The Church has got to face up to the reality of the world as it is lived.

So, Lord Carey has changed his mind about assisted dying by polarising ‘compassion’ and ‘doctrine’, and stating that the church had to come to terms with ‘lived realities’.

Set aside the fact that Lord Carey continues to do what his predecessor never did – keeps on queering his successors’ pitch and seems unable to let go – and we can focus on the nub of his argument. Millions of words are being poured into the media today, so I will put a sideways perspective I haven’t seen pursued in the debate so far today.

  • Who decides what constitutes ‘compassion’? Especially when we know from many terminally ill people that they might well have urged assistance in their dying at an early point in their process, whilst moving on as they came to terms with their prognosis to a different conclusion. Who decides what constitutes compassion and at what point it should be recognised?
  • When did doctrine become emptied of compassion? Doctrine is simply doctrine. But, there is a principle here: law (which is what this is about) cannot be made on the basis of subjective judgements based on emotion; law requires a dispassionate clarity about the ‘doctrine’ upon which the legislation – and ensuing praxis – can be founded. There is actually no way of deciding on such legislation without having some ‘doctrine’ – assumed or articulated – that legitimises or demands such a judgement. In my language, it is the fundamental anthropology that shapes this: what is a human being, why does a human being matter, and why does it matter that these questions are admitted and addressed before moving to emotion/compassion? History is littered with examples of law being established without a clear articulation of the anthropology that underlies it.
  • Lord Carey says his mind was changed by the Nicklinson case.But, ‘Locked-in Syndrome’ is not a terminal illness and should not, therefore, be covered by the arguments he makes. Isn’t this what we call a category error?
  • What is a ‘lived reality’ and why is it cut adrift from considerations of thinking about why we matter? When did philosophy become the opposite of humanity and divorced from the rest of life? And, if Lord Carey is consistent, will he now support other ‘lived realities’ and, for example, back gay marriage, legalisation of drugs, abortion on demand, and so on – all describable as ‘lived realities’?

While medicine progresses at a remarkable pace, our statutory framework remains trapped in an outdated past, badly out of kilter with the real needs of our society.

  • And to what else might that judgement apply? We clearly need a deeper debate and one that doesn’t assume that if you use judgement, you are, by definition, devoid of compassion.

Maybe the new “philosophical certainties” could do with being subjected to the “old” ones that have now “collapsed”?

I know I am on holiday and only get internet access if I nip into a local bar, but…

No sooner had Samira Ahmed lamented in the Guardian the decline of German language learning in England's schools, but then Viv Groskop did a similar job in the Independent. She broadens the lament into an exposé of English ineptitude when it comes to the learning of any language. Try this demystification of the art:

In reality, it's not so difficult to acquire a language. You learn a foreign language the same way you learn to speak as a child: it requires constant practice and voluntary humiliation. And you don't have to read Proust. You can just talk to people.

Which, after all, is how Johnny Foreigner manages to acquire an embarrassing facility with English:

… all over the world people speak all kinds of weird but perfectly understandable versions of 'Globish' (English as a second language). They do not beat themselves up for their mistakes nor consider themselves somehow magically gifted.

OK, enough.

But, the Independent also had an example of excellent English in Julian Baggini's opinion piece about the 'right to die' debate. Forget the hysterical shouting of those such as Polly Toynbee, who just curse anyone who is stupid enough to disagree with their root assumptions. In his piece, Julian Baggini questions the very terms of the debate, particularly common assumptions about 'competing personal liberties'. Before patiently, intelligently and unpolemically offering an alternative 'narrative' against which to see the debate, he makes an appeal:

… if it is simply an issue of competing personal liberties, most, if not all, the arguments against [assisted dying] can be dealt with by the provision of appropriate safeguards. The real problem is that we do not employ a rich enough notion of what personal liberty means to see why assisted dying requires very sensitive handling.

Baggini then addresses the fundamental question of 'the common good' – the social nature of human beings. He observes:

The truth we need to deal with is that the common good is not arrived at simply by adding up individual goods. Rather, the common good is what enables individual lives to be nourished rather than degraded by the society they live in… The argument against assisted suicide on these grounds is not that your doing it directly harms others, but that your having the right to do it requires changing the social ecology in such a way as to diminish the ability of all individuals to thrive in it.

In drawing attention to this Baggini elucidates the fundamentally identical point made by Rowan Williams. He concludes by calling for an intelligent debate that moves away from a shockingly simplistic (and ignorantly lazy) rejection of 'outdated theology' and an equally simplistic deification of 'individual liberty' seen in isolation from the implications of the social nature of human beings.

I was struck by Baggini's article mainly because of the temperate and eirenic use of language to shine a different light into a very contentious debate. Instead of merely accepting the validity of the philosophical or anthropological terms of discussion, he challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying some of the strongly-held views and introduces a vital 'other' element to the discourse.

It is a model of how to argue, respecting the passions of the polemicists, but quietly challenging the terms of the debate. And it is something I am not alone in needing to learn from.

If you want to turn your white sheet red, make sure you only put red dye in the water.

If you want to ensure that the evidence you collect fits the conclusions with which you started, select for your committee those who begin with the same assumptions and conclusions as yourself.

The Commission on Assisted Dying has done just that. We also knew its conclusions before the publication of its report this morning because it had been widely leaked. But, even if no leaks had dripped out, the conclusions would not have been a surprise.

Two challenges this morning: (a) Look at the constitution of the commission and use your imagination to work out how they came to the conclusions they did, and (b) spot the difference between the campaigning goals of Dignity in Dying and Falconer’s conclusions. This commission is only independent in so far as it was self-selected and self- established. Loads of groups and bodies involved in the debate refused to speak with them.

So, before giving their report too much credence, just imagine the credibility an ‘independent’ group of evangelical Christians would have been given if they had established a ‘commission on abortion’ and concluded they were against it?

Assisted dying is a hugely important (as well as contentious) ethical matter which demands serious debate on philosophical, theological, anthropological and pastoral grounds. But the presentation of this commission and its coverage in a sympathetic media needs a massive dose of caution. On any other subject it wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

Update: link to Church of England response.

Further update: good BMJ post offering wider view.