Is it acceptable to make innocent people suffer in order to uphold society’s moral norms about the sanctity of life?

Love or oppression?

In his Church Times article opposing assisted dying (Church Times, 1 November 2014) Nigel Biggar, a leading British ethicist, accepts that many of the terminally ill endure intense suffering, but argues that:


when suffering is borne for the sake of protecting fellow-citizens against the hostile manipulation that would arise from the legalisation of assisted suicide, then suffering is no longer meaningless for it becomes an act of love. And meaningful suffering is sometimes easier to bear.

I disagree. It does not become an act of love unless the dying person chooses to treat it as such. On the contrary it becomes an act of oppression: Biggar, or rather the kind of society he promotes, is imposing suffering because of the norms it holds. It defends its norms at the expense of the suffering.

Biggar’s logic is common enough. In the same way, at the time of the 1967 Abortion Act, many theologians argued that even dying in childbirth was to be humbly accepted as God’s will, rather than putting to death an innocent unborn baby.

Changing moral norms

Of course it has to be somebody else who does the suffering, not oneself. Every society has norms, some of which oppress minorities. Social norms change, but slowly. In the meantime the majority would rather let those minorities carry on suffering indefinitely than question the norms they have been brought up to take for granted.

In British history the classic example is the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Looking back it seems to us astonishing that so many people believed illiterate poverty-stricken beggars could make magic spells work. They probably cursed their mean-fisted, uncaring neighbours more than they should have; but that the curses could have a magical effect is something most of us no longer believe. Eventually the beliefs changed, the norms changed with them, and the cruelties inflicted on these unfortunate people declined.

Our society still has norms which oppress, but because they are our norms, we take them for granted as obvious and we do not see them as oppressive. Nevertheless norms do change. A recent change has been in our attitudes to gay and lesbian people. Fifty years ago British society condemned same-sex partnerships. In effect society demanded of them a celibacy which most people did not want for themselves. Gradually society became more tolerant and its norms changed. By comparison with most changes of social norms, this was a quick one. Gay and lesbian people organised and campaigned. They pressurised governments. Like sixteenth-century witches, young pregnant girls and the terminally ill have less influence.

At any one time, then, some minorities are suffering the adverse effects of their society’s norms. Societies do change their norms, but slowly. Depending on who you are, society may ignore your suffering for very long periods of time. Is this an acceptable price to pay?

The philosophies behind the norms

Behind the particular issues lie different expectations about how good life can be. Christianity offers two conflicting answers. Our expectations are influenced by our deepest philosophies, which we rarely think about and may not notice at all. If we think human life ought to be, and can be, a fulfilling experience for everyone, we are more likely to look for ways to achieve it. If instead we think intense suffering will always be a part of fallen human life we will see less point in trying to alleviate any one instance of it.

Christianity comes in different versions and can support either. According to one, a good God has created a good world and wants the best for us, so when somebody is suffering some wrong needs to be put right. Alternatively we live in a fallen world; perfection exists only in heaven and we should not expect to go through life without tragedy and pain.

To these two we can now add a third: that the world was not created at all, but came into existence as the accidental product of unthinking physical processes. If so, it is presumptuous to suppose either that societies can do better or that they cannot; all we can do is observe the results of the social norms that have actually prevailed in any one place, and reflect on whether we like them.

Most of the time modern western society takes a positive view. We think of cancer, poverty, homelessness and crime as problems to be solved, not as inevitable tragedies of life. Solving these problems counts as progress. In historical fact, but also in logic, this belief in progress derives from faith in a God of goodness and purpose.

It was this commitment to the possibility of progess that made our parents and grandparents so dissatisfied with permanent distress that they changed social norms. To relieve people of abusive marriages they accepted divorce. To relieve people of poverty and homelessness they created the welfare state. To relieve people of enforced sexual abstinence they accepted contraception and, later, same-sex partnerships.

It is possible to believe that all these were mistakes. Perhaps the very idea of progress, and reducing suffering, is an error. Most of us however think that, although some attempts proved counter-productive, we were right to do what we could to relieve suffering. If so, we should apply the same logic to the terminally ill.

This means that no society should accept as normal that an unfortunate minority are going through intense suffering, and refuse to do anything about it. There is a moral imperative to help. If society’s norms prevent help, it is time to question the norms. There must be something wrong with them.