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Euthanasia for All – or None

The word ‘dignity’ is a staple of contemporary medical ethics, where it often follows the words ‘death with’. People unfamiliar with this usage might expect it to reflect one’s manner of dying, for example, a stately exit involving ceremonial farewells. Instead, conventional usage generally holds that “death with dignity” ends or prevents life without dignity, by which is meant life marked by illness and disability. Popular examples of dignity-depleters include dementia, incontinence, and being “dependent on machines”.

In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte DíArthur, published in 1485, Blamor, overcome in battle, asks his adversary, Tristram, to slay him, saying, “I had lever [would rather] die here with worship [honor] than live here with shame.” Guenever tells Meliagaunt, who is abducting her, “I had lever cut mine own throat in twain rather than thou should dishonor me!” My students often find it barbaric to prefer death to the shame of defeat in battle. They find it hopelessly sexist to suppose death is preferable to the “dishonor” of being raped, or even to suppose rape dishonors the victim (as opposed to the perpetrator) at all. Will future generations consider “I would rather die than live with the degradation and indignity of incontinence and dependence” barbaric? Will they consider it hopelessly “ableist” (to use a current unaesthetic neologism that would make Malory turn over in his grave) to suppose that using a respirator undermines oneís human dignity? Should future generations feel this way? Whether they will is obviously a speculative empirical question where evidence is unattainable. But some of my current research bears on the philosophical question of whether they should. This question is important both for theoreti…

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…eans of high-tech life-supports. Since “hospice philosophy” does explicitly preclude this, however, its claim to provide the most effective route to a dignified death shows bias against the ill and disabled by denigrating the dignity of those who live by means of such supports.

To return to the issue of physician-assisted suicide, dignity is obviously not the only consideration advocates advance in favor of legalizing physician-assisted suicide only for the terminally ill, or only for the terminally ill and the severely and permanently disabled. I lack space to discuss the other considerations here. I have argued that physician-assisted suicide should either be kept illegal for everyone or, as a true fulfillment of the rhetoric of privacy and autonomy, legalized for all competent adults, including the young and healthy – the very people our society values most.

Hamlet’s Dashing Laertes

Hamlet’s Dashing Laertes

The character of Laertes in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet is an interesting one. Though seemingly relatively low-ranking as the son of the lord chamberlain, he nevertheless commands such respect from the populace that they rally to make him king at one point.

Let us, first of all, see how he fits into the royal lineup at Elsinore, examining them on the basis of most apparent personal qualities. Helen Gardner, by way of overview, compares Laertes to Hamlet and King Claudius in “Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge”:

Hamlet’s agony of mind and indecision are precisely the things which differentiate him from the smooth, swift plotter Claudius, and from the coarse, unthinking Laertes, ready to “dare damnation” and cut his enemy’s throat in a churchyard (222).

Laertes makes his appearance in the drama after Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio have already seen the Ghost and have trifled with it in an effort to prompt it to communicate with them. Laertes is in attendance at a social gathering of the court at Elsinore. Laertes, like Fortinbras a rival of Hamlet (Kermode 1138), appears with his father, Polonius, who is later shown to manipulate both him and his sister (Boklund 122). Laertes respectfully approaches the king, who asks, “And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you? / You told us of some suit; what is’t, Laertes?” Laertes responds in a manner befitting the son of the lord chamberlain:

My dread lord,

Your leave and favour to return to France;

From whence though willingly I came to Denmark,

To show my duty in your coronation [. . .] . (1.2)

After Claudius wishes Laertes a farewell for his trip back to France, the young man…

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…. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Hamlet: Film, Television and Audio Performance. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. P., 1988.

Kermode, Frank. “Hamlet.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.

Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. No line nos.


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