Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evolved Promises

The Senator was surprised to see Drew, his friend from college, enter his office at so late an hour. His surprise turned to confusion when he saw Drew holding a gun. "I've come to kill you", said Drew. The senator was aghast. "Well, don't you remember. You told me several times that if you ever vote Republican, then you should be shot! Now you're a Republican Senator, so I must fulfill my promise, carry out your instruction and shoot you." "Are you out of your mind? I said that as a figure of speech twenty years ago!", cried the Senator. "Well, it was no casual remark. Here I have proof of your writing and signature, authorizing me to kill you if you turned Republican. It was also witnessed by several of our friends. Don't tell me not to take this contract seriously. If so, living wills will be meaningless. And the issues surrounding euthanasia will be made more complicated if the decision made by terminally ill patients prior to their vegetative state, cannot be executed. A contract such as this has to be binding!" (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", by Julian Baggini)

Perhaps an example of following the letter of the law, instead of its spirit. But what cranked my circuit was Drew's argument pertaining to other contracts such as wills and those made by terminally ill patients. All of us progressively change or evolve with every passing year and with life's experiences. Does it then make sense for us to commit to something and make a decision for our future-selves who may probably disagree with our past judgments? Are we being unrealistic to expect people not to change their thoughts/decisions? Being aware of this dilemma, is it reasonable to provide some leeway to wriggle out of the contract, without incurring consequences such as what the Senator faces? I'm sure warning bells are ringing all over the place with such a suggestion; those with commitment related fears, and charlatans will have a ball.... there would now be a universal rule excusing betrayal. And the worst part is, every decision and promise will become evanescent if we can't hold anybody's words down to anything concrete, thus destroying the very meaning of trust and promise.

If the prospect of disrespecting contracts/promises is so unpalatable, why shouldn't the Senator be killed in this scenario? I think it all adds up to the implications of the contract. Contracts such as mortgage payments or even marriages involve at least two people being tightly wound in the ramifications of the decision. Backing out of such contracts negatively affects those with whom the contract was drawn. But in this case, the Senator's decision is personal and Drew's breach of "promise" by sparing his life, doesn't adversely affect anybody, and in fact only saves a life. Changing one's political view can probably be argued as being not so innocuous, for it can adversely affect society in the long term due to the kinds of decisions a Senator can take. But in this particular context, there are surely no such severe indications.

What about euthanasia? Can a person's decision to be taken off the ventilator if at all he goes into coma be taken seriously at a later point in the patient's condition, for this decision also involves the patient's family and friends. I think it is reasonable to make a decision for the future when we are sure that our future-self will not have adequate cognitive capacity to make an informed decision at that point. And I think it's fair to respect such a decision, however early it was made relative to the patient's condition.

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