[Editor’s Note: Nigel Biggar is an Anglican clergyman and the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, where he also directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. Before assuming his current post he occupied chairs in Theology at the University of Leeds and at Trinity College, Dublin. A former President of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (UK), he has sat on the ethics committee of the Royal College of Physicians and on a Royal Society working party on population growth. He was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2017. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Christian ethics in the world today.]
Camosy: You’re famous in my world of academic Christian ethics, but, if you would, please share a little about your background.
Biggar: Born in Scotland, I was educated in England, Canada, and the United States, and am married to a U.S. citizen from up-state New York. The son of a non-church-going Presbyterian and a non-church-going Methodist, I became a practicing Christian at boarding school. As an undergraduate at Oxford I studied history, but I switched to theology at Regent College in Vancouver and ended up completing a Ph.D. in Christian Theology and Ethics at the University of Chicago.
After returning to the UK in the mid-1980s, I was ordained priest in the Church of England and spent nine years as the Chaplain of Oriel College, Oxford. In 1999, I moved first to the University of Leeds in northern England to become Professor of Theology there, and then a few years later to a similar post at Trinity College, Dublin.
In 2007, I returned to the University of Oxford to take up my current position as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology. [‘Regius’ means ‘royal’, and a ‘regius’ chair is one that is appointed, nominally, by the monarch.] I am one of four professors of theology at Oxford, whose academic position is tied to a role as canon in Oxford’s Anglican cathedral of Christ Church, where I celebrate the Eucharist and preach regularly. In addition, I direct the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, which came into being in 2008 and is sustained there by the generosity of the Hon. Alonzo McDonald and his McDonald Agape Foundation. (Al McDonald served as Deputy Chief-of-Staff in President Carter’s White House and is a convert to Roman Catholicism.)
I am a former President of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (UK), and sat on the ethics committee of the Royal College of Physicians for ten years. In 2017, I was appointed an Ordinary Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
One of my favorite books of yours is Aiming to Kill: the Ethics of Suicide and Euthanasia. Though it came out fifteen years ago, I think it predicted much of where these practices ended up going, especially in the Netherlands and Belgium. How did you manage to make such accurate predictions?
The view to which I came in Aiming to Kill, and which is still my view now, is that it is unwise to legalize assistance in suicide and voluntary euthanasia. The high esteem in which we in the Christianized West now hold human life is a cultural achievement that could be lost and should not be taken for granted. In most jurisdictions the only justification for taking life is to defend oneself against a lethal threat, if one is a private citizen, or to defend innocent citizens against such a threat, of one is a police officer. To permit private citizens to assist others to kill themselves, or to kill them upon request, would be to dim the currently bright legal line and embark on a slippery slope that will tend toward killing on demand. The result would be a lowering in the general social esteem for the value of human life.
The slippery slope that I have in mind is a logical one. While those proposing the legalization of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia often begin with restricted eligibility, the reasons for the restriction are not strong and the pressure to relax it will mount. If the purpose of permitting assistance in suicide and voluntary euthanasia is to relieve people who are suffering unbearably and – as it seems – pointlessly, why should that ‘benefit’ be confined to the terminally ill? Surely the chronically ill or permanently impaired can find their own, non-terminal suffering equally unbearable? Indeed, the same is true of the bereaved, the jilted, the philosophically gloomy, the adolescently morbid—or even those serving life-long sentences in prison.
I mention this last species, because I have received correspondence from a life-prisoner, who assured me that, if it became legal to assist in the suicide of the unbearably suffering, he and many of his peers would be the first in the queue.
This logical slippery slope has been most visible in the experience of the Netherlands and Belgium. There the benefit of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia has been extended to a perfectly healthy, but grief-stricken 50 year-old mother; the 44 year-old victim of a botched sex-change operation; a pair of 45 year-old congenitally deaf twins, who feared that they were going blind; and several elderly folk who were simply ‘tired of life.’
You can read a succinct version of my argument in full in “Autonomy’s Suicide”, which was published in Montréal’s The Newman Rambler in 2016.
On the other hand, however, many of your arguments proved influential four years ago when the British House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected physician-assisted suicide 330-118. What an amazing victory that was. Can you tell us a bit about how it came to be and what Catholics resisting these practices in the U.S. might learn from it?
I have read through and analyzed the parliamentary debate of September 2015 about the Marris bill to legalize assisted suicide, which was subsequently defeated by an overwhelming margin of 330 votes to 118.
In the debate, a number of points kept recurring. One was the slippery slope that I have described: If the terminally ill should be eligible, why not also the chronically ill; and if the physically ill, why not the grievously bereaved or the deeply depressed?
Another recurring concern was with a different slippery slope, namely, one that begins with a ‘right to die’ but develops into a social communicated ‘duty to die.’ A further concern was that patients would opt for assisted suicide because they feel that they are a burden—and statistics from Oregon and Washington state were cited to substantiate this.
A fourth worry was that it is simply impossible to ensure against subtle coercion. Many vulnerable people in the UK live, make their choices, and exercise their ‘autonomy’ in a hostile environment. In 2008, Julia Neuberger, writing in her book about the treatment of the elderly, Not Dead Yet, reported that at any one time in the UK 500,000 elderly people are being abused, two-thirds of them at home by someone in a position of trust.
Judging by the current homepage of “Action on Elder Abuse” – which cites the same data – nothing much has changed since. Moreover, in 2009 the Mid-Staffordshire Healthcare Trust scandal revealed that abuse of vulnerable patients is not limited to amateurs, but extends to healthcare professionals.
The proponents of legalizing assisted suicide tend to assume an optimal context of supportive relatives and health-care professionals with time, patience, and resources to spare. Christians, with our sensitivity to human limitations and sinfulness, are bound to be more realistic. So are legislators, who, unlike lobbyists and journalists, have to consider and weigh the long-term social and institutional ramifications of law.
No doubt in part due to your pro-life credentials with regard to assisted suicide and euthanasia, you were recently invited to be a part of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Can you tell us about what it was like for an Anglican priest and scholar like yourself to be part of that particular academy?
I am one of half-a-dozen non-Roman Catholics who were privileged to be invited to join the Academy in 2017, and I am the only Protestant. I understand that this innovation was intended by Pope Francis to signal a new openness to and engagement with non-Catholic thought, and I am very happy to support that.
In addition, I have long had a high regard for the intellectual rigor of Catholic moral theology, and I have therefore been pleased to be part of the Academy’s deliberations. One very striking feature of the Academy’s meetings is their global reach, bringing together, as they do, moral theologians and other scholars from all over the world, from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as Europe and North America.
Your current project, Ethics and Empire, has got you in hot water with some would-be gatekeepers of what sorts of things are acceptable to examine in an academic context.
[The Ethics and Empire project is a five-year interdisciplinary project gathering scholars from Classics, Oriental Studies, History, Political Thought, and Theology in a series of workshops to measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe. – Editor]
As someone who worries deeply about academic freedom — especially when it comes to taking minority positions on controverted issues — I’d love your view of the current state of question. Does academic freedom still protect those researchers who wish to make arguments those in power find distasteful and even offensive?
Academic freedom in universities is under threat, but the level of threat varies from institution to institution, and country to country. My own university has been quite robust in deliberately asserting itself as an ‘unsafe space’—that is to say, a place where students must expect to encounter ideas that are strange, uncongenial, and even threatening.
During “The Rhodes Must Fall” controversy in 2016, our Chancellor, Chris Patten, said this: “One of the points of a university – which is not to tolerate intolerance, to engage in free inquiry and debate – is being denied. People have to face up to facts in history which they don’t like and talk about them and debate them. Can you imagine a university where there is no platform? I mean a bland diet of bran to feed people—it’s an absolutely terrible idea. If you want universities like that you go to China where they are not allowed to talk about western values, which I regard as global values. No, it’s not the way a university should operate.”
That said, bold affirmations of freedom of speech from the top are not sufficient. There remains the problem of funding and appointing committees that apply political criteria (e.g., ‘diversity’, ‘inclusiveness’) that are conceptually dubious, have not been argued for, have not been publicly adopted, and are therefore not accountable. There remains the problem of junior, untenured colleagues, who dare not speak their minds because they fear that senior colleagues will punish them. There remains the problem of public meetings that are effectively shut down because of a combination of a zealous, vociferous minority of students and administrators who prefer the line of least resistance.
Nevertheless, there are signs of hope. My own ‘Ethics and Empire’ project lost its main historian-collaborator, who jumped ship within four days of the row breaking, and then lost its other historian a few weeks later. The good news is that we now have four new historians on board — two British Indians (including Krishan Kumar at the University of Virginia), one British Iranian, and one lily-white Anglo-Saxon. Indeed, the public row revealed, not only that the radical views belong only to a minority of professors and students, but also that these views are at wild odds with those of the general public. It also revealed that there are plenty of children and grandchildren of the subjects of empire, who agree with me, not with my detractors.
In May, I held a conference under the title of “Academic Freedom under Threat? What’s to be Done?”
Several useful answers to the questions were forthcoming. One is the importance of raising the costs to institutions that yield, thoughtlessly and cravenly, to radical political pressure — whether through litigation or donor-desertion. But another is the importance of independent streams of funding that can circumvent political censorship by biased committees, and enable unfashionable projects like ‘Ethics and Empire’ to run.
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