Although philosophy, religion, and civic cultures used to help people prepare for aging and dying well, this is no longer the case. Today, aging is frequently seen as a problem to be solved and death as a harsh reality to be masked. In part, our cultural confusion is rooted in an inadequate conception of the human person, which is based on a notion of absolute individual autonomy that cannot but fail in the face of the dependency that comes with aging and decline at the end of life. To help correct the ethical impoverishment at the root of our contemporary social confusion, The Evening of Life provides an interdisciplinary examination of the challenges of aging and dying well and calls for a re-envisioning of cultural concepts, practices, and virtues that embraces decline, dependency, and finitude rather than stigmatizes them.
From the Introduction: Toward an Ethics of Aging
While not unique to old age, the ongoing dissolution of the life course has been especially significant for old age, where the role of a defining community to provide direction and criteria for meaning is most obvious and essential. Aging, decline, and approaching death are some of the most complex and unsettling aspects of human experience. While historically strengthened and mediated by rites of passage, kinship networks, filial duty to ancestors, hierarchies that honor wisdom, social practices that superintend grief, and arts of suffering and dying, today’s older adults invariably find such common symbols or shared traditions weakened. In our time, meaning in old age has become more subjective and private.
The task of preparing people for their later years, once a central cultural and philosophical task, has correspondingly waned. While the ideal form of character in the face of aging and death has varied by time and school of thought, social and cultural goals were nonetheless broadly similar. Social philosophies, religious communities, and civic cultures helped guide people in a process of preparing for aging and dying “well.” Such normative guidance and inspiration did not necessarily mean that old people were given special respect or honor, or that old age was treated as a social category deserving of special treatment or public concern. Social histories tell an ambiguous story, with critical variation in respect accorded to different social groups. But social norms of aging and dying did provide direction and shared expectations about how to live. One need only consider the many current debates that frame aging as a problem to be solved—with “successful aging,” or anti-aging interventions, or “engineered negligible senescence,” or assisted suicide—to see our communal and ethical quandary. We have precious few resources for even thinking about the enduring questions of a good old age, its meaning as a distinctive phase in the life course or stage in life’s pilgrimage, and how we might prepare for and embrace the twilight years of life.
Our cultural impoverishment is rooted, most fundamentally, in a deficient conception of the person in society. Our dominant image of persons as free and unencumbered agents, as masters of choice, while inadequate at every stage of life, is especially detrimental in the last. Liberal, autonomous individualism provides virtually no criteria to inform our choices beyond personal preference. It situates us under a regime that effectively fixes aging and death as realities to hide; that works to undermine our ability to cope with our finitude and inevitable decline; that makes it difficult to sustain a valued sense of self in the face of dependency, disability, and an aging body; and that works against a positive conception of living in older age. It is a regime that offers little grounds for social solidarity across the generations or reasons to strengthen it.
In our moment, the societies of the industrialized world urgently need an ethics of aging that centers on the question of a good human life in its later years—an old age that is lived well and that goes well. Toward this ethics there are currently only scattered contributions. Most of the existing literature might best be described as ethical reflection on issues that predominantly involve older people. This is an abstract ethics focused on rights and duties and decision-making in legal matters and care in the context of formal institutions. It is not an ethics of everyday life for those navigating their twilight years. Of course, protections are crucial in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions where older people are especially vulnerable. An essential element of a good life is one in which people are treated justly, and an ethics of the person includes obligations. But a substantive, normative ethics of aging must concern aging persons in all their complexity, and go beyond a concern with negative liberty. We need to re-envision a robust set of cultural concepts, practices, and virtues for advanced age and death, for individuals as well as communities. We need a positive image of living in old age, rooted in our shared potentiality and vulnerability, an image that engages our creativity and generativity juxtaposed with our frailty, our dependence, and our finitude. We need a holistic orientation to aging persons that is capable of guiding and delimiting interventions, whether medical or quality of life. We need, in short, an ethics of aging that takes up conceptions of well-being in the evening of life and their complex interplay with the cultural frameworks, social arrangements, and technologies that impact those conceptions and might be shaped to sustain and satisfy them.
Toward such an ethics, this book is an intervention.
This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.