Friday, January 28, 2005

Spring and Assisted Suicide

It seems as if the first signs of Spring have arrived. No, not the first swallow (it would die of cold); not the first crocus (not yet anyway, even in B.C.). I refer, of course, to the first public event entitled “Should there be Assisted-Suicide in Canada?”

This time it is Sheila Rogers of the infectious laugh from CBC who is hosting a debate on this perennial question.

For many years now, those ever hopeful folks whose hopes for assisted-suicide in Canada crashed and burned with the failure of the Rodriguez case in the early 1990’s, re-emerge every year and like the first signs of Spring, or like some demented ground hog, look to see if there is a shadow of hope for what should be, if you’ll excuse the phrase in this context, their moribund movement.

Alas, the movement for euthanasia and assisted-suicide is not exactly moribund but keeps appearing like a one-track zombie with its arms stretched out ahead of it wading onto radio and television just when you thought you had seen it for the last time. It is on its last legs all the time but seems bravely to continue on despite defeats in virtually every civilized country (one ignores the Netherlands here since that country has lost its bearings on so many fronts that one cannot really treat it as an equal in national sanity - -and Belgium seems to have been infected by its close proximity to the “low country.”).

Even that former Federal M.P. and unofficial “Lord of the Ring” Svend Robinson has dusted off his briefcase and will be part of this discussion. Oh boy. Sometimes one is very, very glad to be well beyond the airwaves of particular parts of Canada.

While on this topic, I note that today in Ottawa the local radio station has been carrying a sad news item. Apparently a 78-year-old man with a serious lung disease has decided that he will kill himself this evening. He will have dinner with family and friends at a local restaurant and then go home, put on his favourite cardigan and put a balloon over his head and gas himself.

The family has, apparently, hired a leading Criminal lawyer to ensure that its presence at this macabre spectacle doesn’t lead to them being charged with anything. Since when has stupidity been actionable?

The local radio station has hosted a poll with this question: “Should the 78 year old man be able to take his own life or should he be prevented from doing so?”

This is just the sort of ridiculous question that local radio stations love to ask. In this circumstance, however, it is really a slippery and dangerous question for this reason. Nobody suggests that suicide should again be, as it once was, a crime. No one has suggested that the old man is out of his mind and should be “sectioned” (as the phrase used to go) and stopped from a foolish action “for his own good.” If they did then presumably his family would be there to ensure that there were no bags around for him to put over his head etc.

Assuming he is sane and in full possession of his faculties, there is no basis to “prevent him.” The vote, when I last checked, was 60% of those on the website voting “against” his “right” to take his own life - - what would they propose - - that the police wheel in and take the bag off his head? What a vision that is; the police cruising around looking to see if people look depressed or have recently purchased copies of one of those pathetic books that give recipes for how to take your own life.

The better question would have been: “Should a terminally ill person be permitted to have another person kill him?” That raises the real question that keeps popping up in Canada not the one the local radio station asked.

The answer to this question, as a matter of fact is “no.” Here’s why. There are no safeguards that work in relation to “assisted-suicide” and the Dutch situation has amply shown that so-called voluntary euthanasia is wide open to abuse and “terminally ill” soon becomes “depressed” or “anorexic” (to give two examples of well known cases where people were able to be killed under the so-called Dutch safeguards). In addition, the weak (the sick, the terminally ill, the old, the handicapped) are threatened by practices that have come to “medicalize” the act of killing.

The whole area of “euthanasia” is full of lies, frauds and charlatans like Dr. Kevorkian who, you will recall, was able to function killing off people who were not, for example, “terminally ill.” The law, fortunately, eventually caught up with Dr. Death and he is now cooling his heels in an American prison. It took a long, long time to get him behind bars, however and that ought to function as a cautionary tale.

In any case, this issue is one that continues to use the same dishonest arguments and silly sorts of questions to soften up an already softened populace so that we will, perhaps, one day embrace “assisted-suicide.” It was once called “physician assisted suicide” just as we came to call abortion “therapeutic abortion” thinking that if we made it sound medical it would be alright.

Well it isn’t and the corruption of medical ethics is not a good thing and the sad case of the old man with the lung disease is no argument for anything but sadness that he has nothing to live for any longer or that he was not introduced to a good hospice program with counsellors who could have given him and his family proper assistance.

We do not own ourselves such that we can choose the time of our death and a society that drops its richest sense of “non-self ownership”, as ours is busy doing, is on the long road to self-destruction of another, much more widespread, sort.

Iain Benson ©

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Brockie Decision Still Misunderstood

I don’t know why some people, especially journalists, don’t seem to understand the decision in the Scott Brockie decision. Perhaps by overstating the result they feel they can make a stronger case for religious oppression in Canada; who knows?

Here is the relevant part of what the National Post said in an editorial on “religious freedom” on January 26, 2005:

But past cases suggest that gay rights are now taken to trump every other freedom. It was less than five years ago, recall, that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled that printer Scott Brockie had violated the provincial human rights code by refusing on religious grounds to make stationary and letterheads for the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Archives. Mr. Brockie's appeal to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice failed; he was ordered to pay $5,000 in damages to the archives' former president and forbidden to refuse to print similar materials in the future.

This is a terrible review of what Scott Brockie did and did not win on appeal. Mr. Brockie was ordered by the Human Rights Commission to print not just the letterhead but also “any other materials” that group or other similar gay rights groups brought to his printing business. He appealed this to the Ontario Divisional Court and, WON on the over breadth of the remedy. Sure, he still had to pay $5,000 and eventually had to pay costs (an outrage that since he had given a black eye to the OHRC on the remedy point) but he was clearly successful on a major aspect of the appeal - - namely that he could refuse to print ANY materials that were not simply “ordinary business materials” and that he could show offended the core of his religious beliefs.

True, he had to print the business cards and letterhead but given the dangerous scope of the original OHRC decision (making him into a virtual tool of what was described as the “Provincial policy” of “advancing the visibility of gays and lesbians”) he won a significant part of what he was seeking. The National Post editorial, like the writing of many who have commented on this decision since it came down, fails to note this.

So lets please have an end of the “Scott Brockie lost his appeal” school of analysis! It doesn’t do justice to the important victory Scott Brockie won before the Ontario Courts.

A detailed analysis of the Brockie decision of the Ontario Divisional Court may be found on the Centre's Lex View site at: [Lex View 38 , Lex View 51 ).

Iain Benson ©

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

New Year, Free Will and Tsunami Waves

We are now a week or so into a New Year and it is the time to reconsider New Year resolutions. Those who made them ahead of time are considering whether they are living up to them. Those who did not make resolutions are, perhaps, considering whether they ought to have made some. As long as one has life and wits, it is never too late to make a resolution. It is only sceptics or pessimists who claim to believe that resolutions are pointless. I once knew a person who resolved never to make a New Year’s resolution. In sticking to that, resolutely, the person both made and kept a resolution thereby proving the un-workability of his own theory.

Something like this error is at work amongst those who claim to believe that everything is merely the product of genes and “free will” is an illusion. Like so many things, the complete denial of the validity of assertions is itself a denial of the assertion. The most famous of these is to say “there is no such thing as truth” which, if true, must be false. Even most of such people are not so confused as to insist that something can be both false and true at the same time.

There is a name for this kind of assertion in philosophy well known to those who know such things. I shall not dwell upon its exact name here for fear of inflaming those who do not know it amongst whom is the writer of this all too inadequate article.

Suffice it to say that human beings are left with only so many options at any given moment. One of these is to affirm that things are what they are and the other is to deny that things are what they are. But to deny things are what they are is to affirm, whether or not we know it, that one can be incorrect. To deny that one can be wrong is to be wrong otherwise there would be no point in denying it. Things have a way of proving themselves to be what they are despite how we may deny them.

Those who, like me, adore this kind of reasoning, cling to the fact that there are facts. The alternative is to cling to - - well, to cling to the fact that there are no facts, which, apart from being self-contradictory, is to cling to nothing.

One cannot cling to nothing for reasons that are obvious. One can cling to an illusion, but only in the conviction that it is something to cling to. Clinging to nothing is not really clinging at all.

The writer who best dealt with this kind of logic and argument was the English writer G.K. Chesterton (1878 – 1936). He made his reputation in many, many areas, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, fiction and poetry.

Recently I had the pleasure of editing three of his novels for the Collected Edition of his works. This Collected Edition will run to excess of 40 volumes and many of them have been published already, over many years, by Ignatius Press of San Francisco. The volume that I edited, Volume VII, contains three of his pre-first world war novels and each was concerned, in one way or another, with discussing what was true and what was false in the philosophies of the day.

Whirring adventures all, they deal with atheists debating theists, sceptics with those of religious faith and pessimists with those who are not pessimistic. One, The Flying Inn (1914) even discusses the rise of a pseudo-Islam against the free and rollicking life of the common-man in an England that had become, under puritan leadership, teetotal and anti-Christian.

The reason I am thinking of Chesterton at this beginning of a New Year is that he wrote about the need to have resolutions, to make decisions to change things that needed changing. In reading his comments about changing ourselves I was struck about the hopefulness and confidence he had about human nature and the fact that things can change. He believed in free will and doing what is right and spent a great deal of time arguing against the “dark heresy” of a twisted sort of predestination which, in essence, amounted to blaming God for human error and sinfulness.

As erroneous religion gave us a wrong conception of predestination and atonement, a wrong sort of science gave us scientific determinism. Chesterton set himself against both sorts of reductionism.

We are not, according to Chesterton, awash in a sea of changing but ultimately meaningless developments. We are not, in other words, merely genetic units locked in brute competition to further our genes, but people who can, with reason and application, amend ourselves towards a better hope.

The recent events in Southeast Asia in which many thousands perished following the tsunami waves, shows the extent to which human beings can act to help those who are weaker and in need. It strains credulity to say simply that the tens of millions of dollars raised and given charitably in many countries were due to some “generosity gene” working itself out in a kind of blind biological urge.

Yet this is the kind of nonsense that some will say. Others will spout another kind of nonsense. They will say something like this: “presumably those who did not give were doing so due to some other gene - - perhaps a selfish gene.” Perhaps, so the argument will go, overpopulation has led some humans to refuse aid so as to ensure that the population falls to more manageable levels. The “gene theorists” will argue to explain anything. They will argue both that those people who gave of their own money did so to further the human species and that those who did not did not do so for the same reason.

But wait a minute - - what is explained at all if it can be argued that genes lead to opposite results? The “selfish gene” and the “generosity gene” end up being the same and both cannot be true. Here is the interesting point: genes theory used this way cannot be falsified so lacks the necessary basis to have scientific credibility.

Nothing about why we choose what we do is, or can be, explained by this sort of gene theory. The most it can do is show us relationships and likelihoods; it cannot prove our choices. We cannot prove that the person who donates money is “forced” to do it by some kind of sub-conscious biological urge any more than we can prove that the person who refused to donate (or assist) was motivated by some other sub-conscious biologically driven force. Map the human genome all you want but it will never be able to tell you what the biological entity decides or didn’t decide at any particular moment for that piece of information is not information that can be measured, much less measured in advance.

Leszek Kolakowski, the great Polish cultural historian now at Oxford University, in his monumental multi-volume work Main Currents of Marxism (1978), once noted that in some of its manifestations Marxism claimed to be a complete explanation for every human phenomenon and even the rules of soccer could be explained by Marxist class analysis.

This sort of comprehensive explanation was bogus of course and Marxism has lost most of its credibility but that did not mean that the theory did not occupy many people’s lives for great parts of the nineteenth and twentieth century. A certain kind of scientific religion is replacing the passing of a certain kind of Marxist religion - - both are dogmatic and held with religious fervour and both are used in attempts to explain away religion.

Scientism of the determinist social Darwinist sort seems to have taken over from the kind of all encompassing materialist explanations of the Marxism of yesterday. The analysis that “genes” account for human actions and inactions can start and end anywhere. Such reasons fail the test of experience, and theory, however, and we are not slaves to our genes anymore than we were slaves to our class, race, sex or any other “given” characteristic.

The reality is much more important. Like resolutions, we can choose to change, can choose to improve, can choose to ignore the weak and the sick or get off our collective apathies and pitch in to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Of course this “choice matters” approach only makes sense in a world where genes, like Marxist class analysis, do not explain everything because we have free will and can choose to act this way or that. But then, “free will” is an essentially religious concept and more than that, an essentially Christian one. With the loss of confidence in Christianity as a cultural force it is not difficult to see, as Margaret Visser pointed out in her recent Massey Lectures, Beyond Fate (2002), that “fate” takes over again. Fatalism, unlike cleanliness, is not next to godliness but it is the close companion of Marxists and those in thrall to scientism.

In short, we can make New Year’s resolutions or not. One thing is sure; how we choose to live will determine what kind of world we live in despite what today’s scientific or philosophical pessimists wish to assert. Make some resolutions today and prove all the pessimists wrong. It is only those who believe in free will, after all, who can logically make resolutions; the rest must simply live in the chaos of revolutions.

Iain T. Benson ©