Thursday, August 6, 2009

A fundamental flaw in Dr. Keyes's thinking?

Let me state at the outset that I highly respect Dr. Keyes, his historical knowledge, his influence and abilities, his generally superior moral positions, which my regular readers already know. Anyway...

I was reading Dr. Keyes's latest Loyal to Liberty entry earlier today when I ran across this line,

Dr. Keyes wrote:

...bereft of the choices that today allow many to determine for themselves the moment at which they surrender with dignity to the inevitable prospect of their mortality.

which didn't set real well with me. Allow me to attempt an explanation:

Okay, death is inevitable. We agree on that. And to die with dignity is certainly better than dying in an undignified way. This (a 'dignified' death) must be one of the primary goals of every living human being for himself and his loved-ones (it probably extends beyond his loved-ones, but let's establish that limitation for our purposes here).

Well, I acknowledge that insofar as any human being has legitimate control or authority (or "choice") over human life (and death), it is the individual whose life is in question, and extends no further. But I think there's a fundamental flaw in that sort of thinking, a flaw that ultimately leads, or has led, to the dire situation we're in now. No human being, in my humble opinion, possesses any kind of power over human life, including his own. As he did not give himself life, he cannot, on his own whim, "decide" when, and/or, under what particular circumstances to give it up, 'dignified' or not. Ultimately he has no control over it anyway, he just thinks he does. Which is an indication of his underlying lack of faith in the giver of life, The Sovereign God of the Universe.

Anyway, I thought it might make for an insteresting discussion, both here and at Loyal to Liberty. I decided to bring it here for my own purposes, which are altogether self-interested. So sue me.


chiu_chunling said...

I think that you're skipping a couple of layers of what he said. He didn't say "die with dignity" or "surrender to death with dignity" or even "surrender to mortality with dignity" (I kinda snicker at that last one, because mortality is so inherently undignified). He referred to "choices that today allow many to determine for themselves the moment at which they surrender with dignity to the inevitable prospect of their mortality."

I surrendered to the prospect of mortality...a long time ago. I don't believe it was a particularly dignified surrender, but then again I was very young at the time. The point is that living an examined life requires that we eventually confront the nature of mortal existence. And, as you rightly point out, mortals do not have power over death.

But the best way to learn that humans don't have power over death is to be free to try everything in human power. Some people might know through simple logic or instinct that humans cannot have power over death, but for many (perhaps most) it is the product of experience using their choices to the limits of human power. Take those choices away, and those people will never learn what only experience could have taught. Instead they will believe that power over their own lives was taken from them by other humans.

Thus the truth about mortality will elude them, and they will never be able to confront the nature of their own existence.

Terry Morris said...


Don't you think that the truth about human mortality can be instilled in people during their formidable years?, which is to say through education, by which I do not mean government education; that if that opportunity is missed, the truth about human mortality becomes a much more difficult and elusive reality, individual choices notwithstanding?

Vince said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
chiu_chunling said...

Ah yes...the book learning. It's easy to assume the superiority of learning by instruction rather than experience given the relative costs and benefits. But a really good education in the nature of humanity includes the (apparently) puzzling fact that most humans don't learn things particularly well (or at all) just from being told the theory.

Really, 'most' is an understatement. After all, no human can accurately discern who is trustworthy without testing, so one must learn that from experience before even beginning to learn through instruction. And it is actually quite difficult to learn who to trust when most of your experience consists of dealings with other (fallible) humans.

Most children learn to trust their primary caretakers, because it's quite difficult for humans to survive the first few years of life without relatively consistent care, but generally this trust is...well, not very accurate. While the later rebellion against this initial relationship is partly instinctual, it is usually backed by a good deal of experience suggesting that complete trust was unwarranted.

The proverb says, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." I'm sure that you noticed the "when he is old," caveat. But I will add emphasis to the word "should" as well. I would explain the process as follows: instruct, then leave the pupil free to learn from experience, and (eventually) the value of of following your instruction will become evident.

This is not to say that instruction is not good, but that it is useless without experience to confirm it. Whereas experience can lead men to truth (assuming it doesn't manage to kill them first) without the benefit of instruction.

And while many truths are rather elusive if sought through experience alone, the essential nature of mortality isn't one of them. If there is one truth that no human has the power to escape, it is death. Even if you don't learn or accept it during your life, you will realize it eventually.

Of course, it is better to learn earlier rather than later, and better to learn the whole truth about mortality rather than only the most obvious element. So early instruction is good, and experience of freedom also needful. Really, if you leave humans free, usually they will instruct their children, and the properly instructed are the best candidates for freedom. It isn't as though there is some tension between instruction or freedom. The one reinforces the other.