Monday, June 10, 2013

The Ethics of Dying

Are there "better" and "worse" ways to die? If so, how would Aristotle go about approaching the subject? Let's start with a few distinctions. More often than not the "ethics of dying" is understood in terms of how "survivors treat the dying" rather than how the "dying treat survivors." Although, both are relevant subjects of moral analysis, I'd like to focus primarily on the latter. But first, let's distinguish between how we individually and collectively "face death" (as a matter of fact) and how we ought to "face death." For example, we know that as a matter of fact, we all go through well-known stages when we internally deal with the "process of dying." That's certainly important to know, and it may have some bearing on how we behave in our final days. But that's not what I want to write about right now. So how would Aristotle look at the "ethics of dying?"

First of all, it's a fact that all human beings, at all times, and all places have always asked the same basic existential questions: What am I? Where did I come from? And, where am I going? The answer to that last question, "where am I going?" has been obvious for a long time. All living things die, therefore, so do humans! Aristotle and I would argue that ethics is (for the most part) about how our behavior effects others, and therefore there are both social virtues and social vices associated with how our behavior effects those who will remain alive after we're gone. Hence, there are "better" and "worse" ways to die. And of course, Aristotle argued that "good persons" serve as role models for virtuous behavior for survivors. Thus, when we die we are essentially teaching our survivors how to die.  

For Aristotle, virtue is bound by context: person, time, place, and degree. The ethics of dying, therefore, would be contingent upon details: Person: Who is dying? (personal variables such as age, degrees of moral and/or intellectual virtue). Time: When am I dying? (If there is a choice of when to die, is it better to die "sooner" or "later," at one time rather than another?) Place: Where am I dying? (If there is a choice of where to die? Are there better or worse places: in a hospital, at home, in the wilderness?) Degree: "what is the probability that I will, in fact, die? (Is death more-likely or less-likely to occur?) So how would Aristotle go about unpacking some of this stuff?

Aristotle taught that the end (or purpose) of life is happiness predicated over an entire life-time. Therefore, the question of whether or not we "have led a good life" can only be answered by those who remain alive after we're gone. Although Aristotle never really said so (to my knowledge) it follows that "how we die" is very important in terms of our personal moral legacy. Some virtues associated with dying are pretty straight-forward. Probably the central virtue associated with dying is how we deal with the emotion of fear. Hence, a couageous death is virtuous and a death marked by the vices of either cowardice (vice of deficiency) or foolhardiness (vice of excess) are not. In short, a "good person" aims midway between fearing death too much and not fearing it enough. Now moral virtue, according to Aristotle is achieved by deliberately establishing habitually virtuous behavioral patterns. Given that we only die once, we are naturally deprived of practicing that habit, therefore, we must cultivate the virtue of courage in other ways; often seeing how others die.

If Aristotle was around today, he would probably conclude that in the United States our collective "culture of death" is dominated by cowardice and spendthriftiness. Death is usually regarded as the worse thing that any person can undergo and therefore we do anything and everything we can to prolong life for ourselves and for others. That's why most Americans die in hospitals and nursing homes attended by and army of physicians, nurses, and others that "fight" to keep us alive as long as possible. In fact, most of our health care dollars are expended during the last six months of our lives. Thus the virtues and vices  associated with spending are also relevant; that is the virtue of moderation and the vices of spendthriftiness (vice of excess) and tightwadness (vice of deficiency).

If we look at how today's role models shape our culture of dying, what do we see? When we die, most of our role models will die under the influence of mind-numbing drugs designed to "artificially" ease their culturally induced fear of pain and dying. And after they die, their loved ones will expend extraordinary sums of money on funerals, embalming, and caskets. And the more money their survivors spend on that casket and funeral home the better. Unless I'm wrong...I think Aristotle would say that death as experienced in the U.S.models primarily cowardice and spendthriftiness.

So what can "good role models" do to alter our fear-mongered, spendthrift "culture of death?" Well, for a starter...a virtuous death does not necessitate that we welcome death with open arms, and/or hasten our own death via suicide of euthanasia. But it does require that we be mindful of how our dying behavior is effecting survivors and what kind of behavior we are modelling for the future. On the other hand, speaking as a libertarian, I would also point out that if you are wealthy (or poor) and choose to spend the remainder of your life savings fighting off an immanent death, you certainly have that right. It's your money! In fact, in some contexts it might be the best thing you can do with it. If you have a lot of money saved up, but have no friends or family, why not use it to pay the salaries of physicians, nurses, and funeral directors? But under most circumstances, it's neither courageous nor is it a very productive way to spend your last few dollars.

In conclusion, at a bare minimum Aristotle and I would almost certainly argue that we all must be mindful of how we live out those final days on earth, and remember that we are teaching the next generation how to die through our actions.        



Unknown said...

Hi Ron,
My students are ready to go!


Unknown said...

I agree with the point in your article you made on the consumption people have with their "preparation for dying". I too feel like the world we live in is too consumed with how we die as opposed to actually just dying. I never really noticed this and your article helped point out this fact of life that most people try to avoid.

Morgan Vincent said...

If we learn the how to die with virtue primarily by watching others die a good death would the same concept apply to others virtues we want out society to acquire? If we are so afraid of death as a culture shouldn't we be doing our best to expose our children to role models who exhibit all of the virtues on a regular basis so that societies courage and fortitude are built up throughout their lives, through a myriad of examples, not just when they are witnessing someone die?

Lynn Miller said...

I can agree with the aspect that within the United States culture we are "spendthriftiness" when it comes to dying. No one wants to die a painful death, nor do we wish to see our loved ones suffer a painful death. I cannot agree that fearing death makes one less courageous. I think of the young men and women who have gone to serve in wars to help protect the rights and lives of others. I believe one must consider the journey one takes through life, and how they react to events in their life to determine whether one is courageous or a coward. How we face death cannot be the deciding factor. If one chooses to go to another country to help fight for the freedoms of others, and ends up dying screaming, does that make that person any less courageous?

Unknown said...

When we think of death we get emotional. It's a topic that everyone knows will happen, but it's something that is also painful to the family.
It's not easy watching a loved one go. Then dealing with the funeral homes and all the people that come after ward; it's to much. Funeral homes take this moment to swoop in and tell you that your loved one needs all these things. They really don't. We are scared to die because we don't know what there is. I believe in heaven, but it's difficult to think of our loved ones not being with us anymore.
Death brings on many emotions that are not very easy to deal with, and the struggle to move past the hurt to remember the good. -Brandi Bryant

Unknown said...

I liked your point about how if Aristotle's view about happiness being predicated over an entire life time was true, then only the people left after we die would know if we led a good life. I think that we are well aware if we were able to lead a good life or not before we die. Dying is not something that we normally want to talk about. It is seen as an emotional time. This being said, those who are dying would probably want to leave the earth in a way that would allow survivors to celebrate life rather than morning death. I agree that in the United States we try and prepare for death rather than just dying, but could this be because the news and the media and everything that we see that involves death makes it seem like such a scary thing? It makes us feel like we need to be prepared to die. My favorite part of the article was the last sentence. "We are teaching the Next Generation how to die through our actions." This could not be more true. How we portray death is how the next generation portrays death. In other countries, they celebrate death as a celebration of that person's life. I think that if we did this, we would learn to be a lot less scared.


I think this was a well written article.I think that you are courageous for boldly writing on such a emotional topic.I never really thought about how much money is spent trying to delay or prolong death.We all like to talk about and think about living but, most of us don't want think about death or dying.I'll be the first to admit I am afraid to die exceptionally because, I have young children and I am afraid to leave them.After reading this article I can assume that when your family has to make funeral arrangements for you that you wouldn't want them to spend a boatload of money on it.If this the case have you already discussed your expectations with them?If so how do they feel?If not why not?I would also like to know if you yourself are afraid of death?

Unknown said...

I like what Aristotle taught about happiness over an entire life-time being the purpose of life. We can reflect on our own lives but the question of whether we lived a good life or not can only be answered by those we left behind. How a person dies is very important in this aspect because it says a lot about that person. Fear is an obvious reaction to the dying process and death; however, too much fear may lead someone to regret by not fully living the end of their life. Not fearing enough is not seen as ideal either because a "good person" aims to fear somewhere in between the two. Personally, I feel that not fearing enough would be better than fearing too much, if I had to choose between the two, because a person who is dying should be able to enjoy the end of their life, not fear it. Also, if they do not have much fear, they would hopefully have reached a point of comfort and ease, which would most likely make their family feel more comfortable and at ease knowing that as well. I also liked the comment on how we are essentially teaching our survivors how to die. There are said to be better and worse ways to die, and that good people act as role models for those they leave behind. To me, those who die with dignity and do their best to comfort their families along the way by reassuring them everything is going to be alright, are very good people and great role models of "how to die." Having fear is okay and perfectly normal at a time like this as well, so that is definitely not a factor of a bad way to die.

Unknown said...

I agree with Lynn on the issue that fearing death makes one less courageous. I think it is only natural to fear death. I personally fear death in the sense that I feel I am only getting started in life. I want to accomplish so many things and haven't gotten there yet. I also fear death for my loved ones because I am so used to having everyone I care about by my side and it is the scariest thing in the world for me to imagine them not being there anymore. I understand that death is inevitable, but I don't think that fearing it makes someone less of a role model or a coward. I did like how it was said that happiness is predicted over an entire lifetime. As I get older, I realize that the more things I accomplish, the happier I become. I am working on getting my degree in nursing and every year I succeed, the closer I get to accomplishing my goal of becoming a nurse and being able to help others. This creates happiness because I feel that I am fulfilling my full potential by helping others. I want to leave behind a legacy of selflessness and putting others first. When I die, as of right now, I do fear it and I do wish it to come far in the future, but as long as I live a good life in my own perspective and in the perspectives of those I care about, I will be content with my life.