Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

February 2, 2008

Obligations to the Dead

by @ 2:04 PM. Filed under Autonomy, BioLibri, General, Personhood, Theory

There’s an interesting article by Ron Rosenbaum, in Slate, regarding the fate of Vladmir Nabokov’s final, unfinished manuscript.

Nabokov left a manuscript on index cards, apparently totaling about 30 pages’ worth of text, for an unfinished book titled The Original of Laura. No one outside his family knows what is in the text, or what the title means. Nabokov left unambiguous instructions, at the time of his death, that the manuscript was to be destroyed without publication. This jibes with ideas he expressed elsewhere about refusing to publish imperfect works. His wife, the legendary (infamous?) Vera Nabokov, was his literary executor; she indicated she would follow his wishes but never got around to destroying the cards. When she died in 1991, the cards, and Nabokov’s imprecation, fell to his son Dimitri, who has otherwise actively defended his father’s literary legacy. Dimitri has indicated that he is ambivalent about destroying the work, but is apparently leaning in the direction of carrying out his father’s wishes. Rosenbaum has corresponded with Dimitri over the years, encouraging him to publish the material; in his Slate article, he broadcasts a call for input from readers, promising to forward the best responses to Dimitri, who is apparently finally nearing a decision.

Well. By itself all very interesting, no doubt, and arguably very thinly connected to bioethics by way of Nabokov’s background in biology. (Rosenbaum even tries to link Nabokov’s Laura to Petrarch’s Laura by way of a bird image in the latter and one of Nabokov’s ubiquitous butterfly images in Pale Fire; Dimitri scoffs at this.) But it really doesn’t seem to be an immediate issue in bioethics itself. Or is it?

Rosenbaum and Dimitri Nabokov both seem deeply conflicted by competing obligations of artistry, as it were: respecting Nabokov’s wishes as an artist vs. giving the world its last best look at the scope and breadth of his talent. (Dimitri has upped the ante by suggesting that Laura is simultaneously a “distillation” of Nabokov’s body of work and “a brilliant, original, and potentially totally radical book”.) Dimitri is further conflicted by his feeling that his father’s work has been mistreated by ignorant critics in the past: he thus faces the question whether publishing a partial manuscript his father wanted destroyed would correct or exacerbate that problem; there is also his filial duty to follow instructions. Rosenbaum addresses the question of the artistic standing of Nabokov’s work, and its relevance to this decision, in an insightful passage:

Does it matter what V.N. would feel, since he’s long dead? Do we owe no respect to his last wishes because we greedily want some “key” to his work, or just more of it for our own selfish reasons? Does the lust for aesthetic beauty always allow us to rationalize trampling on the artist’s grave? Does the greatness of an artist diminish his right to dispose of his own unfinished work?

I think this focus on artistic legacy misses the central point, however. The real question, as in so many disputes over conflicting wishes or values, is, I think, the familiar one: “who decides?” And that makes this dispute relevant to bioethics in a vital way. If there is a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of whose decisions should be determinative, and an answer that carries compelling or overwhelming moral force, then the questions of artistic intent and value fall by the wayside. If Nabokov has a moral claim to dispense with his own literary legacy entirely as he sees fit – a claim that is compulsory upon others even after his death – then it doesn’t matter how good this work might be, or how helpful in illuminating Nabokov’s other works. If, on the other hand, one has no moral claims that extend beyond death, or no interests that survive, and can potentially be harmed, after death, then the issue becomes one of prudential decision-making, or perhaps personal obligation, on the part of Nabokov’s executors, and only then does the issue of artistic merit enter into consideration.

Problems such as this arise whenever the handling of controversial legacies comes up (eccentrics who leave a fortune to their cats, for instance), but they are perennial in bioethics, which treats of issues that approach and cross the threshold between life and death. Organ donation, termination of life support, the definition of death, and other such borderland issues often generate conflict between the expressed wishes of the dying or dead and the perceptions and preferences of others left behind to carry out those wishes. While prudential and other values can be conscripted on both sides of such arguments, to the effect that one or the other resolution would be a good thing, autonomy as a trumping power overrides such considerations if autonomy is the controlling value in enacting the wishes of agents who no longer exist as autonomous persons. (That is, it is understood in this discussion that the decisions in question are ones of which the agent’s autonomy would unquestionably be determinative while the agent was alive: you can certainly agree to donate your own [non-vital] organs without interference by others, while you are alive; you can spend as much money as you like on your cats, while you are alive; Nabokov would have had an absolute right to destroy his own manuscript, while he was alive. The question is whether those powers or rights persist beyond death, such that others who agree to accept the responsibility for carrying out one’s wishes after death must thereby agree to carry them out in full and without modification.)

From this perspective, the discussion of Dimitri Nabokov’s dilemma, or of the benefits of either preserving or destroying Vladimir Nabokov’s last work, is premature. It doesn’t matter what Dimitri wants to do, or how valuable that manuscript might be, if Vladimir’s wish that it be destroyed commands the same moral force after his death as that same wish would before his death. That is the question that must be resolved, not only to decide the fate of Nabokov’s Laura, but of so many issues involving the death-transcending desires of the dead and dying.

Often, among the last conscious acts of an elderly or dying person is to “get their affairs in order” – including by expressing their wishes for the disposition of various worldly concerns at the time of or after their deaths. One of the strongest arguments in favor of a persistent interest in the affairs of one’s lifetime, after death, is that much of our lives is shaped by our expectations that those interests will be respected and our postvital wishes will be carried out. Traducing the interests of the living as soon as they are dead may not be a morally-neutral act: though it does not affect the dead directly, it, arguably, retroactively ruins their previous lives by emptying or dismissing the goals and projects that gave those lives purpose, and in some way perhaps steals the products of their lives (whether monetary or otherwise) by diverting them to ends not chosen by the decedent themselves but by others after the fact. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the dead themselves will never know this, and so never be anguished by it. Either way, it is a non-trivial issue, and, as the Nabokov case, and the medical cases, show, one that has considerable practical implications.

I’ll leave the argument at this point. I confess to always having been ambivalent about its resolution. Perhaps my vast readership may have some input?

5 Responses to “Obligations to the Dead”

  1. Richard Says:

    I don’t think death makes any difference here. But I also think it’s an open question whether one would be obliged to follow his wishes and destroy the manuscript even were he still alive. (One might instead hide it, secretly preserved so that he would “never know this, and so never be anguished by it.” The case for this course of action seems no less strong while the artist lives still.)

    That’s not to deny that “Nabokov would have had an absolute right to destroy his own manuscript“. Rather, the question is whether he has the moral authority to put others under an obligation to destroy his manuscript.

  2. Brooklynite Says:

    It doesn’t matter what Dimitri wants to do, or how valuable that manuscript might be, if Vladimir’s wish that it be destroyed commands the same moral force after his death as that same wish would before his death.

    An interesting way of putting it. It does seem to me, though, that one crucial distinction between the living and the dead is that the latter have for the most part lost their capacity to compel through non-moral mechanisms.

    Imagine that VN is not dead but bedridden and terminally ill. He tells his son where his final manuscript is kept, and requests that he destroy it. Is it impossible to imagine that Dimitri might be ambivalent — morally ambivalent — about whether to carry out the request?

    It’s not an easy question for me. I can imagine being torn in either case — whether the request came from someone recently dead or someone who was about to die.

  3. Kevin T. Keith Says:


    Thanks for your input.

    Do you really think it would be kosher to hide someone else’s artwork, with the intent of reproducing it later against their wishes, just as long as they don’t know it? Presumably it would be wrong to do so if they did know it, right? It would be wrong to steal it out of the artist’s hands and take it away to prevent it being burned, if the artist had chosen to do so – yes? (That is, you’re not making an argument for some kind of absolute moral value inherent in art, such that not even the artist has the right to destroy it.) If so, then the only point in favor of your scenario is that the person doesn’t know this is happening.

    Now, unfelt harms are a traditional theoretical difficulty for strict consequentialists, but aside from that perspective – which still may not authorize what you’re suggesting – we generally hold that you may not do something to someone secretly that you may not do to them with their knowledge. That is, we hold that actions or events that would entail harm to a person, with their knowledge, entail a similar harm when they are undertaken secretly. The reason obviously presupposes that there are unfelt harms – that you can be harmed even if you’re not aware of it. And if that is so, then the same actions would seem to be harmful to a person whether they are merely unaware or dead, since the argument against their being harmful – that the person cannot know of the harm – is the same in both cases, and is mooted in both cases by the postulate of unfelt harms.

    As to the question of authority over others to compel them to follow your wishes, of course there is no such authority in absolute terms. But I am inclined to suspect that if that person does have an obligation to follow your wishes for whatever reason – they are an official executor of your will; they are your son; they are your medical proxy acting under your advance directive; etc. – then they are obligated to follow those wishes whether or not they personally approve. And that compulsion flows from the obligation between the parties, not from any sort of inherent moral quality in the act being compelled. (That is, if Dimitri Nabokov is required, as son and literary executor of Vladimir Nabokov, to destroy his father’s manuscript, it is because he is obligated as son and executor and has been directed to do so, and not for any reason having to do with the literary quality of the manuscript, its scholarly importance, or what have you.)


    Thanks also.

    I’m sure you’re right that the dead have much less practical force to encourage compliance with their wishes: they can’t keep nagging you at the dinner table, they can’t threaten to complain to your spouse, and so on – if that’s what you meant. But that just sharpens the horns of the moral dilemma. If it’s wrong to act against another’s wishes (because they have a right to expect those wishes to be carried out), it’s in some way even more wrong, or at least more poignant, to do so when they can’t fight back. That increases the urgency of the need to get the decision whether or not to follow those wishes right – you’d not only fall into mistake, but be a right bastard in doing so, if you get it wrong.

    As to the difference between a request from the dying and a request from the dead, it’s surely possible Dimitri would feel reluctant to carry out his father’s command while his father was still alive, but I’m not sure what you mean in asking if he’d be morally ambivalent about it. If that’s a question about Dimitri’s psychology or reasoning processes, I can’t know the answer. If you mean that you think it is to some degree an open question whether there is a moral obligation to carry out such requests from a living person, I don’t know why that would be. I take it as given that Vladimir has almost absolute authority to destroy the manuscript himself, if he chooses – that is, that if someone saw him doing so and tried to stop him, they would be in the wrong, and others would be morally justified in stepping in to stop the interference and help Vladimir succeed in destroying his own work. If that’s true, it seems to me he has an equal expectation that his wishes will be carried out for him, by anyone whose job it is to carry out orders for him (a servant, an employee, a son, or whoever). If you order your valet to bring you the blue trousers, there is absolutely no reason the valet should say “Oh, I just can’t stand the blue trousers! I’ll bring you the brown ones.” (This accounts for most of the humor in the Jeeves & Wooster stories.) Similarly, if you order your valet to destroy the only manuscript of your latest novel awaited by an adoring public, it matters not at all what the valet’s personal literary opinions might happen to be. It is not a valet’s job to second-guess the employer’s decisions – only to carry them out. There are limits, of course – the valet (or son, or spouse, or executor . . .) must refuse orders that are clearly immoral in themselves, but we have already stipulated that Nabokov has a right to destroy his own work if he chooses. Possibly his servants have a right not to participate in anything they consider offensive (but see below), but I can’t see how they would have a right to countervail that order entirely on their own initiative.

    The conversation seems to have drifted away from organ donations and living wills, which I considered the closest medical parallels, and into the refusal by licensed pharmacists to sell birth control or “morning-after” medication to patients they disapprove of. Perhaps that is a useful analogy, at least in the “living requester” scenario.

  4. Richard Says:

    Kevin – I agree that there can be unfelt (and even posthumous) harms. But it’s not clear to me that failing to destroy one’s artwork will necessarily qualify as such. (It depends on the judgment one’s idealized self would make: possibly, the fully informed and rational VN+ would prefer VN’s actual whim to be disregarded, and the masterpiece preserved.)

    But harm is not the issue, for even if we suppose that it really would be a harm to VN, this might be outweighed by the benefits to others, or even by the aesthetic value of the art. It’s an open question to a consequentialist.

    Instead, you propose a deontological constraint: even if it would make the world better to preserve the artwork, nonetheless we are obliged to respect an artist’s wishes regarding the disposal of their artistic property.

    I would grant this as a prima facie duty, since such liberties will generally serve to promote the good. But any rule is subject to exceptions. On very rare occasions, if the value of the artwork is great enough, I think it could – potentially – be permissible to snatch it away from the destructive artist. It depends on the details of the situation.

  5. GNZ Says:

    I wonder if lets say you created the art at t1 and then you decided you did not like it at t2 if it is valid to consider you at t2 to overrule you at t1 if for example t1 was a long period of time.
    the issue is that now you are dead there is no t3 who holds a special place as being “current you”. Should we really just ignore t1 in favour of t2?

    Of course from a concequentialist perspective Richard is right – in fact the harm done to the artist is likely to be outweighed by the value of the art to others if it was an art of the sort of significance where you stopped to think about before destroying it.

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