Dying Wishes

I am the last person to go around denigrating a person’s dying wishes, let alone advising that anyone ignore or outright refuse to respect a person’s dying wishes. As Milan Kundera says in his excellent musing on artistic intentions, Testaments Betrayed, if a farmer on his death bed tells his son not to cut down the old tree next to the house, we may assume that tree will remain standing, unharmed, for as long as that son loves his father. A dying wish is to be honored, and whenever possible obeyed, even against the survivor’s own better judgment or honest sense of just deserts. For a dying wish is a person’s final assertion of his will, as though he were taking one last chance to steer his own life, to set his soul and its earthly life’s efforts on their final, preferred course into eternity. To dishonor or ignore such an intention is to dishonor the dying one’s life and soul.

Having said all of that, this injunction against dishonoring a person’s dying wish has obvious natural limits and qualifications. If a man’s dying wish were to kill his business partner, no one should feel morally obligated to obey. Likewise, if a man’s dying wish were to move Cincinnati to Michigan, for such a plan was never within the dying man’s capacity to control during his life. In short, what was not within a man’s power (moral or material) in his lifetime cannot be held as a duty over the heads of his survivors. 

Furthermore, “his survivors,” i.e., those over whom his dying wishes may be regarded as holding sway, must be understood as those realistically within range of his own life and legal connections. I cannot rationally write in my will that the south of France be ceded to my aunt Marie, for neither that territory nor the people currently presiding over it are within my personal range of ownership or authority.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s family claims that it was the supreme court justice’s dying wish that her successor not be chosen before the November presidential election, which is to say chosen by Donald Trump. Perhaps she should have thought of that during the many years she struggled with her pancreatic cancer during the Obama presidency, but refused to give up her seat on the court. In any case, since apparently she did not record this wish publicly, we have only her family’s word to go on. That might be enough in any normal case, but in this case, by using this alleged dying wish as they are — demanding that the Republican Party respect Ginsburg’s wishes and wait until after the election — they cast doubt on their own credibility. For what they are saying, in no uncertain terms, is that Ginsburg’s dying wish was to pee on the U.S. Constitution that she had sworn to defend as a justice on the supreme court.

The separation of powers, the three branches of government, “a government of laws and not of men” — these concepts, well defined and delineated by America’s founding fathers, and in the nation’s founding documents, all have one indispensable theme in common, namely that no individual, including and especially a member of the federal government, has the authority to override the constitutional structure and workings of the United States government for any reason, let alone merely for the sake of achieving personal political goals. Hence, for Ginsburg to state — allegedly — as her dying wish that she does not want Donald Trump to have the authority to choose her replacement, or the Republican senate to have the authority to vote on Trump’s pick, has no more moral standing or practical compulsion than a man’s dying wish to move Cincinnati to Michigan, or my wish that the south of France be ceded to my aunt Marie. 

One’s wish to effect an outcome that one has no authority or right, before or after death, to enforce under any circumstances, cannot be regarded as a dying wish in the sense that a last will and testament may be so regarded. At best, if indeed she said it, it would have the standing of a mere hope, something she would like to see happen, rather than a genuine act of will or statement of intention. And surely Ginsburg, presumably an expert in constitutional law, would have known that very well. Hence, even if she said it, I think it would be dishonoring her memory and spitting on her soul to use such a statement as a political demand, as though it ought to have binding force on the workings of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. 

To use the dying judge’s (alleged) words and thoughts this way, as the family and the Democrats are doing, shows a callous disdain for her life and dignity the likes of which only obsessive political tribalists can display.

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