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Death Is That Man Taking Names

Intersections of American Medicine, Law, and Culture

Robert A. Burt

Publication Year: 2002

The American culture of death changed radically in the 1970s. For terminal illnesses, hidden decisions by physicians were rejected in favor of rational self-control by patients asserting their "right to die"—initially by refusing medical treatment and more recently by physician-assisted suicide. This new claim rested on two seemingly irrefutable propositions: first, that death can be a positive good for individuals whose suffering has become intolerable; and second, that death is an inevitable and therefore morally neutral biological event. Death Is That Man Taking Names suggests, however, that a contrary attitude persists in our culture—that death is inherently evil, not just in practical but also in moral terms. The new ethos of rational self-control cannot refute but can only unsuccessfully try to suppress this contrary attitude. The inevitable failure of this suppressive effort provokes ambivalence and clouds rational judgment in many people's minds and paradoxically leads to inflictions of terrible suffering on terminally ill people.

Judicial reforms in the 1970s of abortion and capital punishment were driven by similarly high valuations of rationality and public decision-making—rejecting physician control over abortion in favor of individual self-control by pregnant women and subjecting unsupervised jury decisions for capital punishment to supposed rationally guided supervision by judges. These reforms also attempt to suppress persistently ambivalent attitudes toward death, and are therefore prone to inflicting unjustified suffering on pregnant women and death-sentenced prisoners.

In this profound and subtle account of psychological and social forces underlying American cultural attitudes toward death, Robert A. Burt maintains that unacknowledged ambivalence is likely to undermine the beneficent goals of post-1970s reforms and harm the very people these changes were intended to help.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: California/Milbank Books on Health and the Public

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

The Milbank Memorial Fund is an endowed national foundation that engages in nonpartisan analysis, study, research, and communication on significant issues in health policy. The Fund makes available the results of its work in meetings with decision-makers, reports, articles, and books. ...

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pp. xi-xii

Good friends have read the manuscript of this book at various stages; I have accepted many of their recommendations, resisted some, and benefited throughout from their attention and support. My thanks to Bruce Ackerman, Steve Arons, Lee Bollinger, Bob Butler, Anne Burt, Linda Burt, Randy Curtis, ...

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1. Good Death

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pp. 1-26

As a man going round taking names, death appears threatening, uncontrollable, robbing the living of their identity and leaving pain in his wake. There is no comfort in this vision, and American culture has not embraced it. We have sought comfort by imagining death in another format: a different man taking names, one might say— ...

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2. Hidden Death

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pp. 27-46

In 1947, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rendered a decision that can be understood as both an early expression and a wise rejection of the reform impulse that was to erupt twenty years later into the dominant contemporary agenda for the dispensing of death. ...

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3. Death at War

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pp. 47-66

From the end of the Civil War until the mid-twentieth century, an undeclared state of warfare existed between the “mentally normal” community and people with mental retardation or mental illness, between Whites and Blacks, and between the “living” and the “dying.” ...

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4. Judges and Death

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pp. 67-86

The underlying elements in our shifting cultural attitude toward death—the loss of faith in traditional caretakers and the emergence of individual self-control as a preferred alternative to the old ethos—were revealed with special vividness in two court cases in the 1970s: ...

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5. Doctors and Death

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pp. 87-105

If it is true that an underlying cultural attitude about death’s inherent wrongfulness has fueled past medical abuses against dying patients, the reformist move to patient self-determination would not be a reliable corrective, because dying people themselves would be prone to mirror the relentless hostility of their physicians. ...

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6. Choosing Death

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pp. 106-122

Dying people, their families, and their physicians are all vulnerable to unruly psychological forces unleashed by the imminent prospect of death. The success of the contemporary reformist claim that death can be subject to rational control depends on the capacity of vulnerable people to tame these unruly forces. ...

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7. The Death Penalty

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pp. 123-156

The death penalty is the paradigmatic expression of officially sanctioned involuntary killing. There is, moreover, no pretense of mercy; it is intended as punishment, even though constitutional norms against “cruel and unusual punishment” restrain its administration. ...

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8. All the Days of My Life

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pp. 157-186

Our publicly proclaimed motives are impeccable: the death penalty must be administered without arbitrariness, without discrimination against racial minorities or poor people, and only with the most intense scrutiny by impartial judges to assure that the entire enterprise is beyond reproach. ...


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pp. 187-218


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pp. 219-221

Production Notes

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p. 235-235

E-ISBN-13: 9780520931466
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520232822

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: California/Milbank Books on Health and the Public