From 1990 to 1998, Jack Kevorkian assisted in the suicides of more than 130 people. Although a number of those cases involved the terminally ill, the majority did not; and in five instances, autopsies showed no evidence of disease or illness.
In a recent interview Kervorkian stunned an interviewer by saying that the worst moment in his life was the moment he was born. While it can be tempting to dismiss Jack Kevorkian as a misanthropic quack, the philosophy from which his actions can be traced goes back more than two centuries.
The Copernican Turn
He had the best of intentions: to rescue what can be known from the radical skepticism of David Hume. But by dividing the universe into its sensible and insensible parts, Immanuel Kant created a Knowledge-Belief split. In this binary framework, “knowledge” was restricted to facts about the material world, with everything else a product of “beliefs” shaped by personal experiences and cultural influences. It was nothing less than a Copernican Turn in thought.
Up until Kant, it was generally accepted that a pre-existent something—Yahweh, the uncaused Cause, the Good, the One, Apeiron, Logos, God—brought the universe into existence with a rational structure that made knowledge possible: knowledge of the physical matrix of the cosmos and the metaphysical questions of life, as well.
According to Kant, the moral law (being law and rational) resided in the category of Knowledge. But Enlightenment agitations with the Church, coupled with the materialistic enthusiasms of the Scientific Revolution, eventually caused moral knowledge to be dislodged from the realm of facts, along with the concepts of God, spirit, soul, and the like.
The effect, over time, was the death of moral absolutes and the popularization of relativism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism.
The ‘sweet mystery of life’
Consider the nation whose rule of law is founded on the declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”
Two hundred years later, the highest court in the land upheld a ruling that excluded the unborn from those provisions with this fatuous reasoning: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Note the Kantian influence. It is the individual that assigns value and meaning to human life, bereft of any extrinsic standard or influence. And while it is true that the individual should be free to hold whatever peculiar beliefs he wants, acting on beliefs untethered to an external standard is another matter; in fact, it is moral chaos. For if the “sweet mystery of life” can be applied to life’s earliest stages, it can be applied to its later stages as well. One person who clearly understands that is Princeton ethicist Peter Singer.
As a thoroughgoing materialist, Peter Singer considers the human being a mere bag of chemicals with the capacity for suffering. What’s more, as an avowed utilitarian he believes that any action that reduces the sum-total of suffering in the world is justified, with little regard as to the distinction between human and non-human sufferers (Singer is an outspoken critic of speciesism).
Following the logic of the Supreme Court to its monstrous conclusion, Singer argues that if a newborn will cause his parents, siblings or community more hardship than joy, his parents have the right, even the duty, to euthanize him, and that the State should honor that right by granting the parents a “grace period” —a few weeks, months, whatever—post-partum to do the moral math. In the Singer world, “inalienable rights” do not apply until parents see fit bestow them.
Continuing down into that logical gutter, Singer took to the pages of the New York Times to pose the question “Should this be the last generation?” There Singer coquettishly brought up the idea of sterilizing ourselves to extinction.
Why? Because pain, suffering, and disappointment are universal to the human condition; they afflict the rich and poor alike, whether in the developed world or the developing world. And what better way to reduce misery, than to prevent the proliferation of those capable of experiencing it!
Now Singer doesn’t take all this seriously, leastwise on a global scale. He admits that a peopled world is better than a non-peopled one, not out of consideration of any transcendent value, but because of his brimming confidence in man to bring about a better world—one with “far less suffering.” Rather, he invites individuals to consider the question “Is life worth living?” before having children.
For his part, Singer deems life worth living and believes that most folks share his belief. But for those who don’t, there is Jack Kevorkian.
Death becomes him
Many who sought the services of Jack Kevorkian did so not because of a terminal illness, but because of a disability, depression, or existential ennui. They may have been muddled about the “sweet mystery of life,” but they followed its logic to its tragic end. A society that, out of deference to a woman’s autonomy over her body, allows her to end the life of a person she carries, cannot, with any coherent reasoning, deny her the “right” to end her own life.
As Kevorkian has suggested, celebrating “planned birth” while outlawing “planned death” is incongruent and hypocritical. Nonetheless, lawmakers have yet to “get it”: Even in the few states that have legalized assisted suicide, the practice is limited to terminal conditions.
In 1999 Dr. Death was convicted of second-degree murder and served eight years in prison. He was released on parole in 2007. In a recent CNN interview Kevorkian said that he had “no regrets, none whatsoever.” But no sooner had the words left his lips, than he put this to CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, "You want to know the single worst moment of my life?"
Unsettled by the unprompted question, Gupta cautiously replied, “OK.”
Kevorkian beamed, then proceeded with his carefully measured response: "The single worst moment of my life... was the moment I was born."
Gupta was caught off guard by the exchange and failed to ask the obvious follow-up. But in an earlier interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News, Kevorkian had stated that the “downs in life are greater than the ups,” suggesting that his answer to Peter Singer’s question is, no, life is not worth living.
Then why not end it? Kevorkian insists that he doesn’t fear his own death, he certainly has the knowledge and skill to accomplish it, and, at 82 years old, he doesn’t have much life to lose if he did.
Maybe there are some unsettled questions and, possibly, unfinished business holding him back. For when pressed about his religious views, Kevorkian professes agnosticism, despite sound bites about God and the afterlife that could have been scripted by the Alpha-atheist, Christopher Hitchens.
Regrets and redemption
In many ways, Jack Kevorkian is Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Antonius is a medieval knight who wants to die, just not quite yet.
After a ten-year campaign in the Crusades, Antonius returns to his homeland and encounters the specter of Death. Hoping to buy some time, he challenges Death to a game of chess, only to face the specter later disguised a priest.
Antonius is trapped in the Kantian zone between Knowledge and Belief. In his anger with a silent God who remains a gnawing Presence, Antonius asks the “priest,” “Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality.”
Antonius refuses to settle for belief; he wants knowledge before he dies. But by allowing his heart to grow callous and indifferent, he realizes that he has cut himself off from the most experiential manifestation of the Divine: love. It could be the same for Jack Kevorkian.
After telling CNN that he had no regrets, Kevorkian confessed sorrow for the way he had treated his sister and long-deceased parents (notably, his mother suffered from a long bout with cancer before dying).
Elsewhere, he admitted that his decision to remain single and not have children was the biggest mistake of his life. So big that he toldPeople magazine in 1990 that his life was a “failure,” saying, "If I had married, I'd have had kids—kids and family are everything. Looking back, I would do almost everything differently." I suspect that he would.
Ironically, the man from whom Dr. Death’s beliefs can be traced, vigorously opposed suicide on the basis on the intrinsic worth and duty of the human being. Against the notion that suicide is a matter of personal freedom, Immanuel Kant wrote:
He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself.
I suspect the irony has been lost on Jack Kevorkian along with the truth of Kant’s statement.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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