Physician assisted Dying (PAD from here on, aka active euthanasia) is currently being legislated in Canada, so it’s being discussed by a number of outlets, with a variety of opinions being put forward. This is a topic that has a storied history within philosophy, and I think it’s important that we have informed conversations on this topic as much as possible, rather than just repeating the “common sense” nonsense that we’ve grown up with all our lives.
Unfortunately, having a degree in philosophy apparently can also mean learning how to really cement the foundations for that nonsense, and can add an air of authority to what should be obviously ridiculous babble. Kreeft’s nonsense has been written up in that bastion of fact-checking, the BC Catholic, and the amount of errors (or intentional falsehoods?) in that article are staggering…..
I feel that doing a general overview/correction would make it seem that I’ve missed some key line here or there, so I’m going to do a point-by-point rebuttal. Which means that this is going to be a long article. Strap in.
A battle over the meaning of human dignity underlies the euthanasia debate
On one side is the growing popular view that human dignity is relative, subjective, and something one can lose, say, for example, if a wave washes away one’s bathing suit, or if one “farts at a dinner party,” Kreeft said. The other side holds the view each person has intrinsic, objective value, and is an end and not a means.
Straight out of the gate, Kreeft is misrepresenting the position of the people he disagrees with. Apparently bearing false witness is totes cool if………… I dunno, you disagree with the other person?
The primary argument in favour of PAD, as I’m sure Kreeft is aware, is to respect the autonomy and intrinsic dignity of those who are in a position such that they feel that ending their life is preferable to continuing to live. To claim that the proponents of PAD believe that dignity, in the sense of human worth, is the same as dignity, in the sense of social decorum, is to actively employ the Fallacy of Equivocation. Given that identification and avoidance of fallacies is a central part of philosophy 101, this is simply ‘using your (philosophy) powers for evil’. Either Kreeft needs to hand back his Masters Degree, or he’s intentionally misrepresenting the argument.
The other side holds the view each person has intrinsic, objective value, and is an end and not a means.
Under the traditional view, a human being has dignity that no one, not even the person himself, can abrogate, he said. Even if the person declares he has no human value and wants his organs to be harvested, that human dignity is not given him by the state, by the culture, or by society, and cannot be taken away from him.
Kreeft is leaning extremely heavily on the ideas of Immanuel Kant, who is largely responsible for our modern ideas on ‘autonomy’. The first sentence in the above quote is pretty much a direct lift of the second formulation of Kant’s Categorial Imperative:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals
Is it a surprise that the Catholic philosopher is leaning on Kant’s writings? Not at all. However, this view *also* permeates the pro-PAD side of things, the difference being that when you deny people the option of PAD, you are denying their autonomy, their intrinsic right to make their own decisions, to guide their own lives as they see fit. In the topsy-turvy world that Kreeft lives in, denying people the right to make decisions for themselves is, by some strange turn of events, supporting their autonomy. How? Who knows?! Kreeft certainly doesn’t explain this bizarre turn of affairs.
One of the most popular modernist philosophies in North America is utilitarianism, he said, which promotes the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.”
That means you can have 50 cannibals happy because they eat the 51st, he said. Values are relative; human beings do not have any objective value. “You create your own reality.”
Here Kreeft is talking about the system that John Stuart Mill/Jeremy Bentham put forward. I believe this view of Utilitarianism is profoundly mistaken, but in fairness to Kreeft, it’s the view that is typically taught at the 100-level.
However, should one study philosophy a little more (as Kreeft allegedly has), and one begins to understand that there is a whole lot of nuance: utilitarianism does not have to be about the maximisation of well-being. It can also be about the minimisation of suffering. The central tenets of Utilitarianism are simply that 1) consequences are primarily what matter, and 2) we can quantify the consequences in some way such that we can measure and compare various outcomes against one another. To claim that Utilitarianism requires one to maximise well-being, to the point of cannibalism, is a sophomoric claim, not one befitting someone who has allegedly been involved in philosophy for 50+ years.
After that, the article wanders into naive Natural Law territory, an intellectually bankrupt position. This is not to say that there isn’t interesting work being done by theorists in Natural Law, but that the naive view that Kreeft is putting forward is just vapid.
Kreeft said as a Christian he believes the law of God is written in man’s heart, even if he does not believe in God. “You can’t commit a conscience-ectomy.”
And finally we end up where Kreeft was aiming for from the start: theology. This is bullshit that I reject on its face. This view is often brought up by the religious, and no substantial evidence in support of this has ever been brought forward. We get a lot of fanciful speculation about the commonality of certain views across multiple cultures kinda, sorta indicating that there’s some kind of morality built into us on some level, maybe…… But no supernatural explanation is needed for this: societies without laws against murder collapse in mass murder, ergo of course all societies that were ‘successful’ for any significant period of time had laws against murder.
Kreeft’s central thesis in all of this is that the pro-PAD people are attempting to use other people “as an object”, or merely as a means. Kreeft offers neither explanation nor support for this view, and simply takes it as a fact.
The “reporter” Deborah Gyapong, for her part, does not interrogate his claims in any way: she simply typed them up and published them. I guess this is the standard of “journalism” we can expect from the BC Catholic.
Finally: there are good arguments to be made against physician assisted dying. While ultimately I believe that the weight of the arguments (and evidence) overwhelmingly comes down on “let individuals decide for themselves, with several safeguards in place to ensure that no-one is pressured into it”, that doesn’t mean there are zero good arguments against it. A cursory examination of any philosophy text on biomedical ethics. Someone looking for more information on this point could start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘voluntary euthanasia’ and check the counter-arguments.
Unlike listening to Kreeft, they might actually learn something useful.