Daniel Finkelstein Times assisted dying
Ethics & Morality

Daniel Finkelstein: opponents of assisted dying are ‘radicals’

In his Times article today, Daniel Finkelstein insists that to legalise assisted dying (/suicide) would be “a small change”; a very modest development; a necessary and popular incremental reform. As Parliament gets yet another chance to consider this matter (the fourth in 15 years), “eventually success will come,” he tells us. “Political minds change slowly but the change is all in one direction.”

His is a teleological belief with a curious argument:

There are three remaining political obstacles to a new law. And the first is the idea that assisted dying represents a radical change, a break with hundreds of years of law-making, philosophical principle and medical practice. It is in an attempt to emphasise the strangeness of the idea of assisted dying, the abandonment of common morality, that opponents try to brand the idea “assisted suicide”.

And it is an entirely hypocritical thing for them to do.

Giving a dying person choice is, of course, quite different from what most people understand as suicide but that is not my objection to it. My objection is that “assisted suicide” isn’t the language of a frank person calling out the euphemism of “assisted dying”. Instead it is itself a euphemism. For the people who use the term suicide to describe assisted dying don’t really believe assisted dying is any kind of suicide. They believe it is murder.

In other words, the opponents of assisted dying are themselves using a carefully selected word to disguise what they really think — to disguise the fact that it is they who are the radicals.

A conversation ensued on Twitter:

Daniel FinkelsteinDaniel FinkelsteinDaniel Finkelstein

And there the conversation ended.

Who would have thought that people who express concern for the way the disabled, elderly and frail might be treated as a result of this proposal would be characterised as ‘radicals’? Who would have considered that those who make reasoned objections to the diminution of palliative care and other forms of specialist support would become ‘radicals’? Who would ever have entertained that those who are wary of the logical step or “small change” from assisted dying to euthanasia would be society’s ‘radicals’?

Note the absolutist: “They believe it is murder.”

It is possible to believe that abortion is murder, but also to entertain that there are exceptional circumstances where it manifestly is not – the ‘lesser evil’, if you prefer. But Daniel Finkelstein entertains no ethical nuance or complexity of decision in his argument. Everyone who opposes assisted dying must be ‘radical’ because theirs is the decisive dogma: they are incapable of considering other elements which characterise a human life from a moral point of view, and so they seek to impose their precious moral immutability and uncompassionate infallibility upon others, no matter how much those others may be suffering.

Who are these monsters that are incapable of discerning ambiguity in concrete decisions, or allowing hesitation between alternative goods in alternative courses of action?

Daniel Finkelstein holds his belief sincerely, but those who hold the contrary view cannot be categorised by callous simplicity. They may believe that all human life is precious, but might also just be persuaded to help someone being burned at the stake by hanging a bag of gunpowder around their neck in order that death may be hastened to “rid them of their pain”, as John Foxe wrote.

Is it ‘absolutist’ to believe that no life is worthless? Is it really ‘radical’ to seek to sustain the suffering life to its natural end, not only out of compassion for eternity, but also the daily renewal of that life and the transformation of those in the world who are present and close to the suffering? Is it ‘radical’ to hope for a better day, or to fear God’s final judgment?

And if you don’t believe in God’s final judgment, isn’t it still possible to believe that assisting dying is a form of murder without being condemned as a radical extremist absorbed by moral absolutism?

It is perfectly possible to oppose assisted dying without assertions of vapid legalism or pharisaic morality, and Christian ethics have shown over the centuries how to wade through the paradoxes and complexities. There is no universal agreement, even in the Universal Church. Are not the real absolutists and radicals here those who seek to codify an irreversible and revolutionary law which would be comprehensive in its provision, and determined solely at the fundamental level of personal decision or perceived duty, irrespective of its effects on medical practice, the morality of society, and common humanity?