22 June 2016
We couldn’t think of a more apt title for director Thea Sherrock’s film Me Before You. Various sources had decried it as promoting assisted suicide (here and here) and disability groups have their own critical reactions (here and here). Neither negative stance is incorrect but neither gets to the heart of the moral abyss that sits at the core of this film.
Based on a novel and screenplay by JoJo Moyes, the plot of Me Before You begins with a flashback of Will Traynor, apparently something of a vulture capitalist, who is struck by a motorcycle and rendered a quadriplegic. The film quickly switches to a perky sweet thing, Lou Clark, who loses her job as a waitress. The loss of Lou’s income throws her extended family into financial distress so she takes a job as one of Traynor’s caregivers.
By this point Traynor has given up hope for recovering any of his motor skills beyond moving two fingers with which he controls his electric wheelchair. Bitter at the loss of his physical prowess, Traynor has already tried to take his own life. His initial failure is followed by a decision to go to a death clinic in Switzerland but his mother persuades him to wait six months before letting someone else kill him.
Lou eventually breaks through Traynor’s icy bitterness and, once she learns of his decision to die, does all she can to demonstrate the wonder of life, family, and friendship. Indeed, Lou falls in love with Traynor and, so it appears, he with her. Nonetheless, a man of his word, Traynor goes through with his assisted suicide.
Me Before You is an adept portrayal of the vacuum of the contemporary moral universe. The only “moral good” is autonomy, although why autonomy is good goes unexamined. On the film’s terms, Traynor’s self-centered but freely chosen decision to end his life cannot be criticized. When there is no good except that to which consent is given there is nothing—love of family and friends or the beauty of the world or the possibility of a years of valuable service—that can or even should be counted against what the will freely choses. There is, in other words, no moral law.
Which raises the question, why should we care about autonomy? Why should autonomy be prized if there is no moral law that supplies the “oughtness” that makes autonomy a good? One might suppose an answer: that human beings have an inherent, if inexplicable, moral sense that requires that there be some standard of right and wrong, even one as deracinated as autonomy. Rather thin gruel for a well-nourished moral life, and one which will quickly succumb to a vigorous utilitarianism in due course. “Encouraged” suicide, anyone?
Me before you is no better or worse than you before me so long as “me” chooses.
Easy evidence of self über alles can be found in the current American presidential contest. Even though few of his supporters have the will or the means to live in disregard of the interests of others, Donald Trump is the avatar of the (psycho)logical end of ethical autonomy.
Perhaps, though, there are examples of the valorization of ethical autonomy closer to home. Hardly a week goes by when I do not evaluate a moral decision in terms of my self-identified rights. “The heart is deceitful above all things,” the Preacher wrote, and the desire for autonomy has never been far from the fallen human heart. While relatively few put our “me” as far before our collective “yous” as did Will Traynor, many of us live closer to the line than we’d care to think. And, when pressed to justify our own atrophied moral sense, how many could provide much more than autonomy with a thin Christianized gloss to justify our decisions?