As a result of Christian dogma, the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer or painter, but not a moral merit; we do not consider him the more virtuous for possessing such aptitudes, or the more likely to go to heaven. Moral merit is concerned solely with acts of will, i.e. with choosing rightly among possible courses of action. I am not to blame for not composing an opera, because I don’t know how to do it. The orthodox view is that, wherever two courses of action are possible, conscience tells me which is right, and to choose the other is sin. Virtue consists mainly in the avoidance of sin, rather than in anything positive. There is no reason to expect an educated man to be morally better than an uneducated man, or a clever man than a stupid man. In this way, a number of merits of great social importance are shut out from the realm of ethics. The adjective “unethical,” in modern usage, has a much narrower range than the adjective “undesirable.” It is undesirable to be feeble-minded, but not unethical.
Many modern philosophers, however, have not accepted this view of ethics. They have thought that one should first define the good, and then say that our actions ought to be such as tend to realize the good. This point of view is more like that of Aristotle, who holds that happiness is the good. The highest happiness, it is true, is only open to the philosopher, but to him that is no objection to the theory.
Bertrand Russell – The History of Western Philosophy p.178
Proponents of euthanasia do not understand human dignity, which, at best, they confuse with humaneness. One of their favorite arguments proves this point: why, they say, do we put animal out of their misery but insist on compelling fellow human being to suffer to the bitter end? Why, if it is not a contradiction for the veterinarian, does the medical ethic absolutely rule our mercy killing? Is this not simply inhumane?
Perhaps inhumane, but not thereby inhuman. On the contrary, it is precisely because animals are not human that we must treat them (merely) humanely. We put dumb animals to sleep because they do not know that they are dying, because they can make nothing of their misery or mortality, and because, therefore, they cannot live deliberately – that is, humanly – in the face of their own suffering or dying. They cannot live out a fitting end. Compassion for their weakness and dumbness is our only appropriate emotion, and given our responsibility for their care and well-being, we do the only humane thing we can. But when a conscious human being asks us for death, by that very action he displays the presence of something that precludes our regarding him as a dumb animal. Humanity is owed humanity, not humaneness. Humanity is owed the bolstering of the human, even or especially in its dying moments, in resistance to the temptation to ignore its presence in the sight of suffering.
What humanity needs most in the face of evils is courage, the ability to stand against fear and pain and thoughts of nothingness. The deaths we most admire are those of people who, knowing that they are dying, face the fact frontally and act accordingly: they set their affairs in order, they arrange what could be final meetings with their loved ones, and yet, with strength of soul and a small reservoir of hope, they continue to live and work and love as much as they can for as long as they can. Because such conclusions of life require courage, they call for our encouragement – and for the many small speeches and deeds that shore up the human spirit against despair and defeat.
Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.252
There is something obviously troubling in this way of thinking about crimes against persons. Indeed, the most abominable practices, proscribed in virtually all societies, are not excused by consent. Incest, even between consenting adults, is still incest; cannibalism would not become merely delicatessen if the victim freely gave permission; ownership of human beings, voluntarily accepted would still be slavery. The violation of the other is independent of the state of the will (in fact, of both victim and perpetrator).
The questions can be put this way: Is the life of another human being to be respected only because that person (or society) deems or wills it respectable, or is it to be respected because it is in itself respectable? If the former, then human worth depends solely on agreement or human will; since will confers dignity, will can take it away, and permission to violate nullifies the violation. If the latter, then one can never be released from the obligation to respect human life by a request to do so, say from some who no longer values his own life.
This latter view squares best with our intuitions. We are not entitled to dismember the corpse of a suicide nor may we kill innocently those consumed by self-hatred. According to our law, killing the willing, the unwilling, and the nonwilling (for example, infants or the comatose) are all equally murder. Beneath the human will, indeed the ground of human will. is something that commands respect and restraint, willy-nilly. We are to abstain from killing because of something respectable about human beings as such.
Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.238
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s abhorrences are today calmly accepted – not always for the better. In some crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power completely to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror that is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or bestiality, or the mutilation of a corpse, or the eating of human flesh, or the rape or murder of another human being? Would anybody’s failure to provide full rational justification for his revulsion at those practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we find suspect those who think they can easily rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments about the genetic risks of inbreeding.
Leon R. Kass – Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics p.150
Appearances to the contrary, there is nothing in Freud’s critique of morality that calls this Socratic-Platonic picture into question. Freud thinks he is entitled to infer from the pathology of, say, the moral masochist to the idea that everyone with a superego, living a recognizably moral life is thereby unhappy. But this is an argument from pathology that is not valid. If happiness were simply equated with pleasure, then any restriction of pleasure would be a restriction on one’s happiness. And if pleasure were simply equated with the gratification of one’s wishes, then any restriction on gratification by the superego would be a source of unhappiness. But there are significant reasons for doubting whether either of the antecedents in these conditionals is true. An analyst-teacher of mine once said, ‘The only thing worse than an Oedipal defeat is an Oedipal triumph.’ Succeeding in gratifying all one’s wishes is not the route to happiness.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.202
[Freud] wants to show that morality and religious beliefs have different origins and serve different purposes than they claim. These are grand reflections about the meaning of western civilization. And they are, in my opinion, the least valuable aspect of Freud’s work. Precisely because they are so far removed from his clinical work, crucial assumptions in his arguments are unjustified, inferences are dubious and his conclusions are not established. I do not think this part of Freud’s work will stand the test of time.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.192