I read Dorothy Sayers’s excellent 1927 murder mystery Unnatural Death recently, and noticed the following interesting passage, in which readers may find insights into some recent controversies:
[Detective Lord Peter Wimsey said,] “Supposin’ somebody knows someone who’s very ill and can’t last long anyhow. And they’re in awful pain and all that, and kept under morphia—practically dead to the world, you know. And suppose that by dyin’ straight away they could make something happen which [someone else] really wanted to happen and which couldn’t happen if they lived on a little longer (I can’t explain exactly how, because I don’t want to give personal details and so on)—you get the idea? Well, supposin’ somebody who knew all that was just to give ’em a little push off so to speak—hurry matters on—why should that be a very dreadful crime? . . . [D]o you honestly think it’s very bad? I know you’d call it a sin, of course, but why is it so very dreadful? It doesn’t do the person any harm, does it?”
“We can’t answer that,” said [priest] Mr. Tredgold, “without knowing the ways of God with the soul. In those last weeks or hours of pain and unconsciousness, the soul may be undergoing some mecessary part of its pilgrimage on earth. It isn’t our business to cut it short. Who are we to take life and death into our hands?”
It is easy to see how a disbelief in the soul and an afterlife would remove one of the important factors Tredgold cites as making it wrong to cut off the life even of a person in very bad condition.
Tredgold cites an additional problem: “I think . . . that the sin—I won’t use that word—the damage to Society, the wrongness of the thing lies much more in the harm it does the killer than in anything it can do to the person who is killed. Especially, of course, if the killing is to the killer’s own advantage. . . . That puts it at once on a different plane from just hastening a person’s death out of pity. Sin is in the intention, not the deed. That is the difference between divine law and human law. It is bad for a human being to get to feel that he has any right whatever to dispose of another person’s life to his own advantage.”
Wimsey and Tredgold go on to observe that the ability to justify one murder makes it easier for an individual to justify others: Tredgold says, “Society is never safe from the man who has committed murder with impunity.”
The conversation revolves around the likely effect on the individual murderer, because, of course, that is the subject of a murder mystery. (It is important to note that the characters are not referring to socially approved killings such as capital punishment and war, which are a matter for separate arguments.) At the time Unnatural Death was written, however, the eugenics movement was making very public claims about the positive social value of killing some types of persons. From our current perspective, after nearly a century of pro-eugenics arguments and policies, it is easy to see the greater significance of the situation Sayers describes: the effect on individuals when society accepts claims about the positive value of killing people who strike us as inconvenient.