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Democratic deliberation and deep diversity

Democratic deliberation and deep diversity

In the latest in his series on ‘Faith in Democracy’, Jonathan Chaplin explores what it would take to debate assisted dying honestly. 30/09/2021

The British Medical Association recently abandoned its longstanding policy of opposition to assisted suicide and adopted what it called a position of “neutrality”. The decision reflects a steady shift in that direction in broader public opinion and – given the body’s public prestige – will inevitably further it. The issue will likely come back to Parliament again soon. Unfortunately, however, it has not yet elicited the depth of public debate it requires and it exposes, with special clarity, the much wider challenge of moral and religious diversity in Britain and the problems we have in rising to it.

Among the conditions we will need in order to meet that challenge, is, as Gordon Brown proposed in 2011 (once out of office), “a strong faith politics which is part of an open and teeming public square, part of a deliberative politics that allows each citizen to bring the richest account of themselves to the public square and thus break the hold of…sterile versions of secular liberalism”.

Brown commended “a society, in which a plurality of religious and ethical voices offer counsel when we are at risk of losing our way”. Such voices would create “a politics of moral energy, [transcending] an old politics defined just by managerial or technocratic competence or public relations gimmickry: a politics that is more than just about the art of the possible but about making the desirable possible”.

Brown’s call presses us to inquire more closely what democratic deliberation might look like if it were to draw more openly on such richer accounts.

One of the examples he cited was that of assisted suicide. Brown called for a deeper and more respectful debate on the question, urging that we transcend “two encamped and embattled positions”: on the one hand, the demand that “a God–given life must not be taken away”, and on the other, that “a good life means the avoidance of unnecessary pain”. The question, he suggested, is how we can uphold “the dignity we value”. Can this be honoured “in a natural death by the quality of end of life care”? And is that dignity undermined “if, when the state sanctions one citizen’s power to end the life of another, sick people are at risk of being put under unacceptable pressure”?

Brown is to be applauded for naming the difficulty of conducting serious debate on profoundly contentious issues like this – of which our morally fractured society is throwing up more and more. His formulation of the matter, however, elicits two searching rejoinders.

One is that his way of stating what the debate is about will in no way satisfy those in favour of assisted suicide (or “assisted dying”, as the BMA calls it). They will retort: “isn’t human dignity equally undermined by denying people the right to choose when to end their unbearable suffering?”

The other is that it assumes there is something called “the dignity we value”. But what we now see emerging is a deepening diversity of (at least partly) incommensurable conceptions of human dignity.[1] We can no longer reach for a common understanding of what it is to be “human”. This is evident in the account of dignity given by Jürgen Habermas, in spite of the fact that he is one of the most faith–receptive secular philosophers today.

Paying tribute to how Christianity has shaped modern philosophical conceptions of person and society, Habermas proposes that the Christian idea of “man in the image of God” has been “translated” into the modern idea of “the identical dignity of all men that deserves unconditional respect”.[2] He claims that such a translation has “transformed the original meaning of [such] terms, but without emptying them through a process of deflation and exhaustion”.

Dignity understood in these terms is certainly vastly preferable to the shrunken vistas generated by utilitarianism and transhumanism. Yet a biblical conception of dignity as grounded in the “image of God” is a much richer account than Habermas’s.

That conception speaks of three fundamental dimensions of human dignity: that humans are called to fulfil an ennobling and dynamic task of being God’s representatives within creation; that they are embodied creatures who will face the joys and fragilities of being made of “the dust of the earth”; and that they can only fulfil their imaging role amidst a rich web of human relationships constitutive of their very personhood.[3]

Dignity is a materially–grounded, communally–pursued, historical vocation to unfold the riches of God’s created gifts for the common good. Most of this is “lost in translation” if it is rendered abstractly as “unconditional respect accorded to individuals”.

It is true that deeply contested questions such as assisted suicide must eventually get resolved in specific legal and policy instruments that may seem far removed from such weighty philosophical and theological concerns. But such instruments will be more judiciously framed, more worthy of consent and thus more enduring if they are informed by extended, multi–sided deliberation on such concerns, taking place in an “open and teeming public square”.

To cultivate such deliberation, we must all up our discursive games. As Nigel Biggar puts it, we will have to find ways to enable “contextually sensitive, dialectical, improvisational, candid conversations about public goods between genuinely different points of view which articulate themselves in their own terms while seeking to be persuasive to others”.[4] Where will we find – and how will we form – the conversation partners and deliberative forums that are up to such a task?

Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM.  

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 You can read Jonathan’s other writing for Theos here. 


[1] See Andrew Grey, Dignity at the End of Life: What’s Beneath the Assisted Dying Debate? (London: Theos, 2017).

[2] ‘Pre–political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?’, in Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, Florien Schuller, ed. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006), 44–5.

[3] See Grey, Dignity at the End of Life, ch. 2.

[4] ‘Not Translation But Conversation: Theology in Public Debate about Euthanasia,’ in Nigel Biggar and Linda Hogan, eds, Religious Voices in Public Places (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 171.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

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Posted 30 September 2021

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