Last week The Atlantic published the article “Why I Hope to Die by 75” by Ezekiel Emanuel, a former adviser to President Obama on health care and one of the primary designers of the Affordable Care Act. In it, Emanuel outlines his reasons for deciding he will no longer accept most kinds of medical treatment when he reaches age 75. Chief among those reasons is his conclusion that once someone starts to slow down in his mind and body the value of his life begins to decrease, along with the motivation for prolonging it. It is a tragically utilitarian view of life that equates worth with productivity.
Not surprisingly, there has been an onslaught of responses pointing out the flaws in Emanuel’s argument, in particular challenging his claim that as a person ages the chance of his making a meaningful contribution to society substantially declines while the likelihood of his being a burden to someone increases. Many exceptions to that rule have been pointed out: Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Franklin, Sophocles, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. It is a good point, and an accurate one. But those who attempt to refute Emanuel’s argument by providing counter-examples to some extent buy into his premise that worth comes from accomplishment and overlook the truth that sometimes the greatest contribution one can make is that borne of weakness.