Drinking at Schiphol with the fount of bioethics
A couple of weeks ago, in an airport bar, I met the foundation of modern bioethics.
I was crawling back to London: he was heading to JFK.
‘I usually fly First’, was his opening, as we sat on those vertiginous stools. ‘So I’m usually in the Lounge. But it’s good to be reminded how the other half live.’ I was glad, for about a minute, to be part of his democratic education.
He’d had quite a start on me, and was several G & Ts down when I arrived. That might have loosened his tongue. Or perhaps, and probably, he was as keen when sober to talk obsessively, self-referentially and self-reverentially about himself.
He was in derivatives, and had a view of Central Park from his apartment. ‘I live alone, but not alone, if you see what I mean.’ I did, but he spelt it out anyway. ‘I usually get through three or four a week.’ He saw my eyebrows rise. ‘Well’, he said: ‘I get what I want: they get what they want. Everyone wins.’
He’d always been a winner: in the markets, in bed, in life. At least since he’d left home, which had given him nothing. ‘I’m the boy from nowhere, you see. My parents are irrelevant. Always have been. Haven’t spoken to them for years. What I am is what I’ve made myself: what I’ve got is what I’ve taken with my own hands.’ He took my hands in his and squeezed them (rather weakly) to show me his elemental power.
The UK Parliament was about to discuss assisted suicide. He’d been reading about it as I came in. He slapped the paper: ‘What is there to talk about? My life’s my own, isn’t it? I choose what I do and what I don’t do. I sleep with whom I damn well please, and when I damn well please: I eat what I damn well please, and when I damn well please. And if I choose to stop living, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do that either, and when and where I damn well please. End of story. Literally. Nothing else to say.’
Well: that is certainly a point of view. But sadly my hair needed washing, and I wasn’t able to continue the discussion.
It was a mistake to walk away. I’d been mightily favoured. I’d been in the presence of the person at the root of most modern bioethics: the self-created, perfectly autonomous, wholly unrelational man: a man with his neatly drafted life-plan in his back pocket. Almost all of the ethical codes about, for instance, informed consent, assume that we’re all like him. We’re all supposed to live like him and to want to die as he plans to do. The lustre of his immaculate suit was the shininess of the billiard ball in the old metaphor of morbid atomism: the hardness of his voice was the hardness of his own boundary with the world. For him, to be porous was to be soggy: to be dependent was to be weak.
I disliked him, yes. Very much indeed. But I walked away, I think, more because of embarrassment than because I was repelled. I’d always maintained that people like him didn’t exist, and that the codes were wrong because they were based on a ludicrous fiction. Yet here he was: here it was: the fiction incarnate, and in Guccis.
But now I’ve reconsidered. I think I was right all along. He didn’t exist, and doesn’t. I can’t believe that in that apartment, when the latest dumped secretary has tottered tearfully away in the early hours, he turns blithely over and sleeps blissfully until the trading floor opens. Nor do I believe that when his reviled mother finally pushes up the Iowan daisies, he’ll have an unruffled morning, or that, on the ward rather than in the bar, he’ll think his own death as morally straightforward as that of a gnat.
I wish there were a literarily satisfactory ending: a reflective letter from him, recanting, or the discovery on a Wall Street website that he spent all his spare time running a hostel for teenage runaways. Sadly there’s no such thing. But, Wayne, if you recognize yourself here, please drop me a line and tell me you don’t exist.