Thursday, May 16, 2013

Giles Fraser, Erich Fromm, and assisted dying: reclaiming relatedness and love


Giles Fraser’s recent article arguing against voluntary euthanasia on allegedly humanistic grounds has provoked hostile responses from many quarters, and rightly so. Ophelia Benson and Eric MacDonald have done an outstanding job of responding to the article’s main thesis. I’m going to expand on these impassioned rebuttals to talk a little more about the vision of human relationships and of love underlying Fraser’s position. His isn’t an especially profound or well-reasoned piece of writing, but I think it’s a useful one to examine since it represents a particular vision of the world, a tragically attenuated one that finds human relatedness primarily or exclusively in pain and defines love narcissistically and coercively. As such, it’s fundamentally at odds with Erich Fromm’s ideal of loving relatedness, and in fact illustrates one of the unhealthy, failed approaches to relatedness that Fromm discusses.

Fromm argued that the embrace of pain, suffering, death, authoritarianism, and destruction doesn’t result from innate sadistic-masochistic or destructive drives, but is rather a response to frustrated efforts or a lack of opportunities to overcome alienation1 - to fulfill our need to connect and relate productively.2 He recognized that our possibilities for relating to other humans and to the world in loving, productive, healthy, free, fulfilling, “biophilic” ways were determined – and often constrained – by our historical and political context, and argued that many contemporary systems interfered with and subverted productive relatedness. So, he argued, we need to find or create spaces within our current society for these relationships and also work collectively to make society more conducive to their realization.

With regard to love, as I’ve discussed, Fromm understood it not as a transitory emotional state but as a general manner of relating to the world. Love as a productive orientation was characterized by care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.3 My earlier post on the subject discusses this in more detail, but two aspects need to be highlighted again here. The first is that Fromm, as I noted, “stresses the indivisibility of the four basic elements of love: ‘To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern’ (27).” The second relevant aspect is the specific meaning of respect Fromm talks about. Respect is based in objectivity – the loving person doesn’t narcissistically project their own understandings and projects onto others. As I said in the earlier post,
It’s a shame that objectivity is so often seen as a detachment from others and the hardhearted treatment of them as objects. That arrogant idea is the opposite of what Fromm’s saying: the objectivity at the heart of love isn’t about being detached from others, but about trying our best in practice to detach our perception of them from our own biases and perceived interests.
For Fromm, caring fundamentally requires humbly seeking to know and understand the wishes of others and avoiding projecting onto them our own wishes and ideas (including our beliefs about what’s best for them).

So an approach to others that respects their autonomous being and development, that doesn’t seek to dominate or exploit them, that refrains from narcissistically imposing our vision and desires is not just rooted in a “liberal” regard for the abstract rights or autonomy of separate, disconnected beings. It’s at the very center of what it means to love others, and therefore of what it means to find real joy and rootedness in the world. Love is joy is ethics.4

Fraser’s vision offers a striking contrast. The experiences and actions of suffering and “sacrifice” he discusses in his article aren’t argued to be pleasurable in themselves. They’re not portrayed (explicitly, at least) as divinely commanded or as paths to a relationship with some god. Rather, he presents them in terms of human relationships and fulfillment. So he attempts to make a secular argument against assisted dying, but in its assumptions and distortions it betrays its flawed and anti-humanist religious origins.

Suffering, death, and authoritarian relations of powerlessness and coercion are Fraser’s proposed means of uniting with the world. The experiences that lead to our immersion in the life of the world are pain, the deterioration of our bodies and the helplessness it brings (“[l]ying in a bed full of our own faeces, unable to do anything about it”), and maintaining others’ dying bodies whether they wish it or not. It’s through these experiences, according to him, that we come to appreciate our shared humanity - how bound our lives are to those of others – and to connect deeply with others. This, to Fraser, is love, and he finds it “extraordinarily beautiful.”

What’s remarkable about Fraser’s view is that these aren’t even just seen as important means of relating to and loving others and creating rootedness in the world – they’re understood as the only means. I think it would be mistaken to read his description of the “liberal” view in favor of assisted dying as an intentional straw man. Fraser’s depiction of the existential situation to which we’re consigned if we don’t relate through pain, suffering, bonds of authoritarianism, and the shared experience of death seems to reflect his genuine belief: that outside these forms of relating there is no real love or connectedness to be found. In his view, it’s only through these forms of relating that we overcome profound, disembodied isolation. Outside of these forms of relating, we regard ourselves – or, at turns, are actually like – “brains in vats… solitary self-defining intellectual identities who form temporary alliances with each other for short-term mutual advantage.” Our connection to others is lost, and we’re alienated from reality.

This reflects an astonishingly narrow vision of what relationships of love and connectedness are. All of the means of productively relating to the world - loving others, healing and caring for and supporting other human and nonhuman animals day to day, cooking and eating together, laughing, creating, enjoying other people’s creations, having and raising children, playing sports, debating, dancing, reading, learning, exploring new places, chatting with strangers, growing plants, making a home, participating in the democratic life of a community, joining with others to fight for what you believe in, observing nature, doing science, listening to music, hiking a trail, sitting on a beach listening to the waves, giving the best of yourself to the world – are denied by Fraser.

His view is also fundamentally contrary to Fromm’s understanding of love as characterized by respect and humility. In Fraser’s vision, there’s no place for personal autonomy or self-determination, or for respecting others’ autonomy and self-determination, in loving relationships; indeed, love is contrasted to “our cherished sense of personal autonomy” and “the liberal model of individual self-determination.” In contrast to a loving orientation that humbly tries to understand another’s experiences and wishes and to care for them in accordance with that understanding, Fraser’s coercively imposes his own understanding and desires: “Shut up about being a burden,” he orders (in his fictional scenario). “I love you. This is what it means to love you.”

Even the act of helping to lessen someone’s “utterly intolerable” pain is portrayed not as an act of humble human friendship or love or even basic compassion but of “mercy.” The use of the word mercy here – a term which suggests an imbalance of power - clearly shows the authoritarian lens through which Fraser views human relations. (And it shouldn’t be forgotten for a moment that his post is an intervention in a debate about the legality of assisted dying. His authoritarian “caring” individual is also the representative of the state, backed by its coercive power.)

When set against Fromm’s expansive vision of active love and the rich possibilities for human relatedness and fulfillment, Fraser’s vision doesn’t appear, as he tries to portray it, as a humanistic alternative to an avoidance of experience and a dry and alienated liberal insistence on abstract rights. It’s revealed instead as an authoritarian project contrary to the very essence of love and based on a pathologically constricted vision of human experience and relatedness. With regard to assisted dying, both in terms of law and our personal relationships, the choice for humanists is between loving, productive, fulfilling relationships and a stunted, unloving, coercive approach that’s destructive to us all.

1 As I’ve alluded to in the past and will discuss in more depth in the future, Fromm wasn’t attuned enough to the ideological sources of alienation. He fully appreciated that – and was at the forefront of analyzing how - capitalism and its culture impede our efforts to realize relatedness. And he did argue that this culture contributes to alienation itself. But he also consistently reinforced the idea that a profound alienation is a fundamental aspect of the human existential condition previous to and transcending culture. (See, among many examples, the first several passages in The Art of Loving.) He didn’t seek to analyze how this idea, this existential understanding of alienation, could itself be the product of culture – of consumerist and managerial capitalism, but also of the highly speciesist religious and philosophical traditions that influenced his thinking.

This unquestioned, culturally-shaped idea of existential alienation is a problem that mars many of Fromm’s arguments, sometimes in insurmountable ways. In this context, it’s necessary to note that, to the extent that Fromm’s arguments about alienation and relatedness proceed from these ideological assumptions, he exhibits some of the same biases as Fraser. While his arguments about relatedness and love can be discussed and contrasted to Fraser’s, as I do in this post, without reference to these assumptions, a comprehensive discussion of alienation and relatedness (which would even more fully reveal the flaws in Fraser’s thinking) has to address this problem.

2 He didn’t argue, though, that pain, grief, and sacrifice were the opposite of joy and happiness or to be avoided at all costs. He saw them as unavoidable aspects of the human experience, and recognized that opening ourselves up to the world in order to experience real joy and happiness necessarily means experiencing also suffering and loss. The opposite of joy and happiness in Fromm’s view was alienation (of which depression was the extreme result) – a condition of not of sadness but of disconnectedness from the world (including ourselves).

3 This discussion wouldn’t have been an abstract one for Fromm, wherever he would have come down on the issue of assisted dying. His second wife was German photographer Henny Gurland. She had a Jewish father, worked as a photojournalist for the German Social Democratic Party, and was an outspoken anti-Nazi activist, and so had flee Nazi Germany and then Nazi Europe. She and her son Joseph and the philosopher Walter Benjamin attempted to escape from France through Spain to the US. They were attacked and caught by Spanish border guards while trying to cross the French-Spanish border on foot. Shot at from planes, Gurland got metal fragments in her side, adding to the pain she experienced from rheumatoid arthritis. After Benjamin’s suicide at the border, the guards allowed Gurland and her son to cross into Spain, and they escaped to the US via Portugal. She and Fromm married there in 1944. He treated Joseph like a son, and cared for her for the rest of her life, including moving to Mexico in the hope that it would improve her health. But she continued to suffer debilitating pain, often leading her to be bedridden, and was deeply depressed. As her health deteriorated, Fromm was caring for her almost full-time. She died in Mexico in 1952, probably from suicide. (This account is from The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet.) Fromm published The Art of Loving a few years later.

4 As Fromm argues in Man for Himself:
The experience of joy and happiness is not only…the result of productive living but also its stimulus…. There is nothing more conducive to goodness in the humanistic sense than the experience of joy and happiness which accompanies any productive activity. Every increase in joy a culture can provide will do more for the ethical education of its members than all the warnings of punishment or preachings of virtue could do. (p. 230)

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