In 2008, bioethicist Yuval Levin in his book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy identified a subtle but momentous shift in the philosophical driver of the West:
The worldview of modern science . . . sees health not only as a foundation but also a principal goal, not only as a beginning but also an end. Relief and preservation—from disease and pain, from misery and necessity—become the defining ends of human action, and therefore of human societies.
At first blush, this seems a minor matter. Who doesn’t want to alleviate suffering and promote the general welfare? But read the above quote again. That reasonable approach to the problem of suffering is not the attitude Levin describes.
Rather, it seems to me that he detected a fundamental paradigm shift driving us away from the reasonable mitigation of suffering in favor of a Utopian—and ultimately dangerous—eliminationquest that threatens the unique dignity of man and relativizes the importance of human life.
Consider: When eliminating suffering becomes the “defining ends of human action,” it easily transforms into eliminating the sufferer. Perhaps more insidiously, what constitutes suffering encompasses more things—even becoming projected and anthropomorphized onto the natural world.
This is all very difficult to describe clearly in a short essay. So, allow me to illustrate what I am getting at by focusing on the surreal policies of Switzerland. Swiss law has permitted assisted suicide since 1942 so long as the assister does not have “selfish motives.” For decades, nothing much came of it. But with the emergence of the (sufferer-elimination) euthanasia movement, the country Kevorkianized, resulting in the establishment of suicide clinics to which people attend from around the world.
These death clinics are becoming increasingly popular. A recently published report revealed that 1705 died at one clinic (Dignitas) alone since 1998, with 204—about four per week—killing themselves within the facility in 2013.
The people who die in these clinics are not limited to the terminally ill, and indeed, sometimes include healthy people. For example, in recent months, an elderly Italian woman committed assisted suicide at a clinic because she was upset about losing her looks. Her family only learned she was dead when the clinic sent the urn containing her ashes in the mail.
A few weeks later, another elderly woman took her last flight to Switzerland from the UK because she was upset by modern technology and because she saw her suicide as a way of contributing to saving the earth from environmental destruction. There have also been joint suicides of elderly couples who don’t want to live apart. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court even declared a right to assisted suicide for the mentally ill.
At the same time that Swiss law allows a raucous suicide industry to thrive, it also outlaws flushing goldfish down the toilet. In other words, the putative suffering of fish is of greater legal concern than the assisted killing of suicidal people. Why? Because both policies seek the elimination of suffering. Meanwhile, one canton allows lawyers to represent supposedly wronged animals. One such legal eagle sued an angler for taking too long to reel in a pike.
It gets even more bizarre. Switzerland’s constitution requires that “account must be taken of the dignity of living beings when handling animals, plants and other living organisms.” No one knew for sure what that meant with regard to vegetation, so the government appointed the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to figure it out.
In the resulting report, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants, a “clear majority” of the panel determined that we cannot claim “absolute ownership” over plants and, moreover, that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” This means that “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily.”
So, is it immoral to weed the garden? The committee didn’t say. But it did offer the following illustration of supposedly immoral behavior: A farmer mows his field (apparently an acceptable action). But then, while walking home, he casually “decapitates” some wildflowers with his scythe.
Why is this wrong, exactly? Well, because:
At this point it remains unclear whether this action is condemned because it expresses a particular moral stance of the farmer toward other organisms or because something bad is being done to the flowers themselves.
Both Switzerland’s enshrining of “plant dignity” into law and its blithe abandonment of the despairing to extinction in suicide clinics are inextricably bound with the belief that eliminating suffering—whether human, flora, or fauna—is the defining end of society. As such, these policies are symptomatic of our fast-eroding ability to think critically and to distinguish serious from frivolous ethical concerns.