The Value of Life and the Value of Death: A Humanist Perspective.
A contribution by Rationalist Society Committee member Lyn Allison to a symposium organised by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission
Friday 9th April 2010
Humanists adopt a philosophy based on human values, human knowledge of the natural universe, the lessons of history, personal experience and the application of reason.
Humanism is based on the belief that we are responsible for our own destiny. Humanism stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self realization.
Most humanists reject any notion of the supernatural, and therefore reject the idea that our lives are presided over by any supernatural force or "god", or that our ethics and standards of behavior are "handed down" to us by "divine authority".
Humanists argue that the basis for morality and moral action is the welfare of humanity rather than fulfilling the will of some god. (I differ here to some degree because the supremacy of humans is putting great pressure on the natural environment and I think it is in our interests as well as other species of plant and animal, to take stock and at least limit our exponential growth.)
In our view humans create our own purpose and use our intelligence, knowledge, and compassion to build good lives for ourselves and for future generations.
We reject the idea that our existence serves some predetermined "purpose" or value in life or in death, except perhaps to say that in dying we vacate the field for new life.
We understand the reality and finality of death as natural.
The meaning and value of life is simply the meaning and value that we as an individuals give it.
Philosopher, AC Grayling says
…..the meaning of life consists in what you create through the identification and pursuit of endeavours that your talents fit you for and your interests draw you to, together with the relationships you form in the process.
First and foremost, good relationships give meaning to life; so does the pursuit of worthwhile goals; so do pleasure and enjoyment; so do respect and friendship, both given and received in the course of endeavour.
People are various, life is various, circumstances differ; there are many ways in which life can be good, flourishing and meaningful, just as there are many causes of misery and failure, despair and tragedy.
No one should attempt tell anyone else what is valuable in life and what is not with the proviso that it is never right to do harm to others in the pursuit of value in your own.
Humanists do not believe that a god determines whether and when individuals are conceived, are born or die.
We take comfort in celebrating the life of the dead rather than denying its finality with expectations of reincarnation or reunion in heaven or in communion with god.
We can’t find any evidence to suggest that people who hold religious beliefs or who are innocent of wrong doing are rewarded with long and valuable lives or easy good deaths or indeed that there are rewards in heaven or punishment in hell.
We say death is an end to life of the individual, that there is no after life or eternal life in some other place.
And this leads us to want for ourselves and others some choices in the process and timing of dying.
My grandmother used to wish to die peacefully in her sleep, presumably with neither suffering nor awareness. Instead she died in great pain and distress.
Most of us don’t want to admit that we will one day die or to think about it too much but when pressed, we all want to die without intolerable suffering and without loss of control or dignity as one does in dying from dementia for instance.
We may not fear death but we will almost certainly fear what we might have to endure before we die.
I would also like the choice to die in the presence of witnesses or not, to die at home or in care and to make well-informed judgements about medical intervention at the end of my life, including that which would hasten death.
It is not against the law to take one’s own life but it is illegal to assist in or bear witness to this act.
Doctors and nurses and hospital administrators make difficult life and death decisions every day – to turn off life supports, to make heroic interventions to save the lives of very premature babies, to transplant organs from the dead, to make some drugs or tests available to some but not others and to stop treatment for those with advanced and terminal illness.
Death is now highly medicalised - a natural death now uncommon.
And there is no doubt that doctors do prolong inevitable deaths and do routinely and deliberately hasten others.
The problem, for those of us who want a say in decisions about our own death and the process of dying, including a hastened death, is that the law does not allow intentional physician-assisted death and doctors who provide this assistance in response to a patient’s request, are at greater risk of being prosecuted for a criminal offence with a sentence of up to 14 years jail.
So the prohibition in effect discourages the request for assistance and consent in its delivery.
Over 80 per cent of Australians have consistently demonstrated that they want the law changed to give them this choice to avoid suffering which they deem intolerable, with the help of doctors willing to give that help.
(It is interesting to note that a similar percentage choose a civil celebrant to conduct their or their family member’s funeral.)
There is no doubt that palliative care has made the process of dying more tolerable for most.
Pain is relieved and the medication used in doing so will probably hasten death through terminal sedation, however, not all pain can be relieved – bone cancer is a case in point - and some conditions cause great discomfort and distress that can only be relieved by death.
Wasting, exhaustion, extreme difficulty breathing, choking, nausea are common for some diseases at end of life.
I would not want to endure these symptoms for the sake of living a few hours or days or even a few months longer than might otherwise be the case. To deny me that choice is to deny me my autonomy - to treat me as being not fully human.
No one knows until they actually face death, how they will respond. The experience of Dr Rodney Syme and the people he has given the means to take their own lives is that this assurance that they can end their suffering if they need to, is itself palliative – it removes the terror and allows them to face the end with calmness and dignity. In the US state of Oregon around a third of terminally ill patients provided with medication to end their lives do not in the end use it.
I hope I have that courage when I am forced to face death, rather than die peacefully in my sleep, but as a humanist I will want to find it from knowledge and wisdom, the power to exercise autonomy and, hopefully, satisfied that I have lived a mostly good and worthwhile life and been of some value to my fellow human beings.