Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Thoughts on Death in an Aging World

It has nearly been a year since I created The Philosophy Meetup Kingston , a group that currently has 130 local members! In that time I have organized 35 events to bring philosophy into the pubs of Kingston, and get locals engaging with philosophical topics ranging from the existence of god, to personal identity, ethics, human happiness, politics and science. It was been a very enriching experience for me. An opportunity to meet new people and make new friends, address topics I haven't thought about for a long time, and hear a more diverse range of insights and perspectives than what I am likely to be exposed to in a university classroom setting.

I haven't been blogging very much the past few years as I have been more actively involved in "experiential learning" of various sorts. Teaching for 5 summers in prison, running a social support group for divorced fathers, and trying to bring philosophy into elementary classes and pubs. These activities have all been very rewarding for me, and helped me develop as a human being and academic.

For tonight's Philosophy Meetup we are discussing the ethics of assisted dying (a dozen people have signed up to attend). The assigned resources for members to watch in advance are this and this.

This is a topic that, at least professionally, I haven't given serious attention to. So to gather my thoughts I thought I would grapple with trying to answer the following (rather macabre) question: "What would constitute my “ideal death”?”.

I came up with a list of 5 criteria that would definitely make the list of my ideal death. They are:

(1) my death would be forestalled for as long as possible (so I have the opportunity to enjoy the joys of a lengthy (but finite) life
(2) it be a sudden death vs prolonged one
(3) that it be painless vs painful
(4) that it be one that imposes minimal (e.g. caring) burdens on loved ones and family and
(5) it be an economical vs expensive death.

The problem is, (1) is in conflict with (2)-(5). So the real pressing question becomes- what is the most reasonable and feasible “non-ideal” death we should aspire for in an aging world?

Perhaps one useful way to think through the muddy waters of navigating the tough trade-offs that must be made (e.g. should we delay death when it causes more pain, expenses or caring burdens on others?) is to think about the role of autonomy in our death. Would we like (ideally or even non-ideally) to have some control over when our death occurs. Of course there is a concern with raising this point, as it begins to sound like it sanctions suicide. A person who, in a distraught mental state, might assess the benefits of going on living as not sufficient to warrant living thus opts for suicide and justifies this as an "autonomous decision". I want to guard against that type of conclusion.

The role autonomy should play here is very constrained and contextual. All-else-being equal, the ideal death would not be the result of a conscious decision we make when there was an alternative option that entailed more time living a functional and flourishing life. But in circumstances where there is a terminal illness/severe frailty involved, then granting a person autonomy over when they die seems to me to be very compelling.

Professionally my research hasn't focused on these questions as I have been much more interested in the question of how we can forestall the onset of disease, frailty and death by retarding the aging process itself. But having witnessed one parent die of chronic disease this past year, and another survive over a decade on chemotherapy, I feel this is a topic I will devote some serious time and reflection to. And hopefully write up my ideas as something to contribute to the academic debates on the ethics of assisted suicide.