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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.


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10 Comment on this post

  1. Very funny. But not quite germane. The point is not that we are all like Wayne, rather that none of the relationships you suspect Wayne still has are there for everyone. Wayne may still love his mother, but there are people out there who don’t, for reasons better or worse; there are people without romantic attachments, and people without any sentimental attachment to life. Wayne is not what we all are, he is a minimum which we all contain, the least possible human.

  2. Very good but perhaps you were rather harsh in the way you made your excuse? Your lustrous hair is always in immaculate condition and poor Wayne cannot have failed to notice that he was being slighted.

  3. Tom: thank you very much. It is a very long time since anyone has commented on the lustrousness of my hair, and it’s all the more welcome for that.

  4. Phil: many thanks. But surely we are all, inevitably and quintessentially, relational creatures? None of us had any part in our own conception or birth. We were all utterly dependent for years, and still are. Even an Athonite hermit defines himself by his connection to his parents and to the community of believers. The quality of the relationships isn’t the issue: even (or arguably particularly) bad relationships still define us. I have no idea who or where Charles Foster is – except in terms of the mesh (and sometimes mess) of relationships in which I exist.

  5. I don’t think many would deny that people have relationships to other people, who WILL care if they die.

    What people might disagree on is whether that makes the choice to die wrong; do we have a responsability to live just because others would want us to?
    Does their wish for us to be alive ovrrule our wish to not be?

    I strongly believe that is not the case; although I can see exceptions for people who have dependants (such as minor offsprings) or a spouse, since in these cases you have a direct responsability to someone else.

    Also, if you believe that the relationships you have with other people can make the choice to die wrong (because of the suffering they would presumably feel): what do you think of people who are so unpopular that most would *rejoice* at their death?
    By this line of reasoning, wouldn’t these people have a *duty* to chose death?

  6. Davide: many thanks. I don’t want (although others may) to turn this into a debate about assisted dying. I don’t think that the fact or the nature of our relationality decisively answers any of the questions pertinent to that debate. I simply wanted to indicate (and this you appear to accept – for which I’m grateful) that it is simply untrue (a) for any individual to say ‘I’m not a relational creature’; and (b) to assert that the issue of relationality is irrelevant to the debate.

    1. Charles: I understand why you do not turn this into an AS debate, but I would just like agree with you. Relationality is relevant and until inter alia it is properly addressed AS should remain unlawful.

    2. Yes, I understand this was not meant to be a debate about the issue of assisted suicide.

      My point was that not all relationships should be considered the same, morally – I singled out spouses and sons/daughters as people (I feel) we owe special duties to, especially if the latter are minor.


      that if relationality is to be used as an argument against allowing some choices (hard not to think about AS again – sorry), then it can go both ways.

      If people you have a relationship with strongly want you not to do something makes doing that thing morally dubious, then NOT doing it could also be morally dubious if they, on the other hand, wanted you to do it.

      Yet to go back to AS (sorry, hard not to) I doubt most bioethicists who are anti-AS would situationally be pro-AS for unpopular people. See what I mean?

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