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The Ethics of Death: Religious and Philosophical Perspectives in Dialogue

Lloyd Steffen and Dennis R. Cooley
Published by Fortress Press in 2014

Reviewed by Dale Goldsmith, Retired as Vice President for Academic Affairs, Oklahoma Panhandle State University

Usually I see ethical issues such as abortion and war “discussed” on a crowded street by shouting, even pushing, placard-bearing advocates of “yes” or “no” with little accompanying detailed argument. The Ethics of Death offers a much quieter, sometimes casual—even meandering—walk through complex arguments about what “rational people of good will” might contemplate and even agree to when the morality of various modes of killing are at issue. “Rational people of good will” might understand how other “rational people of good will” could come to conclusions different from their own. This discussion is a conversation between a philosopher and a theologian whose collaboration began when they agreed to co-edit the conference proceedings (Re-Imagining Death and Dying: Global Interdisciplinary Perspectives) of a 2008 international conference on “Making Sense of Dying and Death.”

The result was an ongoing conversation in which—in this book of 8 chapters—they invite others to share. Their stated goal is to produce “a model for how to engage and inquire, push and disagree with civility and good will” in discussing the morality of half a dozen ways in which we kill or are killed. The issues that engage them are ones that stir the blood and move people into the streets and courts: abortion, the death penalty, war, suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Each is given a generous chapter.

The style is casual in the sense that neither author pushes a personal agenda or doggedly criticizes the other. What they seek is an airing of the possibilities, hidden pitfalls, clarification of arguments, and conditions to be met in constructing arguments for and against each kind of death (that is, killing). Recommendations for use of a book are normally found at the end of a review. This reviewer believes that this volume lends itself to an introductory college ethics or philosophy class as a supplementary text or to a church Sunday school class of serious adults. Beginning college students would find it cordially critical, horizon-expanding, and pertinent to “hot button” issues that will sooner or later be real-world political and/or personal questions in their lives. There is truly a little something for everyone in this book.

As a text for the church—despite the poor marks the authors give religion on ethical issues—The Ethics of Death fits an 8-week format for thinking through what are often our passionately held positions on killing. For the Christian willing to devote an hour of reading on Saturday night and an hour of disciplined and rational conversation on Sunday morning, the exercise will pay dividends for those who think about ethics or who might sometime face dying themselves! [The church’s failure to foster serious end-of-life conversations—particularly in the medicalized end-of-life environment of palliative care where “spirituality” is being taken seriously as another “need” to be met—places the dying who want to rely on their religious faith at risk of having that taken over by medical professionals.]

Chapter 1 introduces major ethical approaches—brief but clear summaries of deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and natural law. Then each author offers his own approach which he employs throughout the book as they seek to find a “just” use of the means of killing analyzed in each of the next 6 chapters.

Dennis R. Cooley, professor of philosophy and ethics at North Dakota State University, explains his “Pragmatic Principle,” a combination of deontology and consequentialism, the rules component of which is a “Quasi-Categorical Imperative” (QCI) in which “the agent does not treat anyone as a mere means” and the consequentialist component of which is a “Reasonable Person Consequentialism” (RPC) which demands that “a reasonable person in the same circumstances in which the agent finds herself would reasonably believe that the action has at least as much utility as any alternative to the action” (36). Lloyd Steffen, chaplain and professor of religion at Lehigh University, contributes his approach—another “hybrid ethic”—which is an expanded version of natural law.

In every case, the authors begin the individual mode-of-killing chapters with the presumption—based on arguments against that particular method of death under consideration—that there seems no justification for anyone to be killed in that way. Then they entertain and examine arguments that claim that there just might be conditions—to which at least some rational people of good will would agree—in which the killing in question could be found to be “just.”

There is no hurry as arguments are spelled out in detail and occasionally are even repeated; additional material is brought to bear: thought problems, sociological and medical data, laws and court cases, costs involved, mistakes made, the role of bias, racism, sexism, ageism, and the clarification of what is scientific and what is moral (that is, not science)— whatever might help to place the issue in the broadest context and assist the reader to know as much as possible so that the building of any further case for a “just” killing can be maximally informed.

The book is suggestive in idiosyncratic ways. One of the connections that continues to push its way into my thinking has to do with how easy some ways to kill are compared with how difficult others can be. The authors detail how difficult it is to kill yourself in Oregon although it is legally possible if you meet the 72 criteria laid out by state’s Death with Dignity law. Yet the government getting into a war which always turns out to be “unjust” given the “just war” criteria seem less fraught with obstacles (such as the loss of social resources which degrades the flourishing of society). The state-instituted death penalty is a third state-approved way to kill legally selected individuals but results in almost comic opera-like mis-application in practice: inequalities of all sorts, high costs, killing of the innocent, and not killing persons when the technology fails. The point is: irrationality, not rationality, governs killing when we do it as “we the people.”

Every reader will eventually be engaged by at least one of the ways people kill or are killed; and every reader will be swayed by an argument or two, because we have all been “there”: an abortion (considered or carried out), anger over an execution of convicted person later exonerated, a loved one killed in war, a suicide in a neighbor’s family, a terminally ill friend desperately seeking respite from pain and depression.

The penultimate chapter—the last on kinds of death—is entitled “Futility/Euthanasia.” This issue has the potential to have the widespread impact as it deals with persons whose condition is insupportable and/or merits a medical diagnosis of “futile.” After nearly 40 pages of carefully dissecting voluntary, involuntary, active and passive euthanasia, mercy killing, and palliative care, the moral presumption of care assumed as a bedrock foundation for ethical treatment shows fissures presaging a possible slippery slope down which may slip the aged, the physically or mentally burdensome, the costly. Indeed, the very language we use—for example “palliative care”—may need a morality check because the terminology obfuscates the reality of death in which such “care” terminates. And the one that the authors expect to be increasingly prevalent and thus ethically more difficult to deal with: the “futility/euthanasia” of a person whose condition is considered (by herself autonomously and subjectively or by doctors from a scientific perspective) to be “futile.” Is there a slippery slope? Will the elderly or the handicapped become candidates? Or those who are economic burdens?

Despite the subtitle (Religious and Philosophical Perspectives in Dialogue), this is mostly about “philosophical perspectives,” and the authors seem to agree that there can be little “dialogue” between the philosophical and the religious when it comes to laying out and calmly considering a reasoned ethical evaluation of the ways in which people kill or are killed. Steffen (religion) regularly reports views held by Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other faiths, but it is clear that the authors’ view is that (i) religious claims, fiats, “ethics,” and allegedly inspired demands to kill are arbitrary (who really knows what the gods think?), and (ii) religions have deservedly earned much bad press by killing people, albeit (allegedly) motivated by the divine will. “Dialogue” never seems to get off the ground. In fact, he impatiently brushes off any claims that God might have wanted the faithful to kill anyone for any reason: “If God wants someone dead, then let God do the killing.”

Cooley’s concluding philosophical question seems uncharacteristic: “If people are dying, then why don’t they take that as a sign that their divine entity wants them to die?” Steffen concedes that “why death?” does seem to be a question worth asking, and he hazards a few suggestions that could be discussion starters. Perhaps the best place for an engaging and informative volume like this to stop is here, where readers who consider themselves rational and of good will can put the book down and move on, more aware that it is incumbent on each to take up the “project of dying” and not abdicate any responsibility for it. Christians may want to consider at least these three “take-aways” from this book. First, the recognition that our thinking about abortion, war, and so forth is not all that rational; we can learn from the philosophers. Second, we may want to be more skeptical of governments’ approval or disapproval of who can be killed (or not). And third, we may want to take more seriously the possibility that we or one of ours may be the next “futile” case up for consideration.

Cite this article
Dale Goldsmith, “The Ethics of Death: Religious and Philosophical Perspectives in Dialogue”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:3 , 305-307

Dale Goldsmith

Oklahoma Panhandle State University
Religion/Academic Dean, Retired