhaus, Kass, and Meilaender were the three most prominent voices toward the end of the 20th century defending the dignity of human life. They defended the naturalness of death and thus opposed the unnaturalness and immorality of euthanasia (involuntary or voluntary) and suicide (physician-assisted or solitary).

One can recognize that rising health-care costs, particularly at the end of life, are bankrupting our nation and thus failing to serve the common good without concluding that this entails that the lives of those with terminal diseases are no longer worth living. Between the two extremes of intentionally killing and prolonging life at all costs lies a virtuous mean of accepting death when the alternatives prove disproportionate.

In fact, this is just what Pope John Paul the Great, in his last act of public teaching, taught the world as he humbly accepted his death — neither deeming life with Parkinson’s disease unworthy of living (and thus killing himself) nor demanding every life-sustaining treatment (irrespective of cost, likelihood of success, and alternative uses for scarce resources).

As we continue our national discussion about the cost of care at the end of life, we should keep these distinctions in mind.

— Ryan T. Anderson is the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.



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