“Get Back in the Car”

In Massachusetts, a young woman, Michelle Carter, has just been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because, by verbal encouragement—numerous emails and other communications—she aided in the suicide of Conrad Roy III in July 2014. Mr. Roy had stepped out of the cab of a vehicle, filling with lethal fumes, only to hear Ms. Carter tell him over the phone to get back in the cab; she then allegedly listened to him die without trying to help him.

“It’s my fault,” Carter texted to a classmate. “I could have stopped him but I told him to get back in the car.”

“This court finds,” the judge said, “that instructing Mr. Roy to get back in the truck constituted wanton and reckless conduct.”

In the months ahead, many will parse the legal implications and considerations of this trial and the events leading up to it. Already there is heated debate about the fairness of the punishment meted out to Ms. Carter.

Perhaps, though, there may, in time, be a rather different perspective offered about Mr. Roy’s suicide, and Ms. Carter may be seen as a heroine for her part, however indirect, in it. Can we hold that Ms. Carter is, in fact, a heroine for supporting Mr. Roy in his decision to take his own life? “You can’t think about it,” Carter allegedly texted Roy on the day of his death. “You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t.”

Mr. Roy’s lethal actions did, after all, take his own life. His life was not the property of his parents, not the property of his friends, not the property of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We regret his decision, of course; we wish he had chosen otherwise. But the decision to end his life was his to make.

And Ms. Carter stood by him, encouraged him, and sustained him. When Mr. Roy weakened and flagged, she offered the verbal support which kept him true to his original purpose: “I could have stopped him but I told him to get back in the car.”

Mr. Roy physically harmed no one else, and Ms. Carter seems in no way to have assisted Mr. Roy except verbally. Isn’t the pronouncement of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) perfectly fulfilled here? Wrote Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Once Mr. Roy had made his decision, Ms. Carter not only should not have interfered (for no one else was at risk), she should have encouraged him (as, allegedly, she did) in remaining resolute in his attempt at suicide.

Ms. Carter respected Mr. Roy’s autonomy. “His own good,” Mill wrote, “either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant [for interference].” Although one deeply regrets Mr. Roy’s death, one ought to recognize Ms. Carter as a champion of autonomy and as a true friend, one willing to put herself at the risk of legal action and of moral opprobrium in bolstering Mr. Roy at a critical time. Quite simply, Mr. Roy exercised his human right to end his life when and how he chose to, and Ms. Carter cheered him on and verbally assisted him.

This kind of “reasoning,” and similar versions, are, of course, monstrously evil. But we live at a time and in a place in which evil has little or no objective meaning. Defining it, as the dictionary does, as something “profoundly immoral and malevolent,” is of little value when society enthrones subjectivism—whatever I choose must be right as long as I don’t harm others—as moral king (cf. CCC #1860).

Self-murder is always wrong. The profound and absolute truth of divine ownership was ignored or abandoned in this tragic suicide: “You do not belong to yourselves but to God” (1 Cor. 6:19, 7:23; Psalm 24:1, Rom. 14:8). When, exactly, did we forget that what is moral vice must never become civil right and that the foundation of genuine civil right is always moral virtue (Prov. 14:34)?

John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” is founded on the ethically impoverished notion that we are utterly and exclusively our own. That is grievously mistaken. Mr. Roy’s tragic death is deeply felt by his family, by his friends, and, in fact, by all of us who regret the loss of his life and all that his longer years might have achieved.

Ms. Carter very probably never heard of the concept of “cooperation with evil,” which is the help one gives to another in the commission of what is corrupt or vicious or immoral. There are different kinds of cooperation with evil (such as formal and material and their subdivisions), but all are grounded in the teaching that, as it is never right to do wrong, neither is it ever right to counsel or commend or consent to sin (cf. Rom. 3:8; CCC #2282).

In 1997, the American physician Leon Kass wrote, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” A feeling of repugnance, about which Dr. Kass was writing, is not sufficient for any moral system, but maybe it is necessary. Does not the behavior of Ms. Carter cause us to shudder? To tremble at the evil of her brutal words? To be appalled by and to denounce her grotesque cooperation with evil?

Or have we descended so far into the pit of what is barbaric that we can no longer differentiate what is decent from what is monstrous, that we can no longer distinguish between the sacred and the cesspool, that we can no longer decide between what is saintly and what is diabolical? Have we at long last reached the point at which we too plead, with Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou my Good”?

In the months ahead, perhaps only in the anonymity of private conversation or in the progressive lairs of college “safe spaces,” we may hear more about Ms. Carter’s “moral courage” or about her willingness to support “autonomy” and “self-direction.” If and when you hear such lies, shudder—and then remember Sirach: “You can lose all your self-respect by being reluctant to speak up in the presence of stupidity” (Sir. 20:22).

Pray for Ms. Carter. Pray for the repose of Mr. Roy’s soul. Pray for us all.

(Photo credit: Fox News)

Deacon James H. Toner

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Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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