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Chris Dierkes at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen has a thoughtful post up contesting Sir Edward Downes’ son’s description of his parents’ decision to undergo voluntary euthanization as “a very civilized act”. This passage was perhaps the most interesting:

All I’m trying to do here is tease out the various values/rationales for these reasons.

–We have the hunter-gatherer/tribal mind of the group over the individual.

–Then (though only off handedly referred to in this post) a more traditional religious (often monotheistic) notion of the sanctity of life in all cases.  i.e. No assisted suicide ever morally justifiable.

–The modern notion of totally autonomous self-contained hermetically sealed individuals with their own maximizing will as the ultimate judge.

–The (post?)modern specter of the technocratic wise one who knows true freedom for all and will choose it for them.  As well as the commodification of the human body and its death processes.  The postmodern could also include the idea that the self is a construct of actions.  So by choosing this route, the self lives on–i.e. Sir Edward is now forever remembered.  While that my seem, at first, a heroic overcoming of social conditioning, if that practice becomes embedded in society, then it will simply be another form of social and cultural conditioning over time.

All of which I think as over-riding, stand alone views, fail in my estimation.  Another way might be to take the permanent deepest truth from each and let them sit in tension together and out of that make judgments based in relative discrimination given the overall complexity.  Life is sacred.  The tribe does matter.  Individuals also must be free and yet we are never completely autonomous beings.

I find it interesting that Dierkes frames the modern desire for personal autonomy in the context of a decision to undergo euthanasia (and thus as opposed to what he characterizes as the monotheistic perspective) rather than the in my experience far more common decision to do everything possible to avoid death — even at the cost of impoverishing one’s tribe and relations — as described in this New Atlantis article . In other words, I would suspect that the modern attitude is in more obvious conflict with the tribal one than with the monotheistic one.

Upon further reflection, though, Dierkes has a point. I may have overestimated the extent to which moderns will choose an ongoing life of pain to the abyss of death. The geist of our culture seems to have shifted decisively from the Nietzschean/Existentialist strain of modernity to a more utilitarian/technocratic one. As Reihan Salam (and before him Foucault ) notes, these strains are often in conflict. I suspect, however, that the surface conflict conceals a deeper synergy — and not just of the sort that conservatives have long griped about .

Rather, we underestimate the seductiveness of choosing to have choice taken out of our hands. I wonder at the accuracy, or at least at the completeness, of the traditional conservative narrative of the administrative state either stepping in to fill the vacuum left by our idol-smashing or responding to our demands to be liberated from the confines of ancient mores. I think there exists a third path to nudge-land, one in which changes in culture lead not to the desire for autonomy producing the fact of technocratic management, but rather to the fact of autonomy producing the desire for technocratic management. Or, as Hunter S. Thompson (riffing on Samuel Johnson) would put it :

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

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