Moral Books

Assisted suicide, which is also called “aid in dying,” is a practice that at one time was inconceivable or even taboo but is now legal in certain countries and some of our states. My readers may well know of someone who helped someone else die, or whose physician provided the lethal drugs.

In my fall theology lecture, “Rules and Personal Exceptions, With Particular Attention to Assisted Suicide,” I mentioned a study that I would recommend widely: Nigel Biggar’s 2004 book, Aiming to Kill: The Ethics of Suicide and Euthanasia. Biggar, who is Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, here lays out with great clarity and detail the arguments that are made for removing the prohibitions on assisted suicide, and he then addresses them with arguments drawn from both general human reason and also Christian principles. He concludes that there may well be cases in which “aiming to kill” could be justified, as long as we restrict our view to the case at hand. But when we consider the broader effects on our neighbors and society in general, we need to maintain the prohibition.

It is an uncommonly clear book, and if you disagree with Biggar it is at least clear why you disagree. I would recommend it for broad reading, especially if you give yourself permission to skip over any section that seems to get rather technical. It is not a long book, just four chapters and about 160 pages apart from the notes.

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While I’m at it, let me recommend another book: Law, Love, and Language by Herbert McCabe. (The same text, in earlier printings, is called What Is Ethics All About?) McCabe, an original thinker in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, had an uncommonly insightful way of communicating theological truths in sensible yet arresting language. He says that this book is “a quick look at three starting-points from which we might think about ethics,” namely, “ethics is a matter of loving, ethics is a matter of obeying the law, and ethics is a matter of talking to people.” His first chapter, “Ethics as Love,” is a compelling explication of “situation ethics” which shows the problems of thinking of ethics as a matter of always doing the most loving thing. The second chapter goes on to show problems with thinking of ethics as a matter of law, yet nonetheless both love and law have important roles in ethics!

McCabe’s rather bracing preference is to think of ethics as language, as a matter of talking with other people. I have found his thinking very exciting, for instance, when he says that ethics is a matter of being human and that to be human is to live with others as friends; that Jesus, being perfectly human, was “of course” killed by the likes of us who prefer to live rather sub-human lives. All this is a suggestion of the riches inside the conception of ethics as talking.

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Out & About. This coming week I’ll be making my annual visit as “theological visitor” of All Souls’ Church at 63rd and Penn in Oklahoma City. On Sunday, November 4, I am to preach at 8 and 10 a.m. On Mon., Tues., and Wed. following (Nov. 5-7) I’ll teach a class on the book of Esther at noon each day. And on the same days in the evening at 6 p.m. I’ll teach a class on Christian bioethics. If you’re in Oklahoma City, it would be great to see you.

Good Books & Good Talk: Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel-prize-winning novelist; his book, Never Let Me Go, is written from the point of view of a student in a British country boarding school in about the 50s. Shortly into the book, you realize all the students there never go home, that they are trained to take exceptionally good care of their health; that they are, in short, clones. Through this device of an “alternative present,” Ishiguro raises poignant questions of our humanity and capacity to use one another obliviously.

  I will lead a seminar on this book on Sunday, November 11, at Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."