Talk to MDMD in London 13th October 2018

Choosing to have the life and its end that belongs to you

Prof A C Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities; Vice President of Humanists UK; MDMD Patron


Q&A start at 33mins


Following a warm introduction by MDMD Coordinator Phil Cheatle, Professor Grayling addressed the audience by asking them to consider a simple question: “What is the meaning of life?”.

In seeking to answer that question, Professor Grayling suggested the audience should turn to the great secrets of philosophy, because at its core philosophy is an adventure of rational thought, which aims to dig down at the common assumptions we all make. However, Professor Grayling cautioned the audience that in seeking to find such answers, they may have to confront some great paradoxes.

One example Professor Grayling gave, to highlight this point, was the story of two old ladies on a bus:

“One day two old ladies were on a bus and one complained to the other about a problem which had been nagging on their mind. At first the other old lady said nothing. However, after a short while the old lady smiled and leaned close to her friend. ‘You must be philosophical about your problem’ she counselled … ‘you mustn’t give it another thought’”.

Professor Grayling explained that whilst initially this advice may seem the opposite of a philosophical view, in essence it captures one of the great insights known to the Stoic philosophers. This being that, when we are faced with problems we cannot change, such as ageing or mass disease, we must not fear them, but instead face them with a sense of courage and fortitude. In contrast, when we are faced with problems which can be changed, such as our fears or appetite, we must not avoid or try to hide from them, but instead command and control our own destinies. This, said Professor Grayling, was the great secret of the Stoics towards achieving a meaningful life.

Moving onto another great secret from philosophy, Professor Grayling considered the paradox of Assisted Dying: namely that facing death throughout our lives, is very often the reason our lives are better. Again, Professor Grayling pointed out, that whilst at first dying may seem the antithesis of a happy and meaningful life, this is only because dying is a concept we are non stoic about.

Death he argued, was something society viewed with great anxiety and fear. Death, was something everyone hoped to postpone or ignore. Yet, Professor Grayling asked the audience to consider why we are scared of death.

“I’ll admit when I was a young man, I used to be a bit of a hypochondriac. You know the sort, I’d check my pulse when I thought  no-one was looking and when my heart occasionally skipped a beat, I’d think oh God I’m going to die. Yet, I realised as time went on the reason I wanted to cling onto life, other than my natural desire to stay alive, wasn’t death itself; dying might be unpleasant but death itself is no different from being unborn. I wanted to stay alive, because I was scared of not being able to do all the things I’d wanted to do.”

Professor Grayling told the room that death itself, wasn’t the reason society fears dying, it is the sense of not having completed everything one wishes which scares us. However, Professor Grayling suggested this doesn’t mean society should simply try to keep people alive for the maximum amount of time possible, since time isn’t the key to a meaningful life; experience is.

“Suppose you go to Paris for the weekend with someone you really like and whilst you’re there, it seems as though you’re there forever. Yet, when you’re home again *snaps fingers* its gone like a flash. Or imagine, a person who does exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, every single day of his life. How many days has that person lived? One! Time isn’t really what matters and gives our lives meaning, but experience”.

Reflecting on secrets which can be learnt from philosophy, Professor Grayling argued one of the great lessons we must all learn is that a healthy attitude to death can be liberating. He explained that if someone is not afraid to die, if they do not dedicate the time and anxieties necessary to avoid it, if they face death with a sense of fortitude and courage, then death can be a form of freedom. Once someone stops fearing death, they are capable of living a life with the fullness of experience every life deserves, because they know it is an inevitablity and they cannot change it.

Professor Grayling also explained another secret from philosophy, often unconsidered. Rather than an enemy to be feared, death can be the “last, greatest, securest and friendliest” act of freedom. Indeed, for someone who lives with extreme pain, suffering or intolerable existence, choosing to die might be a final act of autonomous expression. Thus, to a great extent death can be liberating, since it means if someone’s quality of existence were ever to become utterly intolerable anyone can autonomously choose to escape it.

Following this, Professor Grayling moved onto the other theme of his talk. The  concept of autonomy. Professor Grayling explained that the notion of autonomy is the idea of having ultimate ownership over your own life. It is the notion that it is the person who is living a life who can best understand and make choices for it, because no-one else is capable of understanding what it means to be that person.

Professor Grayling further explained that the notion of autonomy is central to what it means to be a person. He explained, that it is from our rights to autonomy that our responsibilities to others stem. For example, because each person is free to act as they wish within society, autonomy justifies the imposition of responsibilities upon a person for their actions. For example, whilst we are free to love and cherish the friends we wish, we also correspondingly owe obligations to those people, such as an obligation to offer help to friends in need. Likewise, if autonomy is the reason we can have responsibilities, it must also mean each person is the final arbitrator on when, how and for how long they live their life.

Accordingly, Professor Grayling argued that when we talk about a right to life, we are not merely talking about our right to near existence but a right to autonomy.

“Suppose you were to live under a law which meant you could not escape your suffering. Suppose there was a law which said no matter what your state of health or the extent to which some devastating illness reached, you’re not allowed to die. Every effort must be made to keep you alive, no matter how much you’re suffering. That would be a terrifying prospect. You’d be a prisoner of life even in its worse dimension. Or consider if I locked you in a tiny cage and fed you bread and water in the dark. You’d be alive. But I couldn’t claim that I was respecting your right to life.”

Professor Grayling closed his talk by reflecting on the notion of autonomy and its importance to the right to die. He pointed out that for years anyone who wished to die has been dismissed as mad or suffering from a passing phase. He pointed out, that those who ask for death are commonly thought of as only needed to get through a short phase before being “fine” once again. Yet, Professor Grayling reflected that whilst in some cases this might be true, it doesn’t seem right when we don’t know what each moment of existence means for a person, to make such a choice about continued existence for them. Afterall, “a right to life, would seem to be a right to a certain minimum quality of life. Once that minimum quality is gone, it would seem to be that it must trigger whatever someone has left. A right to die.”

Questions and Discussion:

Q:  How can we convince those who disagree with our point of view on Assisted Dying to change their minds?

A: “That really is a great question and partly why I am deeply honoured to be a patron of My Death, My Decision.  I think this organisation has a real opportunity to start afresh with our thinking and arguments about Assisted Dying. I’ve been a patron of Dignity in Dying, (what was the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), for over 20 years and in that time, they’ve tried again and again to pass a bill through parliament for physician assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Although early on it wasn’t just for the terminally ill but also for those in intolerable states. And they have temporised and weakened their position, changed their ask and eventually got down to only saying in the last 6 months of someone’s life, if someone is irrevocably ill, could we let a doctor help that person? … But they’ve been pushed back again and again.

It is always a mistake to aim for 50, hoping that you’re going to get 25 and ending up with 0. Instead you should aim for 100 and make your argument as robustly as you can.

There comes a point in any great conversation society has with itself when a tipping point is reached. We know that we have a majority of people on our side. But we must keep making the argument because suddenly there will be a glimmer of light and then there will be a cascade of action. Once you fight for the big issues and keep on fighting, with courage and persistence, it will come.”

Q: It isn’t all rational – people are influenced by unconscious attitudes, behaviours, emotions. How can we take more account of that?

A: Bringing up children is about teaching them to control their emotions, controlling the unhelpful such as greed and anger, and channeling the more positive emotions in fruitful directions.

We can appeal to persuading people through stories and narratives.

Q: Most people in this room are older, how should we attract more younger supporters?

A: Use the difficulty… We are the experts… We’ve seen people go through the end of life. We from our generation want to speak out. We want to say we are outraged…

Q: Perhaps we should be shouting “OUTRAGEOUS! Poor old woman, old man kept alive against their wishes. Kept in agony for 9 months by doctors.”?

A: A very good point… The case of Omid is a perfect example. But we shouldn’t blame doctors (we might need them one day). Doctors are there to cure, to care, or to palliate and help. Many doctors who deal with terminally ill patients do help them to slip away comfortably.

In many cases the main culprits are the families of people, who don’t want their elderly relative to die. This is one reason why we need advance decisions – to clearly explain our wishes.

Q: You promised to tell us the meaning of life, but you haven’t!

A: “The meaning of YOUR life is what YOU make it.” But you have to make a good case for your choice.