Obstacles to the value of life

Among the obstacles that diminish our sense of the profound intrinsic value of every human life, the first lies in the notion of “dignified death” as measured by the standard of the “quality of life,” which a utilitarian anthropological perspective sees in terms “primarily related to economic means, to ‘well-being,’ to the beauty and enjoyment of physical life, forgetting the other, more profound, interpersonal, spiritual and religious dimensions of existence”.[30] In this perspective, life is viewed as worthwhile only if it has, in the judgment of the individual or of third parties, an acceptable degree of quality as measured by the possession or lack of particular psychological or physical functions, or sometimes simply by the presence of psychological discomfort. According to this view, a life whose quality seems poor does not deserve to continue. Human life is thus no longer recognized as a value in itself.

A second obstacle that obscures our recognition of the sacredness of human life is a false understanding of “compassion”. In the face of seemingly “unbearable” suffering, the termination of a patient’s life is justified in the name of “compassion”. This so-called “compassionate” euthanasia holds that it is better to die than to suffer, and that it would be compassionate to help a patient to die by means of euthanasia or assisted suicide. In reality, human compassion consists not in causing death, but in embracing the sick, in supporting them in their difficulties, in offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate the suffering.

A third factor that hinders the recognition of the value of one’s own life and the lives of others is a growing individualism within interpersonal relationships, where the other is viewed as a limitation or a threat to one’s freedom. At the root of this attitude is “a neo-pelagianism in which the individual, radically autonomous, presumes to save himself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he depends on God and others […]. On the other hand, a certain neo-gnosticism, puts forward a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism”, that wishes to free the person from the limitations of the body, especially when it is fragile and ill.

Individualism, in particular, is at the root of what is regarded as the most hidden malady of our time: solitude or privacy. It is thematized in some regulatory contexts even as a “right to solitude”, beginning with the autonomy of the person and the “principle of permission-consent” which can, in certain conditions of discomfort or sickness, be extended to the choice of whether or not to continue living. This “right” underlies euthanasia and assisted suicide. The basic idea is that those who find themselves in a state of dependence and unable to realize a perfect autonomy and reciprocity, come to be cared for as a favor to them. The concept of the good is thus reduced to a social accord: each one receives the treatment and assistance that autonomy or social and economic utility make possible or expedient. As a result, interpersonal relationships are impoverished, becoming fragile in the absence of supernatural charity, and of that human solidarity and social support necessary to face the most difficult moments and decisions of life.

This way of thinking about human relationships and the significance of the good cannot but undermine the very meaning of life, facilitating its manipulation, even through laws that legalize euthanistic practices, resulting in the death of the sick. Such actions deform relationships and induce a grave insensibility toward the care of the sick person. In such circumstances, baseless moral dilemmas arise regarding what are in reality simply mandatory elements of basic care, such as feeding and hydration of terminally ill persons who are not conscious. —from “Samaritanus bonus” (2020)