Carey, Death and Experience

careyGeorge Carey has waded in on the debate about assisted dying, and the responses to his comments confirm that there really is a time when a former Archbishop needs to stop saying unwise and unhelpful things that make life difficult for his successors.

There is a very moving personal response from the Digital Nun, which concludes with a reflection on the challenge of dying well:

I would agree that not all suffering is necessarily redemptive. It certainly isn’t always noble or dignified. I have watched people die in terrible circumstances, but I still hold to the belief that as human beings we are more than the sum of our parts. Dying a good death means more than dying ‘easily’ or ‘comfortably’. For a Christian, or at any rate for this particular Christian, it means dying in union with Jesus Christ our Saviour, as and when he wills. Just as his death on the Cross was his last great act of surrender to the Father, so our own death will be the most important act of our life. I don’t want to fudge mine, do you?

But the more devastating critique comes from Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship. Saunders highlights the contradictions at the centre of Carey’s comments. In his Daily Mail article, Carey states that…

It would be outrageous if it were extended beyond the terminally ill to an ever-widening group of people, including the disabled and the depressed.

But he has just described how he changed his mind on the matter precisely because of two such cases—those of Paul Lamb, who was paralysed after a car accident, and Tony Nickolson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a stroke. Although Carey comments (of Lamb) ‘It was impossible not to be moved by his argument, especially when he described the horrific pain he has to endure every day’, he appears to fail to notice that support for the Assisted Dying Bill would have no bearing on such cases. As others have commented, borders to countries ought to follow natural boundaries, otherwise they are impossible to defend. And the same is true with laws; the Assisted Dying Bill would cross a Rubicon, and it would be almost impossible to prevent the law then being extended to precisely these cases which Carey appears to oppose.

The other odd thing in Carey’s piece is his reflection (or lack of) on theology. He characterises his previous opposition to the Bill as arising from Christian theology:

Until recently, I would have fiercely opposed Lord Falconer’s Bill. My background in the Christian Church could hardly allow me to do otherwise.

But his change of mind is not based on any theologically concerns, except the need for ‘compassion’. There is no exploration of what compassion might look like, or how compassion for others affected by the bill might come into play. As Saunders notes, up to 500,000 elderly people are abused or neglected each year, often by members of their own family. What would be the impact of Assisted Dying on their sense of pressure ‘not to be a burden’? The State of Oregon in the US passed the ‘Death with Dignity Act’ in 1997, and now the number making use of this provision (49%)  because they ‘don’t want to be a burden’ is nearly twice the number who expressed concern about inadequate pain relief. It is no wonder that Saunders concludes:

[T]here is no discernible Christian world view underpinning what he says. Nothing of the fact that God made us and owns us; nothing of biblical morality or the sixth commandment; no doctrine of the Fall; little insight into the depths of human depravity and the need for strong laws to deter exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people; nothing of the cross or the resurrection; no hope beyond death; nothing of courage and perseverance in the face of suffering; no recognition of the need to make one’s peace with God and others before death; no real drive to make things better for dying patients and no real empathy with the feelings of vulnerable disabled and elderly people who fear a law like Falconer’s and will be campaigning in force outside parliament next Friday.

Carey has instead produced a piece that is high on emotion but weak on argument that capitulates to the spirit of the age; that enthrones personal autonomy above public safety; that sees no meaning or purpose in suffering; that appears profoundly naïve about the abuse of elderly and disabled people; that looks forward to no future beyond the grave and that could have been written by  a member of the national secular society, British humanist association or voluntary euthanasia society.

There is a large, hidden question behind Carey’s comments, and it is a question behind the key ethical issues of our day, including the related debate (as much as there is one) about abortion, but particularly in the debate about sexuality. That question is the role of experience. Carey and others are basing their case on their own experience, in this case of encounters with those suffering and facing death, and the experiences of those they have met. And in the discussion these experiences are presented as the end of all argument. If this is my experience, how can you argue against it?

imageThe best exposition of experience that I have come across is from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur(1913–2005). Ricoeur started his intellectual life as an existentialist in the company of Jean-Paul Sartreand Maurice Merleau-Ponty. But he became dissatisfied with existentialism because the call to authentic living neglected to consider two key realities of human existence. The first is that humans are fallible; there is a fault running through us which separates our wills from our actions. As the apostle Paul might say, we do not do what good we know we want to do (Romans 7), and this has an impact on all our decisions. Secondly, human life and experience is never expressed directly, but indirectly, firstly through symbols, and then through myths (narratives, stories) attached to those symbols. To understand ourselves, then, we need to learn how to interpret these symbols and narratives. To be human is to be hermeneutic.

Experience, then, never ‘just is.’ Whenever we recount an experience, we are doing so from within an implicit framework of symbolic and narrative reality. This is, I think, why the debate on sexuality stalls so quickly. Someone will relate their ‘experience as a gay person’ and there is little, it seems, to then discuss. But in fact such experiences make important implicit assumptions about what it means to be human and to be sexual—but these are hidden until teased out.

And this, too, is what makes Carey’s account of Jesus’ compassion so disingenuous. He appears to be assuming that compassion provides the obvious and only answer to the question of assisted dying, without any need for consideration of wider consequences of the law being proposed—consequences about which we are constantly being warned. If the suffering of some is the unintended consequence of a law which preserves life for the many and offers them protection, what would be the unintended consequences of a law permitting assisted dying for those who are emotionally vulnerable or depressed? Carey does not appear to have considered this alternative narrative scenario.

The appeal to experience can turn us into moral solipsists, where we can say nothing beyond our own existence, and so we all have to make moral decisions in isolation from one another. But more often this appeal to experience is presented as tyranny: not only can you not argue against my experience, you are forbidden to offer any credible alternative to what I propose. To do so is to devalue my experience. This kind of tyrannical use of experience was very evident in Rosie Harper’s speech to the Lord’s:

[I]f you vote against [this legislation], you personally are requiring other people to suffer extreme agony on behalf of your conscience. That is neither moral nor Christian.

No wonder this provoked such a reaction. You are not allowed to question my view—but you are not even allowed to offer any alternative, since this is just suppressing my and others’ experience. No wonder that Richard Harries struggled to engage with this view point when the two discussed it on the Today programme (Radio 4) last Friday morning. It is a totalitarian version of moral debate.

Is there a way forward when presented with this deadlock? Ricoeur argues that we need two things in the procession of interpretation: suspicion and retrieval. Suspicion asks critical questions of an interpretive scheme, to unmask what he calls the ‘idols’ that set themselves up in place of truth, to unearth what is really going on in the narrative that is presented. (He calls Freud and Marx the ‘masters of suspicion’, unearthing the reality behind the conscious mind and economic practice respectively). But criticism alone leaves a wasteland; we also need to retrieve the living symbols which the narrative offers.

Digital Nun and Peter Saunders together offer a way forward here. This debate needs to be properly located not only within a complete narrative of the issues in pain, death and the process of dying; it also needs to be located in a proper understanding of the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the goal of a renewed creation.

This post originally appeared on Ian Paul's blog,

1 thought on “Carey, Death and Experience”

  1. Myths and narratives don’t come from some theoretical space. They come from experience. Your Christianity comes from the experience of the early and later more dogmatic Church.

    What you cannot do is impose your Christianity on others. You can only offer it and explain what it is about. The conversation is between your argument and experience and that of others.

    The turn in the myths and narratives of today is towards the quality of life, and the quality of memory, the existence of personality along with a high view of the individual. We who do not believe in resurrections – an increasingly lost narrative – are not going to base death and life on impossible to realise arguments.

    At the core of all this – and it relates less to sexuality and more to animal rights in self-reflection – is the core experience of a me as me, and the right to have that, and for it even in diminished condition, but not in any condition and particularly that of excruciating final pain and the alternative of a zombie like existence or coma.

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