I have always thought that it is unethical to make someone old question their faith, how old they are and how close to death they are is obviously subjective. My 'belief' has always been that in old age, sickness can be a terrible time and faith can be a real comfort. I have no reason to question that, but I would be interested to hear other opinions on the matter.

Just to state the obvious, if you are a committed Christian (for example) and they are a Jew/Muslim then you might believe that by converting them to your faith you are in fact helping them, a priest trying to save a condemned man's soul for example, but if you are an Atheist or Agnostic?


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    Please correct the last sentence. It doesn't make sense. I have no idea what you are asking there. What is "you are going to have go" supposed to mean? – gnasher729 Oct 4 '14 at 23:46
  • Can you give us some idea of what you think ethics is (are we to understand "ethics" as utilitiarians, Kantians, Rastafarians?) – virmaior Oct 5 '14 at 1:35
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    Rephrased, and ethics I'm taking as the dictionary definition, "a branch of philosophy that involves ... concepts of right and wrong conduct" – tony Oct 5 '14 at 9:04
  • In that case, your question is too broad. – virmaior Oct 5 '14 at 14:19
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    @virmaior I don't think so. We have dozens of answers doing the "Kant said,... so he would say 'yes'. Mill said,... so he would say 'no'"-walk ("Is it unethical to donate unhealthy food?" comes to mind). "Can we proof reality?" is a subject, where there are different schools of thought too - and it fills books! – Einer Oct 5 '14 at 14:35

I'm going to suggest two answers here or rather one particular answer and one means of analyzing more generally whether the behavior is appropriate.

For some religious perspectives in ethics, the answer is going to be a clear yes. The stakes would be heaven and hell (or equivalent concepts), and the value of autonomy / full rationality / comfort is not going to outweigh that. This type of answer might also be shared by Kantians depending on the particular strain of Kantianism (here, the question is going to be the nature of the "reason" in question -- on my reading, Kantians should try to help people to think rationally to the end. Some others, say perhaps Christine Korsgaard, would seem to give more wiggle room).

Viewed as a generic philosophical problem for utilitarians and consequentialists, this is a weighing problem. First, you need to calculate the cost of ignorance. Second, the damage done in removing the ignorance. Third, you may need to modify the second by accounting for the potential failure of the damaging attempt to persuade. Fourth, you need to incorporate the probability that you are mistaken in what are trying to persuade about (i.e. the degree of confidence that concerns the claims at hand).

So, it's easy to think of a lot of different possibilities depending on the scale of the error you are trying to correct and the damage it will already cause, the damage that occurs from trying to remove it, etc. So, it does not seem an Atheist is much motivated to convince Aunt Ethel who will die within the week from cancer to stop believing in God merely because it's an ignorant belief (high potential for failure, high cost to remove belief, low damage of having belief). Conversely, it might be worthwhile to convince uncle Warren Buffett to donate his money to the best cause (say perhaps, curing all cancer on the planet) when he seems somewhat amenable to it.

Those are at least my thoughts on two approaches. They key distinguishing point is that the first set believes they have something of absolute worth they need to convince the party of whereas the second set is making a calculation of how much the organism knowing that or being convinced of that matters versus the status quo (because the change is of relative value).

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  • Nice one! I like the part of including the probability of being wrong in the calculation. In my (now moot answer) I set it to zero, but I can see your point. – Einer Oct 5 '14 at 16:34
  • This answer does not incorporate the idea of "on his/her deathbed" -- it's at least plausible that one's critical faculties (cognitive agency) are compromised in these situations, and thus the attempt at deathbed conversion might be tainted. – Dave Oct 6 '14 at 13:23
  • I'm not sure why it would matter that it is "tainted" or rather that is resolved by the following proof by dilemma. Either "tainted" (i.e. impure situation) disqualifies the act and eviscerates the idea of going for a deathbed viewpoint change OR "tainted" does not disqualify the act and thus does not qualify the act. The dilemma repeats in the calculations of the second half -- degree of taintedness and degree of impact of this merely make the calculation more complicated. – virmaior Oct 6 '14 at 14:01
  • It matters because it makes the calculation more complicated. Maybe I was too brusque; my intent was to point out that incorporating this feature into your answer would (imho) make it stronger. – Dave Oct 6 '14 at 19:43
  • I think the concern actually self dissipates or rather it turns out to be mostly an external concern that's the main reason why I'm a little resistant to adding it, because it's mostly something we would object to from the outside rather than a material element in anyone's own moral calculus. – virmaior Oct 7 '14 at 0:01

As an older person (death haunts you more as you get older) I can tell you that the last person one wants on their deathbed is some crazy person who thinks they are going to save you - it is not only very unethical, it is immoral. I have been with people at their deathbed and shortly before their deathbed. If you want to do anything, just tell them to make peace with their God, or pray to your own God silently on their behalf. They gather their own strength and peace of mind from your silent prayer.

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A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a restaurant....

... and find someone dying on the floor.

You see the problem straight away - if you have a one-on-one situation, then I can see that your question seems debatable. But there's more than one faith and many will insist they're exclusively the one to go for. Incidentally I'm not really changing the question here because in your case there are two people, potentially of their own differing faith. Who'se to say the dying person doesn't convert the well one's mind ?

Also the 'close to death' part is only just relevant, in that it lends gravity to the situation, but the same question applies to well people who aren't so close to death.

I'd say the ethics are in a sense subjective: From each individual's point of view (the ones doing the persuading), they think they're doing the 'right thing' by persuading the dying person to go with their faith, for example to save them from hell (or equivalent). This assumes that these people put this notion of saving someone from the 'wrong faith' above the ethical ranking of allowing someone to be what they are.

I should make the point that this is about "having a faith A versus faith B", the point being a change from one to the other, not which way or what you end up with.

From the group point of view, or an independent (atheist?) observer, or the person on the floor, each argument to change to a given faith is cancelled by any argument to change to any other faith. I'd imagine this would make the circumstances almost laughably irrelevant.

So back to the persuading individual's point of view: Is this ethical ?

No, because objectively, there's no discernable value in one faith over another, and so there's no value in changing someone's mind. It would just amount to a person asserting their own belief on someone else.

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This has nothing to do with religion - if someone is old and sick, and you are healthy and strong, then using your strength against their weakness to try to change the person's mind on any subject is unethical.

There is a place and a time for everything. If you want to discuss religion with people, discuss it with people who can tell you to shut up and go away, or don't discuss it. I can't imagine anything more painful than being old and sick and some obnoxious idiot not leaving me in peace.

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    but then the key question would be what qualifies as "against their weakness" so this is really just a rephrasing of the question. – virmaior Oct 5 '14 at 3:05
  • The poster quite explicitely stated that they wanted to affect what someone close to their deathbed is believing. Excuse me, but if anyone tried to argue with me when I'm old and close to dying, I'd hope my relatives or someone else would get rid of them, any way possible. – gnasher729 Oct 5 '14 at 21:00
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    Would it be wise or ethical to allow an Atheist ( who wants to promote Atheism to ANYBODY who might listen; regardless of the situation their in) to go into a terminal ward of a hospital ( if the hospital allowed it) and promote Atheism ( possibly saying there is no after-life so you won't feel any pain.)?? – user128932 Oct 6 '14 at 20:45
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    Anyone who promotes atheism isn't an atheist. Anyone promoting anything (religion, atheism, double-glazed windows) in a terminal ward of a hospital should be forcefully removed, and the staff allowing it be fired. – gnasher729 Oct 7 '14 at 16:11

If by "make" you mean imposing a conversation on someone that they don't want to have, than I would say yes, it's unethical to force an elderly person to listen to you talk about religion or anything else. To barge into a dying persons room and insist on talking about things they don't want to talk about is definitely unethical.

But outside of the implied use of force, I would say no. Suppose I am talking to an elderly person of of sound mind who might die "soon", soon being "sooner than I am". This person knows I don't follow their religion and asks me what I believe, and we have a conversation about this. It isn't unethical for me to answer questions honestly and make points cogently if the other party is interested and engaged in the conversation, regardless of the subject matter. An old person is an adult and perfectly capable of deciding what they do and do not want to talk about.

This is true of people on their deathbeds as well, provided they aren't on massive doses of painkillers or otherwise incapacitated.

So really, it depends on who started this conversation and how sound of mind they are at the time. A dying person only has so much time, and they can decide how they want to spend it. If you decide for them, that's not ethical--their time is pretty valuable and you're just wasting it.

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