Friday, 6 March 2009

The Rightness of Life

The Telegraph's blog today gives us George Pitcher's consensus on two elderly English people with terminal cancer who decided to go to Switzerland and end their lives with Dignitas's help. Pitcher claims that their actions were 'disgusting', 'selfish' and 'undignified'; rather than using palliative care and facing a painful end, they violated the true sanctity of existence with the evil collusion of others.

   "The usual support for such action runs that our lives are our own, to do with what we wish. But that is manifestly untrue. Our lives are only and entirely defined by our relationships with other people and the world in which we live. We don't "own" our lives in the way that we possess a car or a washing machine. We are gifted them and they only make sense in relation to people and the world around us. As a consequence, we are obliged to honour and respect not only our lives but our deaths too. To pop off to the shops and top ourselves when it is convenient, or if we can't face the future, is to dishonour both life and death,"

says Pitcher. I find this viewpoint not only tragic but fatally deluded; deluded to such an extent that Pitcher, through his reckless use of words, his faulty logic, risks making life precisely the opposite of precious: worthless.

'We don't "own" our lives... our lives are only [my ital.] defined by our relationships with other people and the world in which we live.'

If we do not "own" our lives, to whom do they belong? If we do not own them as the most real of material and spiritual things, how can we speak of the self? Of I? What meaning has 'this is my life!' in the face of such an extraordinary declaration? Of what value is self-possession or self-awareness? Arguing that human lives can only be seen in context with the Other, depicted through comparatives and superlatives, is to deny us the innate capacity for reason, for self-determination, for deciding right and wrong; for being the authors of our fate existing within the eternal rather than the immediate human condition. It is to allow society to determine what 'life' is, what 'existence' is: to render one helpless in the face of shifting public opinion and political whimsies. And if life is defined as not worth living by our neighbours and society, or if society is wiped away with the reckless abandon of a Utopian aesthetic who sees the world as an infallibly rotten, irredeemable thing that must be destroyed to be rebuilt, so goes with it 'life'. 
There persists in Pitcher's writing some trace of the idea that in great suffering lies redemption, that pain is the test of human character and to wish to abnegate it is to be somehow less than human. But, in contemplating suicide, the person is more wholly human, more intensely, violently aware of what 'I' and 'me' and 'life' and 'existence' mean than so many of those going through the motions of living. And, indeed, whilst it is impossible to say 'I' without having a consideration of 'Thou', once that relation is established there is no need for there to be a further consideration of Thou-ness when contemplating the 'I'. The relation has been established: the I-self is now independent and self-determining. As Deleuze has it: 

"given that there exist differences of nature between things of the same genus. That is, not only are no two things ever the same, the categories we use to identify individuals in the first place derive from differences. Apparent identities such as "X" are composed of endless series of differences, where "X" = "the difference between x and x'", and "x" = "the difference between..."

It is our individuality that must be cherished as well as our inter-personal relationships; to speak of them inter alia denies our fundamental freedom of self-possession.


  1. Richard Jones has a post at my place I am desperate to share. There is a hint of your subject too.

  2. I've just had a look over at your blog but can't see the post you mention... link, please...

  3. As you say Mara, and quite rightly, Pitcher is deluded. I own my one else does. It is mine to do whatever I want with it.

  4. "If we do not "own" our lives, to whom do they belong? " says Mara.

    A Christian would consider that because God created us, then our lives belong to God, and it follows that there is an option to hand that life back to Him of our own Free Will, a state he has also given us.

    Judging the reasons why another decides to take their life is tricky. Africans have a saying: "You don't know someone else's bed unless you have slept in it."

    My personal feeling is that if I am diagnosed with a fatal illness, and that illness is going to be a horror, not only for me, but for my loved ones, I shall put myself on a flight to Geneva. But I don't know could I? I have never had to face it and until I do, I shall try and carry on living.

  5. Suicide is the ultimate act of rebellion against the tyranny of the collective.

  6. As would a Jew, WW. I agree that the fact of Free Will - opposed to predestination - implies absolute self-possession; that whilst we are mortal and confined within a human form, we may Will as we choose. Surely the gift of will is even more precious than the gift of life? A snail has life, but knows it not; it cannot will, it cannot change. Only humankind knows that it Is and what Is-ness signifies. Some possess great force of will, others may be coerced into relinquishing theirs; but even the act of relinquishing is a choice made by each individual 'I' between one of two or many possibilities. In relinquishing life, as you have rightly said, 'there is an option to had that life back to Him of our own Free Will, a state He has also given us.'


Life is to be lived, not controlled, and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat -Ralph Ellison