Although I have tried mightily, I cannot find much merit in the idea that there is a "party of death" at work in American politics. It seems to me that this formulation states the problem wrongly. Indeed, our biotechnological enthusiasts are nothing if not partisans of life, infinitely extensible.
But what they are in love with, and advocating, is a shortsighted and impoverished vision of life: the dream of complete and unconstrained personal mastery, of the indomitable human will exercised on the inert and malleable stuff of nature by the heroically autonomous and unconditioned individual who is ever the master of his fate and captain of his soul, and whose own existence is, or deserves to be, infinitely extensible.
Such a vision eagerly embraces the Jeffersonian dictum that the earth belongs to the living and rejects the Burkean idea that society is an eternal contract among the living, the dead, and the unborn¯a contract that is most powerfully manifested in the primal strength of family bonds and that serves as a profound form of prior restraint upon the individual’s room to maneuver. The constraints and duties that came with that old contract are cast off as the mere dead weight of memory. One can see these two competing views wrestling in this poignant recent article from the London Times and in the acerbic comments following it.
The "progressive" view may seem coolly rational and unsentimental, the very picture of enlightened science. But its instrumental rationality actually operates in service to madness, to the most gaudily romantic and fantastical ideas of human selfhood. It regards the abstraction of the liberated individual, of homo invictus , as the benchmark reality, the only true source of moral standing. By grounding moral judgment in the self’s ability to stand alone and radically independent, it must try to deny history¯and even deny time itself, seeking to freeze the present and then utopianize it, preserving the youth and beauty and strength that are one’s own, or that one can acquire for oneself, whatever the cost to the future (or to the past). But that state of independence is all-important. The minute one’s ability to be independent falters and fails . . . well, then the game is up, and all one’s entitlements are revoked, rendered null and void.
Abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, the cannibalization of embryos¯all these things are linked, but they do not reflect a desire to promote death per se. Instead, they reflect a world in which the overwhelming desire of the sovereign individual will to have its way, and to order and manufacture a world it can live in without let or hindrance, is regarded as the chief source of value, or at any rate the value that trumps all others. They reflect a view of life that trivializes death, precisely because it fails to understand what life is.
But life is unfreezable, and complete independence is a sterile fantasy, inconsistent with our human nature. That nature speaks to us continuously of the organic interdependency of things, the seasonality of things, of a world churned and roiled by the endless process of aging and decay, and the miraculous generation of new life out of them¯the ebb and flow of what the ancients called "generation and corruption." The recognition of these things, and the acceptance of our place in them, is precisely why we care for the infirm and the weak and the hopeless among us, rather than feed them to the sharks, particularly when they are flesh of our flesh, or we of theirs. We do not do it because we believe in the abstract idea of the natural rights of each and every human being, although such beliefs are helpful and true and valuable for the durability of American democracy. We do it because our human nature commands us to if we are to play our part in the circle of life, the order of things, the drama of fecundity and endless generational succession, and be capable of the grateful, self-giving love for our forebears, and the willingness to yield the stage to our successors, which is the crowning virtue of the human heart, precisely because it recognizes and accepts that the unfreezable present is always being swamped and superseded by the onrushing tide of what is new.
One can feel the force of arguments built upon rights and yet feel that too much is left unaddressed by them. We are already too much a culture of rights-talk, and the individualism inherent in rights-talk does not help us understand one of the most important facts about our moral development: We are deepened and made better¯more fully human¯by the experience of yielding to duties and burdens and inconveniences, and making good on our obligations to others, especially in relations, such as those with our families, that are not voluntary, not revocable, and that have played a crucial role in defining who and what we are. This yielding includes accepting the burdens of caring for the helpless, the damaged, the infirm, the dying, the suffering, and yes, the unwanted. This is precisely the point of the Times article linked to above. To say that we do not kill them because they have a right to life is not to explain why we have a responsibility to care for them, and love them, and why we fail ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that responsibility and seek to offload it onto others. An ailing elderly parent has the right not to be killed, but he does not have the "right" to be loved.
Yet it is one of the central tasks of our humanity that we care lovingly for him and not merely be instructed by the law that we must resist killing him. Rights-talk does not necessarily give rise to responsibility-talk. Sometimes it may have the opposite effect, in luring us into a false sense that we have fulfilled all righteousness merely by dutifully observing the rights of others. One of the many fallacies behind the idea of the living will is the thought that the "right" of the abstract individual to decide his medical fate¯often based on ignorant and meaningless projections into a future that few of us can imagine, let alone predict¯should take complete legal precedence over the loving input of families on the scene. This is not only a fallacy in practice, since living wills are generally set aside when they get in the way, but a fallacy in theory, since we are never entirely our own, least of all in moments of profound dependency.
It may be gratuitous to add that the recent spate of studies and articles about the growing loneliness of Americans, while reflecting an academic and journalistic fad, may also reflect a growing reality not unrelated to the factors observed above.
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