Stoicism, Martyrdom, and Euthanasia

So, in reading “Stoicism in Early Christianity”, I read an essay by Nicola Denzey called “Facing the Beast: Justin, Christian Martyrdom, and Freedom of the Will”. In it, among other things, she discusses the link between Stoic ideas of determination — ie the idea that things are determined for us by Fortuna — and the acceptance of death as an indifferent, and the Christian martyrs who bravely and even joyfully embraced their martyrdom. She comments that this follows from a thread in Seneca about it being a good thing or even necessary to be able to choose when you die, and links it to his own willingness towards his own execution. And yet, as she points out, other Stoics definitely criticized at least some aspects of the Christian martyrs:

Thus, Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic, heaped scorn upon Christians who sought a showy and pointless death in the amphitheater. [pg 194].

As Denzey points out, most Stoics took a strong stance against suicide, on the grounds that it was fighting against nature and fate, which Stoics ought not do. Seneca, she points out, pushed back against that, arguing that it was an expression of proper freedom. However, I think that this sort of notion runs the risk of not merely declaring that death is not a bad thing, but also insisting that death, in and of itself, can be a good, which means making death a virtue in and of itself. This, I think, is where Aurelius thinks the Christian martyrs go wrong: they have decided that dying for their God is better than living for their God. We can also, then, apply that to even the cases where Seneca points out examples of noble suicides and say that, again, they’ve decided that it is better to die than to live. On what grounds do they make that determination?

If death is to be an indifferent, then it is clear that one must never choose living over doing the virtuous and rational thing. By that, it is certainly better to at least allow yourself to die in order to avoid acting viciously. Additionally, it can be said that if the only way to stop yourself from acting viciously is to kill yourself, then you probably should, in fact, kill yourself instead of acting viciously. So, then, if someone will kill you unless you act viciously, you let them kill you, and if you will act viciously unless you kill yourself, then you kill yourself. The question, then, is what happens when, for example, all you are doing is dealing with a comparison of indifferents … which includes a number of cases where your death might be humiliating or not the sort of death you find noble.

In Stoicism, we can have an idea of “preferred indifferents”, which are things that still have no real moral value in and of themselves but that all rational people are going to prefer. Food would be one of these, as would health. It seems obvious that life is indeed going to be one of these preferred indifferents, as we don’t really lose anything important if we die, but given a choice in general we ought rationally to prefer living over dying. So, in general, the idea would be that almost no matter what else we face — starvation, pain, poor health, loneliness, etc — that we’d be acting irrational if, when staring into the face of that, we decided that we really ought to die to alleviate those conditions. They are no more inherently valuable that our life is, and so we should face those conditions as no more of a loss than losing our life would be, and as long as we live we can play out the role that fate has in store for us and, for those of us less deterministic than typical Stoics, we can work to end those conditions and get back our preferred indifferents, or even enjoy other preferred indifferents regardless. So, in general, we shouldn’t give up our lives to avoid pain or humiliation … which includes the humiliation of not dying the way we might have wanted to.

This changes, however, when our fate is sealed and we are going to die no matter what we do. When our life is forfeit regardless of our actions, then we can, indeed, decide how we want to die. In a case where there is no hope for escape, taking a less humiliating or more preferred way to die is us simply choosing our own circumstances, and so does fit the sort of freedom that Seneca would espouse: we do not choose that we will die, but we may choose how. This starts from facing it with equanimity and without fear or begging and ends with choosing, as far as we are able, the circumstances of that death: to die in a way that reflects who we really are and how much of a Stoic sage we have become. But if we might well live, and be able to live without sacrificing virtue, there would seem to be a vanishingly small number of cases where simply the loss of indifferents would make it rational for us to sacrifice our lives because that loss would be too much for us to bear. We’d seem to be treating indifferents as far more important than they really are to do so.

So here’s the link with euthanasia. Given what I’ve just said, if someone has a condition where there is no reasonable chance of them surviving it — and no, you can’t use the sophistic claim that we are all guaranteed to die sometime and so we can choose death any time we want — then they do have the freedom to choose the time, manner, and circumstances of their death. So, someone with a terminal medical condition that leaves them in great pain is equally free to choose to enjoy what little life they can or to decide that they would like to leave the party now. Stoic “good” is not a case of right actions adding up, but simply a way of living, so choosing to die does not deprive anyone of virtuous goods, and no one else can dictate what indifferents a person should pursue on the basis of the impact on them. So, it would seem, Stoic ethics supports euthanasia in cases of terminal illness. But when the illness is not terminal, then it seems to me to be very difficult to justify euthanasia, unless the illness will cause you to act viciously … which some of the mental illnesses will. Thus, Stoicism provides an easy justification of euthanasia for terminal patients, but not one for those who are simply worried about having to depend on others or about not being able to do the things that they liked.

Stoicism always contains a tension on these points because when it considers death and life to be an indifferent it becomes too easy to justify committing suicide if your life is not going the way you want it to. Thus, some Stoics rule it out while some at least partially embrace it as a freedom. Stoicism always must promote you choosing suicide over acting viciously, so a blanket condemnation of suicide simply cannot work. But if we do have a notion of rationally preferred indifferents, it’s easy to see why life and death is one of them, and then easy to argue that one should at least rarely be able to rationally choose other indifferents over life and death, which then ought to resolve the tension.

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4 Responses to “Stoicism, Martyrdom, and Euthanasia”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Given what I’ve just said, if someone has a condition where there is no reasonable chance of them surviving it — and no, you can’t use the sophistic claim that we are all guaranteed to die sometime and so we can choose death any time we want — then they do have the freedom to choose the time, manner, and circumstances of their death.

    But the only difference you’ve described is the amount of time before death. Why is that relevant?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, first of all, as I said, it’s a sophistic argument. It’s essentially the “life is a terminal disease” line taken seriously, and using that as an argument is dubious.

      Second, and more importantly, that was premised not on time, but in relation to a case where our life is directly forfeit, and nothing we can do will extend it further. Then, in those direct cases — ie the execution examples in Seneca — all we are doing is choosing how we die. The same thing applies to the case of a terminal disease, as you are choosing the circumstances of your death, but you know precisely how you will die if you let nature take its course, and there’s no action you can take that will free you from that specific and predictable death. That argument can’t be made in other cases, and so we’d have to ask what you’re trying to avoid in order to choose to die now. Acting viciously? Covered as allowable if there’s no other way to avoid that. Suffering? That’s a Stoic indifferent, and so at a minimum you’d need an argument to show why in that case life is still not a preferred indifferent. Humiliation? Again, that’s a Stoic indifferent, and again you’d need to make a rational case beyond “I wouldn’t like it” to justify it.

      In short, the discussion in euthanasia cases is all about balancing indifferents, and it’s hard to come up with arguments that trump saying that life is a preferred indifferent in a moral system that treats things like suffering as things that you need to endure and should not consider as an inherently bad thing. The Stoics will tend to argue that you need to adjust to those situations instead. However, if you can’t preserve that preferred indifferent no matter what you do, then choosing the circumstances where you lose it is perfectly reasonable. It is a reasonable argument to say that you should always maintain your life if you can do so virtuously no matter what other indifferents you don’t have in that life, but that once the idea of maintaining your life is off the table then you can balance the remaining indifferents the way you see best.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        Well, first of all, as I said, it’s a sophistic argument. It’s essentially the “life is a terminal disease” line taken seriously, and using that as an argument is dubious.

        Well, yeah, you say that, but I’m not sure I agree.

        Second, and more importantly, that was premised not on time, but in relation to a case where our life is directly forfeit, and nothing we can do will extend it further.

        But again – and you could call it sophistic if you want to – Our life IS directly forfeit. You say it’s not about time, and then almost immediately mention time as a major factor (“directly” forfeit).

        The same thing applies to the case of a terminal disease, as you are choosing the circumstances of your death, but you know precisely how you will die if you let nature take its course, and there’s no action you can take that will free you from that specific and predictable death.

        Okay, so now we have two factors:

        1) How we will die

        2) When we will die

        I’m not sure how the “when” makes any difference at all. As for “How”, if nature takes its course, I’ll die of old age.

        I get that you think this is sophistry, but I don’t agree.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I think you’re still seeing a “when” that isn’t there, so let me rephrase it in precise Stoic terms to avoid that:

        Life is a rationally preferred indifferent, which means that if you are choosing between preserving your life and preserving any other indifferent, you should rationally choose preserving your life. In the cases Seneca talked about, you had a reasonable certainty that someone else was going to kill you, and so preserving your life was not an option. At that point, choosing to preserve other indifferents — avoidance of pain, your dignity — by taking your own life doesn’t clash with that; there’s no option to actually preserve your life in that case. In the case of a terminal illness, the same applies: there are no reasonable options available to preserve that preferred indifferent, so you can only balance the other indifferents as you see fit. Without that, though, you run into a potential clash between the preferred indifferent of life and the less preferred indifferents, and risk choosing them over the preferred indifferent, which at a minimum requires a VERY strong argument.

        You can attack this by denying that life is a preferred indifferent, but as it grounds all of the other ones that’s a pretty difficult line to take: you can’t get any of the other indifferents unless you’re alive.

        So it’s not about when you’ll die, or even how you’ll die, but more that, in the case you’re in, you CAN’T decide to preserve your life, and so must decide what to do on the basis of other considerations.

        And you should be able to see now why I consider the “I’m mortal” line sophistry: that you will die someday does not change whether in the context of the decision there is a way to preserve your life or not, and doesn’t in any way address whether or not living is a preferred indifferent. You’d be dropping considerations of your life out of the picture completely and, at that point, not treating life as an indifferent that you should consider AT ALL, which is clearly wrong: if anything counts as an indifferent that you ought to consider, life is one of them.

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