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Carey, death and experience

article-2689295-19FB161D00000578-809_634x660George 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 Sartre and 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.

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12 Responses to Carey, death and experience

  1. Holly July 13, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Incredibly grateful for you and your voice, intellect, and willingness to communicate, Ian.

    • Ian Paul July 13, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

      Thanks! Glad it’s of use.

  2. James Byron July 14, 2014 at 5:46 am #

    Ian, do you believe it’s possible to separate theological and secular objections to assisted suicide?

    The secular objections, such as abuse, are frequently motivated by theology, which should have no place in the law of a multi-faith democracy. (An atheist, or a Hindu, shouldn’t expect to be bound by laws rooted in original sin or atonement.) I always feel that I’m at cross-purposes here: whatever counter arguments or solutions I offer to abuse will fall on deaf ears, because that’s not the underlying issue.

    Carey has, I admit, shocked me, but in a good way. He’s thought outside what he took to be the boundaries of his faith.

    • Ian Paul July 14, 2014 at 11:03 pm #

      ‘theology, which should have no place in the law of a multi-faith democracy’

      That’s a really odd understanding of democracy: my theological insight is not permitted?

      • James Byron July 14, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

        Of course it’s permitted; it just has no place in laws that apply to those who don’t share your beliefs (anymore than, say, they should enshrine a caste system or conservative Islamic and Christian standards of modesty). A confessional state is only possible if one religion is allowed to dominate. In a pluralist democracy, the law must be as neutral as possible.

  3. Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente July 14, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    It all sounds quite academic and of very limited pastoral usefulness to me. As I wrote on my own blog (sorry about the plug, I do think it adds to your argument) I have actually been in a severe amount of pain for a significant amount of time in my life, and most journos and Christian apologists are talking absolute nonsense at the moment. Assuming most of you are against the use of torture, here’s an argument to which I have yet to hear an answer: since some conditions are quite extraordinarily painful and not everything can be alleviated by morphine. Why allow the use of torture in those cases? Simply because the pain is not inflicted by other humans? Palliative care is very often a sad joke.

    Some degenerative conditions are also ridiculously slow and demeaning, why not allow people so afflicted to decide what to do for themselves? Why legally insist that these be tortured, very slowly, to death, simply because the origin or causes of their pain is not human?

  4. Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente July 14, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    And you leave us hanging, Ian, what idols would you unmask and what way forward would you propose? The good sister and the Christian doctor you quote, to me, advocate nothing more than the status quo: legally preventing some people in agony, sometimes for years, to die. Of course there is potential for abuse in allowing liberty on the matter, there always is, but it seems to me we are yet and again trying to impose a Christian view of suffering on people who will have none of it (and, I must say, which I was unable to sustain for very long when ill. It’s just that I had the certainty of recovery to look forward to)

    • Ian Paul July 14, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

      They advocate the status quo because a good number have said (including the vast numbers of doctors who are dealing with this situation directly) that the status quo has been worked out very carefully and is the right place to be.

      The next post is a great exercise in demolishing some idols in order to recover the symbols.

  5. Macrina Walker July 14, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    Thank you for this. It resonates with many things that I’ve been thinking and not getting to expressing. I must get back to reading Ricoeur once more!

    • Ian Paul July 14, 2014 at 11:05 pm #

      Yes, you must! Ricoeur’s the man!

  6. Angela July 15, 2014 at 7:25 am #

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

    Yes it would be outrageous but that is not what this is about, its about people who are not suffering dictating to people who are you must suffer because I believe in Jesus. I have come across this personally the dying process and death bed is not place for the clergy to be questioning integrity .The damage that is caused to more than one group of people and more than one generation is almost beyond measure.

    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.

    Does that morality extend to all the care which is required in the process does it extend to simple things like health and life insurance for the chronically sick and disabled. It is a nice “idea” that all will get care whilst they are ill or dying but it is not the reality for most people and by the time people choose to take their life in dignity in their own time, they have suffered much and those who are against this bill are nowhere to be seen. Living a life of fear as to the next process of diminishing health , is a lonely place to be if you do not have family and or friends. It seems that you are not taking into account all of the factors it also seems that all kinds of promises are being made like people can complain if they feel the care is not right yes now until the bill is passed then its back to those with no voice suffering because they cannot argue their case.

    Can you reassure me that no clergyman will walk out on the death bed of someone in their last moments, can you assure me that no one who is dying will be left for 20 hours a day alone waiting to die and in pain and confused? In a planned death their is reassurance.

    I would not advocate that this should be wide practice but I certainly think that the law should exist that means the possibility is available in the extreme circumstances where it is required.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Euthanasia (1) | My Blog - July 15, 2014

    […] The welfare argument seems to be what Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, finds so persuasive. He writes of ‘compassion’ as necessary in the face of immense suffering. For my money, Ian Paul critiques this fairly convincingly, here.  […]

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