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Assisted suicide and the happiness imperative

The West’s moral revolution collides with itself

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Assisted suicide and the happiness imperative
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“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” So opines Orson Welles’s character, Harry Lime, in the movie The Third Man. Well, to the cuckoo clock we can now add the assisted suicide pod that has passed an independent legal review confirming that it conforms with Swiss law.

The advent of assisted suicide is both emblematic of the deepest concerns of contemporary Western culture and of the way in which the taboos of yesteryear are being overthrown at an alarming rate. As to the first, it is clear that personal happiness is now the foundational criterion for judging the morality of acts and institutions. This is not the happiness of earlier generations. When, for example, the Founders subscribed the Declaration of Independence and asserted a right to “the pursuit of happiness,” they assumed this “happiness” had an objective moral shape. They assumed the world possessed such, that it was discoverable, and that happiness, private and public, was found by living life in conformity with it. Happiness today is subjective, not objective. It is about feeling good, about a sense of psychological peace or well-being. The happiness of today is all about whatever works for you. And what works for you may not work for me.

This up-ends everything. For example, where once marriage was really about providing a stable environment for children, now it is about providing a context for the personal happiness of the partners. Under the old regime, gay marriage was a nonissue because gay partnerships were by very definition sterile. It only became a moral imperative when happiness became the primary purpose of marriage. Where once bodies were givens that decisively shaped our identity, now they can be reconstructed if their sexed nature is a hindrance to a sense of psychological well-being.

Inevitably this plays into all issues of life. Abortion is considered a right because the baby in the womb can be a hindrance to the happiness of the mother. And it has made euthanasia first plausible and now even desirable. The Swiss assisted suicide pod is only the most obvious example of this. Interestingly, Catholic philosopher Edward Feser has drawn attention to the aesthetics of the announcement: The smiling face of the person in the pod is typical of this Age of Happiness, where the appearance of “banal affability” is used to justify all manner of horror from which earlier generations would have recoiled in disgust.

To assist Cardinal’s suicide would be to acknowledge the limits of psychological happiness as the arbiter of right and wrong and of the nature of reality.

The sinister challenges of assisted suicide are well-known. How can someone with dementia, for example, consent to being euthanized? And given that health care costs money, there is the obvious danger that money will be used to leverage decisions, as Michael Brendan Dougherty points out with reference to the Swiss development. The possibility of “death panels” that Sarah Palin was so quick to claim as a danger in government health services is more a function of economics in general than of particular economic philosophies of healthcare delivery. But what will be most interesting is what will happen when the moral revolution created by the happiness imperative in one area collides with what it has fostered in another.

Take, for example, the case highlighted by Wesley J. Smith last year concerning one Lois Cardinal who had had gender transition treatment. It did not work, and over the years it merely compounded Cardinal’s pain and agony. Strange to tell, in a country where statistics indicate that over four percent of deaths in 2022 were by medically assisted suicide, Cardinal’s request for one was refused. It takes no great act of imagination to suspect why. Transition surgery is justified because it supposedly makes people happy. The same justification is used for assisted suicide for those suffering mental and physical discomfort. So in a conflict between assisted suicide and gender ideology, who wins and why? The answer seems to have been gender ideology. To assist Cardinal’s suicide would be to acknowledge the limits of psychological happiness as the arbiter of right and wrong and of the nature of reality.

Assisted suicide is just one function of our world where psychological happiness is the most important moral category. Unfortunately, even as this therapeutic ethos blithely overturns all that was once held sacred, it is incapable of consistency with regard to the social beliefs and behaviors it has itself generated. It is not simply its threat to the sanctity of life that makes it so dangerous. Life issues are merely symptomatic of a deeper incoherence upon which no stable society can be built.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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