Wisdom from Dorothy Sayers on End of Life Issues

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.


37 thoughts on “Wisdom from Dorothy Sayers on End of Life Issues

  1. An interesting point. Perhaps the torture – sorry, coercion! – apologists among the RCers will perhaps see in this our objections to the tactics used at Gitmo and to the obviation of due process: To do it anywhere makes it easier to do elsewhere.

    Goose, gander, all that jazz.

  2. James, you could use a little familiarity with Martin Luther (who, admittedly had a few bad moments, but this isn’t one of them). Luther said that the Christian should take no care for his own life or health, but should be profoundly interested in the life and health of his neighbor. Just as the neighbor needs food, water, and air to breathe, so also does he need protection and order. For that reason, the Christian should be willing to serve as councilman, soldier, policeman, and yes, even hangman to help bring protection and order for those who are vulnerable to the evil in this world.

  3. James, just answer this one question and we can at least know where we stand. Imagine the standard scenario where a terrorist has hidden a bomb in a highly populated area and it will go off within the hour. You have him in custody. Will you avoid coercing him or will you take matters in hand and try to save thousands even if severe phsyical force is required?

    To my mind, Jesus did not establish some reign of gentleness. He was instead indicting us and showing us the way to reconciliation with a truly holy and just God. Part that involves giving way to others and not insisting on one’s own prerogatives. But I do not see him saying we should allow the slaughter of innocents just so we can be less coercive.

  4. Let’s see, so far I am ignorant of Luther (whom I read extensively in high school), Hobbes (whom I read in college), and perhaps that kind, hippy pacifist we all like to call Jesus of Nazareth (who would have been a cool cat to get to know but I’m not so down with worshipping).

    Or, perhaps, I just disagree. That could be an explanation. Hmm. Two people in here are engaging in shoddy thinking, and I’m not one…

    And TVD, stop watching so much “24”. The “ticking time bomb” is complete BS. And it’s well documented that severe physical force DOESN’T WORK. You’re an idiot for harping on this widely refuted point. The upshot for you is that if you continue long enough, I may just die of an aneurysm.

  5. I just want to know how certain Hunter has to be that the guy he’s got in custody is the bomber before he starts pulling out fingernails.

    Or does he plan on using the same psychic powers that he uses to determine exactly how the Framers feel about modern issues?

  6. James, you aren’t addressing the points at all. It’s as if you took some kind of drug. Or perhaps the transformation into Tlaloc finally took place and you aren’t playing Jekyll and Hyde anymore.

    The reason to bring up Luther was to show that there are substantial resources in the Christian tradition to justify coercion when lives are at stake. You acted as though it was inconceivable a Christian could think that way.

    And there was nothing ethnocentric about my point. I was simply arguing that a Christian (who is not to worry about his own life) must be terribly concerned with the lives of others.

    That wasn’t TVD who brought up the “24” scenario, it was me. I can confess that I have never watched a whole episode of that program and am totally ignorant of where it stands today. I was trying to see where you stand and you avoided the question as did the Liberal Anonymous. I gave a hypothetical. You know he (the terrorist) knows. What do you do?

  7. And one more thing, James. So what if you read Martin Luther in high school. Do you remember any of it? Which work am I quoting from, great scholar?

  8. You know he (the terrorist) knows.

    What if space aliens land and inform you that if you don’t torture one million people to death, they’ll kill five million people with their death ray?

    I suppose you could spend many a drug-addled liberal arts college night coming up with absurd hypothetical situations and debating the moral issues involved. But here in the real world, torture isn’t okay.

  9. I’m no scholar, but I assume you’re referring to “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Frankly, that was nine years ago and I really don’t care. You’re trying to invalidate that I largely disagree with Luther by setting up a strawman. Please.

    For some reason I just assumed the ticking time bomb scenario was TVD. He’s brought it up before, many many times. Still wrong. You’re hypothetical is like my asking, “Hunter someone proves that the Gospels weren’t written until 875 AD, what do you do?” It doesn’t happen. Your scenario is deeply flawed. Psychological techniques are just as, if not more effective. And the terrorist knows how long he has. He just has to hold out. Studies show that with a realizable goal in sight, a determined, zealous person can withstand more than we’re capable of dishing out. All he or she has to do is hold on.

    Now, we can be aggressive, threatening to kill his or her family in reprisal, and then offering “outs” for the terrorist. Resorting to physical torture tells a terrorist exactly what he or she needs to know: you don’t know squat and if they hold out or you kill them, you’ll know even less. And as they’ve demonstrated, these fanatics have no problem dying for their cause. (Which then beggars the question: How do you deter someone intent on suicide with bullets? But that’s another discussion.)

    It’s not inconceivable that a CHRISTIAN could act the way you describe. You’re a regular Torquemada, as far as I can tell. It’s inconceivable that someone can maintain an absolute sanctity for life (your Schiavo and Roe posts) on one hand and then be OK with torture on the other.

  10. Sorry, I was out at the airport picking up a load of innocent Afghani shepherds so I can send them to Cuba to be gratuitously tortured.

    Did I miss anything?

    ST, I did get something of value from your post, especially “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.”

    It is a valid if not comprehensive argument against capital punishment. I’ve always been moved by it, as well as Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical observation that if survival is indeed the first natural right, then the condemned, even if guilty, could hardly be blamed for taking the lives of his captors in order to escape.

  11. James, all I ever said was that I did not think the tactics being used at Gitmo rise to the level of torture, but are instead coercive measures short of what we would really acknowledge as torture. AND, if we’re defining things that way, I’d accept the tactics as ONE of the ways we could find out what we need.

    Second, Gitmo presents an incomplete information problem and I don’t know why you don’t acknowledge that up front. We don’t know and can’t know how many terrorists acts have been avoided via information gained at Gitmo. It’s hard for me to believe the government would be so tenacious about maintaining a political liability if it were utterly useless in terms of strategic importance.

    Torquemada? Now who’s trotting out the strawmen? You see, the difference between a pro-lifer/non-pacifist like me and someone like you is that I’m willing to see a guilty party be exposed to a degree of violence. You, on the other hand, are willing to see perfectly innocent and helpless people exposed to clinical murder in mass numbers. For every one of my terrorists or supposed terrorists subjected to sleep deprivation, there are a few million little piles of flesh ground into hamburger on your side of the ledger.

  12. First off, Tom, good points.

    Hunter, in addition to being a graduate student, I am a mental health professional. I can tell you with absolute certainty that 72 hours of sleep deprivation is considered legally insane.

    Are you so sure that you want to drive people insane in the hopes of garnering coherent information? Sounds like shooting yourself in the foot.

    The Bush Administration admit it was wrong? Admit that they’d created a liability in Camp X-Ray? These are the people who spent days trying to discredit the ISG report because it proved them wrong. I find your blind faith in our government a tad disturbing. You are right about one thing, we do have incomplete information. However, what we do know of what goes on there obviates any protective benefit it may have. Further, we know – KNOW – that Gitmo is one stop in a chain of detention camps, from Abu Ghraib to Bagram, where inhumane treatment has occurred, treatment we are CONSTITUTIONALLY BARRED from administering. Or perhaps you think “extraordinary rendition” is an ethically acceptable salve to our national conscience?

    Despite the charming imagery of your last paragraph, you fail utterly to do anything but play to your base and perpetuate the “Liberals hate America!” meme that pollutes conservative thought. It’s complete BS. You conflate being willing to take the risk of my personal safety against the dimunation of civil liberties with wanting to see innocents in danger. It’s not only poor logic, it’s spurious and intellectually dishonest. I was under the impression that Baylor was a good school, but apparently it’s about as effective as Fumblebuck U in turning out intellectual giants. Frankly, your mental midgetry and continual parroting of Right Wing talking points ad nauseum just undermines your attempts to have a discussion.

    You have yet to reconcile being pro-life with being willing to perpetuate a system that has resulted in fatalities. The only choice is to concede that you are willing to value some lives more than others, making you a relativist of the kind you detest.

  13. I just thought it was interesting that you argued against concern over abortion by saying, for instance, that Partial Birth Abortion doesn’t happen that often, but on the other hand if a few likely terrorists undergo sleep deprivation, IT’S A CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS!!!

  14. Thought better of it.

    See, Hunter, here’s what the difference between you and me is.

    You believe that at some point, a person gives up their right to live or to be treated humanely. You do so not out of any grander ideal but out of a selfish desire to protect yourself and a narrow definition of your fellow man.

    I believe that no person, anywhere, can give up those rights. They can only be taken away; that to take away those rights in one instance is the march down a path of taking them away in other instances. This a power all men have, and that few own up to the responsibility of.

  15. Hunter, you repeatedly attempt to paint sleep deprivation in a manner that makes it look as benign as bouts of insomnia. Sleep deprivation can cause lasting physical ailments and insanity in as little as 72 hours. Sleep deprivation is not being woken up at odd hours by loud noises. It is being placed in stressful circumstances that make it IMPOSSIBLE to sleep, a process so crucial to human survival that nature mandates we spend one-quarter to one-third of our LIVES doing it.

    I’m having a hard time deciding if you’re just being fatuous, engaging in willful intellectual dishonesty, or if you’re just an idiot when it comes to this subject. Torture isn’t just someone imitating Michael Palin and screaming “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” while pulling out fingernails.

  16. Yes, there’s nothing that could ever justify depriving a bad guy of sleep.

    Why, that’d be just plain not nice. No two ways about it, not nice.

    So what if the guy wants to blow up a bus full of commuters? He probably had a bad upbringing.

  17. James, I have removed your comment. Please try to remain substantive in your statements.

  18. Okay, then how’s this for substance, Karnick?

    How about one of you refute the fact that sleep deprivation isn’t insomnia but a brutal tactic used to ACTUALLY drive people to physical and mental ruin? I don’t think SERE and the CIA have manuals on the subject because they think American soldiers and agents will be subject to bouts of somnambulism or insomnia! You’re being offered a chance to prove me wrong. You’ve been offered it at least TWICE in this thread alone and no one has been able to refute me. All Hunter, and now Locke, had to offer was vacuous platitudes.

    There wasn’t exactly anything substantive to Locke’s moronic post, S.T., aside from repeating endlessly vacuous arguments long ago refuted, so you’ll have to forgive me if I treated it as rudely as it deserved.

  19. Mr. Elliott: I have not looked at this discussion until today, when I found your inappropriate comment, hence your assumption that I wish to refute the central factual claim you make is entirely unfounded. As it happens, I fully agree that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Typically it is combined with other methods, but it is indeed a means of torture in itself.

  20. Thank you, sir. You are both a scholar and a gentleman. I apologize to you (though just you).

  21. Oh, no, you certainly mustn’t doubt that. It was quite clear to me that you meant it, and I definitely meant my response to be taken literally.

  22. This is how you get to be a scholar and a gentleman: Agree with James Elliott’s very important worldview. Attention must be paid.

  23. You have no idea, little man. No idea.

    But, on the contrary, Mr. Karnick has merely, in several separate threads today, revealed that he holds consistent and considered views. And with a level of politeness I should aspire to.

  24. Finally, a true statement! Long have we waited for it and out of nowhere, enlightenment for the youngster.

  25. Can I call him a dirty name now, Mr. Karnick? Or will you delete that, too? I mean, this is like three in a row. Surely I’m entitled to a little namecalling.

  26. I won’t. Don’t worry. See, this is how I know I’ve won. He’s out of ammo, he’s got nothing to refute me. He’s resorted to mockery, which is the fallback of the person who secretely knows, deep down in the pit of his beady little heart, that he’s lost.

  27. This claiming of victory on the comments board is something perennial losers should have caught on to a long time ago. The Red Sox could have ended their curse decades back!!! We won the World Series because we say so!

  28. Keep proving my point with every post lacking in substance, Locke. If you had anything substantive to say, you would have.

  29. Some people like to argue the points. Others like to watch and wait for opportunities to puncture big, overblown ego balloons. That’s my game. Hope you respect it, Jimmy. It’s the part of a good relativist to let me value the things I care about.

  30. Knock yourself out. My ego’s just fine. Just don’t call me Jimmy. You’re not my mom.

    Or are you… Mom? I guess I’m going to have to call you Patsy from now on.

  31. I’ll just be sure not to call you consistent, brilliant, or articulate.

    Your mom said late for dinner will do just fine, though.

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