This past Friday, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the ardent advocate of “physician-assisted suicide” (PAS) whose preoccupation with death earned from his medical colleagues the moniker “Dr. Death,” died in a Michigan hospital after a protracted illness. On the manner of his death, his attorney, Mayer Morganroth, reportedly commented, “It was peaceful, . . . He didn’t feel a thing” (cnn.com; 06/03/11).
If you ask most people their preference on how they hope their death will go down, you will, no doubt, consistently encounter the anesthetic wish evident in Morganroth’s words. Who, in their right mind, would truly desire an intensely painful death? Not I, for one.
Yet, while we might all prefer a peaceful death, is it to be pursued at all costs? Kevorkian thought so, and so he risked his own freedom and reputation to provide for others a terminal escape from chronic pain and disability. Better it is, he reasoned, to take matters into our own hands by inducing a quick and seemingly painless end to life, than to endure the indefinite prolongation of an exceedingly unpleasurable experience.
In one word, Kevorkian was a hedonist – specifically, one tending to the order of Epicurus who viewed the absence of pain and anxiety as sacrosanct. Paradoxically, Epicurus took a dim view on suicide, but that inconsistency would be rectified by his followers who understood that if death is, as Epicurus had argued, the end of feeling (and existence), then it is to be preferred over a continuing state of unrelenting pain. Furthermore, there could be no fear of divine reprobation for those who ceased to exist.
As for the concern over divine judgment, Kevorkian, a self-professed agnostic, scoffed. How an agnostic can be so confident on a question of divine disposition is a question for another post. I’ll close this one with the observation that while Dr. Death may be dead and gone, the push for PAS remains. Supporters are as determined as ever to harness the medical profession to the task of killing the disabled and infirm. The social barrier to “medicide” is fast eroding as a resurgent Epicureanism permeates our culture, and so, though a fringe figure at his death, Kevorkian may in the not-too-distant future be hailed as a national hero.