Here’s the second installment in the wisdom of Roger Scruton’s A POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY:

. . . [G]given that fact, it is more than ever necessary for us to incorporate death into our life plans. We need to recognize the value of timely death and the futility of living beyond the point where anyone will mourn our passing. Whatever our viewing of the afterlife and the promises and threats of religion, we must recognize that happiness on Earth is available only through giving and receiving affection. From the first-person perspective the critical question is not that of terminal illness and the suffering can usually be alleviated, and a person can be terminally ill even though fully capable of giving and receiving love. The critical question is longevity itself, which has brought about a situation in which we all have something to fear worse than death, namely the living death of the loveless.

. . . [T]he sense of the sanctity of human life can be damaged just as much by longevity as by a permissive approach to abortion and euthanasia. Our respect for human life is continuous with our desire and capacity to relate to it. A world in which increasingly many human beings are without affectionate relations with their kind, persisting as burdens to be carried rather than companions to be enjoyed, will be a world in which human life seems far less precious than it seems to us today. The traditional respect for age and the view of age as a repository of wisdom and authority will both dwindle. Old people will be regarded increasingly as a nuisance. Moreover, because their numbers will be growing and their legal rights will be in no way diminished by their decrepitude, they will soon be majority shareholders in all public and most private goods. They will be sitting on the collective assets of mankind, preventing the young from owning them, and maybe waving their wills in the face of their heirs, in the hope of attracting attention. The situation could rapidly degenerate, to the point where the young members of society turn on the geriatrics and compel them to get off the planet. And when that happens the effect will resemble that already witnessed in the case of abortion: the age at which geriatrics can be legally dispatched across the Styx will be constantly lowered, just as the age of permissible abortion has been constantly raised. Eventually we will be back where we started, with life expectancy reduced to three score years and ten, though with euthanasia as the usual form of extinction.

I don’t take this to mean that we have to start killing old people off as a “social threat” or even denying them the benefits of medical science’s progressing ability to extend the lives of particular persons. But we do have to think a lot more about what and who old people are for in a high-tech society that in so many ways offers preferential options to the young. The old shouldn’t be stuck with living lonely, purposeless lives as free and unproductive individuals increasingly detached from familial and other social worlds. (Bob Cheeks’ comment below leads me to add that I’m not for putting the elderly out of their misery, but for helping them have more lovable and purposeful lives.)

Articles by Peter Lawler

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