Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 2015

Rarely do we hear good news coming out of the United Kingdom. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive two bits of good news in the month of September. The first was the decisive rejection by the House of Commons of the Assisted Suicide Bill which, if passed, would have turned British physicians into professionals who kill their patients rather than caring for them. The second piece of welcome news was the election of the veteran politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (and, therefore, of Her Majesty’s Opposition) against all the smug predictions of political soothsayers.

Arguments for assisted suicide stem from shallow views of individual autonomy and compassion. Compassion is an ambiguous concept, and it has been used in history (e.g. by Nazi doctors) to justify horrendous crimes against people not thought fully human. It is thus not morally admirable when divorced from other moral considerations.

The problems with invoking compassion to justify assisted suicide and euthanasia are, at least, threefold: (a) It can justify the killing not only of terminally ill patients, but of anybody suffering what they regard as “unbearable pain”, psychological as well as physical; (b) It ignores the advances in and availability of palliative care and undermines the quest for more public funding for such care (the Hospice movement was pioneered by Christian healthcare professionals who demonstrated practically how it was not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain!); and (c) Why not, out of compassion, end the lives of all severely disabled babies and adults, who will never function to their full potential, even if they do not suffer pain- because they drain public resources from those who are thwarted in their personal ambitions by a lack of the latter?

For these reasons, compassion is always subservient to patient autonomy in the more sophisticated arguments for assisted suicide. Indeed, the patient’s autonomy now seems to be the only moral value that is taught in courses on medical ethics. It rests on an unreal conception of the human person, as if we were isolated monads choosing to enter into relationships rather than being constituted as persons through relationships which, for the most part, are not chosen but given. It ignores not only our human inter-dependencies, but also the way our so-called free choices and desires are themselves shaped, indeed manipulated, by social, cultural, political and economic forces of which we are only dimly aware. (Why else would business corporations spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements?).

Thus, by focusing on the individual’s expressed desire, to the exclusion of all other considerations – not least the impact on the medical profession itself- arguments in favour of assisted suicide perpetuate views of the human person that will be destructive of other areas of society in which respect for human life has hitherto been taken for granted.

Assisted suicide is being pushed in the media by a highly vocal, secular liberal elite. As John Wyatt, a paediatrician and medical ethicist, counters in his book The Right to Die? (to be published in the UK in November): “It is surely reasonable that the autonomous desire of a small number of resolute, vocal and determined individuals to have a legal and medically supervised means of killing themselves may have to be curtailed if it exposes large numbers of vulnerable people to the risk of lethal harm. The individual autonomy of a few cannot and must not trump all other considerations.”

Curiously, compassion for the helpless victims of government economic policy is absent in the political discourse of the same social elites. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election should be greeted by all who care deeply about the absence of compassion – and indeed justice – in British public life. He is an old-style socialist, committed to returning Labour to its roots (interestingly, among the founders of the Labour Party were several devout Methodist laymen). He has promised a more inclusive way of doing politics, giving a greater voice to those who didn’t vote in the last General Elections, particularly young people and working-class Labour supporters who felt alienated by the identical agendas that all political parties were offering.

One does not have to agree with all his stated political or economic beliefs (I certainly don’t) in order to welcome his intention to tackle the obscene levels of income and wealth inequality in Britain. Such inequalities, long ignored by most mainstream economists, not only widen the gulf in educational and job opportunities but also undermine the solidarity of citizens in a democracy.

Corbyn has thus opened up a space for the return of political ideas and serious political debate in Britain. The news media have joined parliament in turning their backs on the poor, and failed to expose the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding human rights that has been practised by successive British governments (the latest instance of which is the way corrupt Chinese tycoons are being wooed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer while refugees are shut out, and jailed Chinese dissidents and the people of Hong Kong and Tibet are ignored). Let’s see if Corbyn delivers. And if the media will rise to the challenge of addressing the moral issues at the heart of politics.

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My last post on World Refugee Day seems quite timely ten weeks later. (Caring for my wife during her cancer surgery and treatment has naturally pushed my Blogging to the background in recent months).

If 3-year old Aylan Kurdi had been black, would images of his body washed ashore on a beach have elicited the same outcry among Europeans? (I think I have written enough about racism in India and elsewhere to be absolved of the charge of being Europhobic!). Such images can awaken the world to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden societies. But emotional reactions cannot substitute for level-headed appraisal of the causes of conflict and what needs to be done to contain or resolve such conflicts.

History and context matter in thinking about politics and economics. The Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and their followers refuse to acknowledge how much the American economy (and especially the farming, hotel and restaurant industries) is dependent on exploited “illegal migrants”, and the connection between the latter and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement which has seen highly-subsidized US agribusinesses virtually destroying Mexican agriculture.

Similarly European, no less than American, politicians refuse to admit how much the unfolding tragedies in the Middle East have been precipitated either by their own adventures in the region or by their favourite local allies – not least the continuing plight of Palestinians and Iraqis. Leave aside plain human compassion. We have a special moral responsibility towards peoples whose suffering is partly or wholly due to policies of our governments, or the actions of our forefathers.

There are some tough questions that European governments and their citizens need to address if they are to prevent the present refugee trickle into Europe turning into a massive flood. To those who bravely proclaim “refugees are welcome” (and I admire such folk), I want to ask, “Are you prepared to welcome the poor, the elderly and the disabled who are often those most affected by war, or is your compassion limited to the young, the fit and the wealthy who can make the dangerous journeys by sea and road and contribute to your economies?”

Everybody agrees that human smuggling syndicates must be broken up and the ringleaders brought to justice. But, given the lack of the rule of law in so many states, are European and American navies prepared to evacuate refugees from war zones themselves?

As I pointed out in my last post, the largest refugee populations are hosted by some of the poorest countries of the world, often those bordering on war-torn nations. The number of those who make their way to Europe and North America are miniscule in proportion. The vast majority of Syria’s 4 million refugees, for example, are to be found in the Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What assistance do these people and their host nations receive from those in Europe, Asia and elsewhere who want to keep them out of their own territories?

Perhaps the two most straightforward questions in relation to the Middle East/North Africa that the Western media appear to be downplaying are:

(1) Why are European governments not pressurizing the Gulf states to do more for Arab refugees? There are many European professionals living in these wealthy states and Western governments have strong commercial links with them. The West may depend on them for oil, but they too depend on the West (not least for arms and banking). They are desperate for the (hollow) global esteem that comes from building the world’s tallest buildings, super-luxury shopping malls and quixotic Disneylands, or hosting the soccer World Cup- all at the expense of cheap labour from South and Southeast Asia. Europe and the U.S pander shamelessly to such repressive feudal states.

These states can easily absorb and employ more Arabs from the region and, by doing so, would combat the widespread perception that Muslim refugees have to depend on non-Muslim peoples for shelter because their own leaders are too selfish, incompetent, or both. Indeed, failure of Muslim governments to care for their fellow Muslims is being exploited by radical Islamist propaganda. It is the way Islamists try to justify their legitimacy to Muslim populations from Morocco to Bangladesh.

Imperial British and U.S governments contributed to many of the region’s conflicts, from the post-League of Nation’s “carve-ups” (including the creation of Iraq and several of the Gulf states) to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the present Arab regimes benefited from such historic agreements and recent Western military interventions. So they cannot avoid responsibility for the consequences nor blame Israel and the West for all the problems piling up on their doorstep.

(2) Is the West serious about defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Hitherto the military response has been half-hearted. The American media’s obsession with Iran has blinded Americans to the role played by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states in fuelling regional instability. Indeed, it seems to be the case that much of the weaponry being supplied to ISIL has been funded by Gulf sheiks who want to rid the region of Iranian Shi’a influence.

Obama’s famous “red line in the ground” regarding the use of chemical weapons has been repeatedly transgressed by both Syria’s Assad and by ISIL (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/mission-to-purge-syria-of-chemical-weapons-comes-up-short-1437687744). But neither the UN nor the Western powers have made any concerted military response, save the occasional drone attack on ISIL militias. Unless the international military coalition hits harder at ISIL units possessing chemical weapons, and at the same time creates “no-fly” zones over Syria and “safe-zones” to which civilians can go to receive medical and other assistance, Syria’s hapless population will continue to haemorrhage.


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