restricted access St. Ambrose, Euthanasia, and Antisenescence Arguments: Death as a Good?
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St. Ambrose, Euthanasia, and Antisenescence Arguments
Death as a Good?

I. Introduction

Antisenescence technologies aim to extend human life, some say by hundreds of years, others indefinitely. Theoretically, indefinite extension is a possibility through, for example, cell replacement therapy. Even now, research suggests that severe caloric restriction can exert significant effects on life extension.1 Whereas human enhancement in terms of extending healthy life sounds attractive, there are notable ethical concerns that cannot be ignored. The more sophisticated arguments, ones that do not rest on a utilitarian calculation of good versus bad effects, are certainly noteworthy. For the purposes of this article, I will not defend such arguments, but will rest content to canvas the basic lines of thought they embrace. Representative of this small community of detractors who question antisenescence technologies is the President’s Council on Bioethics under the chairmanship of Leon Kass.2 That council offers the following reflections on antisenescence research: “the boundaries and shape of the life cycle give form and possible meaning to a mortal life. Its virtue consists not so much in that it leads us to death, but in [End Page 39] that it reminds us, by its very nature, that we will someday die, and that we must live in a way that takes heed of that reality.”3 Throughout this section of the discourse, the council focuses the reader’s attention on the value of finitude. Absent a sense of finitude, the council argues, one loses a sense of commitment and engagement in life-long projects. Aspiration to accomplish something and to be creative is lost as is a desire for renewal, the latter of which amounts to a lost desire for children. They note, “In an era of age retardation we might in practice therefore live under an even more powerful preoccupation with death, but one that leads us not to commitment, engagement, urgency, and renewal, but rather to anxiety, self-absorption, and preoccupation with any bodily mishap or every new antisenescence measure.”4

The basic point the council is making is that the life cycle, and what that cycle entails in regard to finitude and death, is something of value. That our lives will come to an end is a value; it forces us, however unwillingly, to focus our attention and activities on this finite length of time. In this sense, where death is understood to entail finitude and a sense of finitude is a good thing, death is seen as a good.

Viewing death as a good thing is neither a novel nor even a radical idea in the Christian intellectual tradition. St. Ambrose’s understanding of death outlined in his aptly titled De Bono Mortis (On the Good of Death) considers three different senses of death, and at least one is a good, another neutral but possibly good. To quote at length,

There are three kinds of death. The first is the death of sin, of which it is written: the soul which sins shall die. The second is mystical death, when one dies to sin and lives to God. . . . The third is the death by which we complete the course and duty of this life, which is to say, the separation of the soul and body. We note, therefore, that the first death . . . is evil; the second death . . . is good; and the third has a middle position, for it seems good to righteous men but it is feared by most, and [End Page 40] although it frees all, it delights few. But this is not the fault of death, but of our own weakness.5

Note that on the traditional understanding of death as separation of soul from the body, death is not itself understood as a bad thing; rather, it is the condition of our soul that makes it either good or bad. On this point, St. Ambrose expands, saying, “Now consider this point: if life is a burden, then death is freedom from it; if life is a punishment, then death is a deliverance; or if there is a judgment after death, there is also a life after death. Is this life, then, not good, or if our life...