The latest installment of the New York Times’ Retro Report feature traces the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in some US states and the continuing taboos around the issue. The debate on this subject often pits Christian and secular liberal values against each other.
In a 2005 paper for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociological researchers found that Americans who attend church frequently were most likely to oppose medically assisted suicides. They also note that Catholic and conservative Protestant leaders generally oppose any form of mercy killing, arguing that it goes against God’s will. On the other hand, the leaders of more liberal Protestant denominations may prefer to focus on autonomy and the idea that God has granted humanity “right of personal choice.”
In a 1999 paper for the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, religion and philosophy scholar Ping-cheung Lo looks at the issue from outside the Christian-secular spectrum, examining how traditional Confucian values relate to one particular secular argument: the notion of “death with dignity.”
In Confucian ethics, Lo writes, “biological life is not of the highest value.” Confucius argued that it is sometimes correct to sacrifice life in favor of ren, the value of benevolence or supreme virtue. Like Christian martyrs, some Confucian heroes accepted death for a moral purpose. But the Confucian value system does not draw a distinction between accepting death and actively killing oneself.
On the other hand, Confucianism in pre-modern China did consider suicide for selfish reasons—as a reaction to failure or depression—to be wrong. This was mainly because it violated the notion of filial piety. Sons and daughters who killed themselves were unable to care for their parents, making the act unacceptable unless it served a higher purpose.
Although traditional Confucian scholars did not use the phrase “death with dignity,” Lo argues that that’s a fair way to characterize certain kinds of suicide that they generally deemed acceptable. A king should kill himself rather than face the dishonor of sneaking away from an enemy dressed as a civilian, for example.
The secular, Western conception of death with dignity is somewhat parallel to the Confucian version. Lo quotes advocates for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide who argue that a graceful death should be available to patients who are horrified at “living like a zombie” as a result of heavy medication or being confined to bed and unable to control their bodily functions.
But Lo notes a significant difference between the secular and the Confucian argument. “For Confucianism, the criterion is always moral, not physiological-psychological.” From this perspective, biological health is “only a perishable good,” not a moral good that justifies sacrificing one’s life.
Ultimately, Lo argues, “comprehensive visions of life,” including both Christianity and Confucianism, find suicide to be an unacceptable solution to the “existential problems” of “mortality, corruptibility, failing health, frailty of the human body and mind, and finitude.”