Sidney Hook

An Unquiet Life, Part II

VTR Date: June 6, 1987

Guest: Hook, Sidney


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sidney Hook
“An Unquiet Life”
Part II
VTR: 6/6/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Last week I began our program by characterizing man thinking — that noble Rodinesque posture — as ever the delight, the glory, of human beings… more important I noted, of being human. And as living proof, my guest was then and is again today, Sidney Hook, who for so many years at New York University dispensed wisdom, philosophy and reason… not sweet reason, to be sure, but rather tough, demanding, logical thoughtfulness that was always out of step with the intellectual rigidities of our century. Out of step with the thinking- less orthodoxies of right and left alike… making him always the man not of ritual, but of reason…agree with that reason or not.

Now Harper and Row has published his autobiography, Out of Step, and we see first-hand what an extraordinary role he has played in our times. One further note, reminding us that Senaca observed “the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can,” octogenarian Hook recently used his own near death a few years ago as an argument in defense of voluntary euthanasia. “When life”, as he wrote, “has become qualitatively unworthy of living… and argument that life for the sake of life is not much more rational than art for the sake of art, science for science’s sake, religion for religion’s sake”, and so on. “Life is indeed worth living,” he argues, “but only so long as it makes possible something more valuable than life itself.” Professor Hook, thanks for staying with me for this second program. I understand that that piece that you wrote for The New York Times, that talked about this point of voluntary euthanasia, got an incredible response.

Hook: It’s an extraordinary thing and no one was more surprised than I. I had actually written this some time ago and stumbled on it, didn’t know what to do with, sent it to The New York Times op-ed and they… later I thought of a much better idea … and called them and asked them if I could send in this new one… oh, but they wouldn’t return the one I had sent. No sooner did it get published than my mail became overwhelming and I haven’t yet caught up with it.

Heffner: Basically an approval or disapproval of the notion that we should be free when the quality of life is so low, to do away with ourselves.

Hook: It was more poignant than that. Very few people disagreed with the position I took. But most people who wrote me apparently had someone in the family who was in that condition in which I had found myself in. And they had, out of love, given everything they could to keep them alive, but then the situation would deteriorate, days be followed by weeks, and the weeks be followed by months. And people who wrote me then said they discovered that their resources were being exhausted, families were being bankrupt; they were afflicted with a sense of guilt because they knew that the end was inescapable but there was nothing that anyone could do since in most situations physicians could not assist in euthanasia, it’s forbidden bv law.

Heffner: Yet Professor Hook, you’re not a robot, you’re a vibrant, living human being, you were wrong in wanting an end at that time. You were just plain wrong, weren’t you?

Hook: Oh, my dear sir. If you had been in the position that I was in at the time and calculating the probabilities, then I think you would come to the conclusion that my judgment was rational, but it was mistaken. Of course, if I had known that my paralysis would be over in six months, if I had known that my agonies wouldn’t last more than a few days, I might have made another decision. But I thought I had paid my dues to death, I had imposed hardships upon my wife and children and I knew that I could go through this again.


Hook: And many people have said to me , “well, isn’t there something… by writing this?” My answer is there really isn’t anything inconsistent. Suppose you are lost, and you find yourself at a crossroads and you know that one road will take you to safety and another road will take you somewhere else. Now you have to make a decision on the basis of the available evidence. And you follow the available evidence and you choose mistakenly. But what you would say is this, most of the time if you follow the evidence, you will choose correctly, but sometimes, even when you follow the evidence, you make a mistake.

Heffner: But, of course, when I said you were wrong, I didn’t mean you were wrong morally, it was your judgment as you suggest that was wrong. Now how do you, having lived through, and it’s a fascinating phrase, having lived through that experience, how would you codify it? How would you make it the basis for social action?

Hook: I would codify it by making available what is now available, a Living Will. And authorizing medical authorities to use their judgment when they think the sick person in question has reached the stage where his condition is irreversible. And the end is inescapable and…

Heffner: As inescapable as it was in your instance?

Hook: No, inescapable in terms of their predictions. Now again you see, you’re anticipating that I’m going to recover.

Heffner: By gosh, you did. Here you are.

Hook: Yes, yes. But that’s one chance out of how… maybe a thousand… maybe that a man in its last stage of terminal cancer who’s writhing in agony, he might recover, but most of the time he will not. And therefore, to me, it’s just a matter of humanity.

Heffner: Well, the last program that we did together, we ended up, I asked you how you would bet about certain things. I’ll ask you how you will bet about this. Do you think that the piece you wrote for The New York Times, do you think your experience, do you think the response to it, is going to favorably dispose people to your basic position or not?

Hook: Yes. Yes. I have evidence that the likelihood of an elightened policy has been increased by what I wrote. In the State of California, now, there is a proposal before the Electorate to authorize physicians when they have received a voluntary request from the patient or the family if the patient is in no condition to make that request, to assist in easing him or her out of the world, without pain. Now that is going to be on the ballot, if they get enough signatures. Now today, as you know; there are no laws against suicide. There used to be laws against suicide in the State of New York and elsewhere, which is very foolish because the law said if you tried to end your life, if you don’t succeed, we’ll send you to jail, so you better make a good job of it. But there is a law against assisted suicides. Now the piece of legislation which I am favoring, as well as the Hemlock Society and the Society for the Right to Die, would permit physicians to assist people in extreme situations to leave this world, without enduring continuous pain.


Heffner: I can only say, Professor Hook, that I’m glad that your extreme situation, as bad as it was, did not convince anyone at the time to let you have your way, because you’re here now.

Hook: Well you underestimate my emphasis on voluntary euthanasia. And my case may have been an exceptional case, but I am also told that many physicians out of sheer benevolence and humanity, sometimes help individuals who are in the last stages of emphysema, which is a terrible way to die or in the last stages of cancer, by prescribing an overdose of drugs. And they do it with some discretion, it’s very difficult. They cannot do it openly, they cannot do it legally. But all I am doing is really making a plea for a humane approach to human suffering.

Heffner: Okay, I need to go on to other points here. But it has to do with what you’re talking about. You say here in this wonderful book, “there are some individuals of whom it would not be unjust or even unkind, to say that they had outlived themselves.” Now I know you’re talking, in a sense, about Bertrand Russell here in terms of his intellectual involvements later in his life. I wondered whether on the public scene today, if you were thinking about individuals who have outlived their usefulness.

Hook: No. When I used that phrase I was only thinking of individuals who have reached the pinnacle of achievement, who hadn’t recognized that they had reached the pinnacle of achievement. And who had become transformed into boors and who no longer commanded our admiration and therefore, we could say, “it’s too bad that they still insist upon repeating what they’ve done”.

Heffner: Is that a hazard of intellectuals, essentially?

Hook: Well there are sometimes… it would be too cruel to characterize any individual of whom I think that were true. But this had nothing to do with the question of euthanasia, this is only a question …

Heffner: I understand.

Hook: …of being a character on the public scene. It’s as if someone who was once a great actor refused to recognize that his acting days are over. And who in his dottering senility was still insisting upon playing the part of Hamlet. Then we would say, “isn’t it a pity that he doesn’t know that his acting days are over?” And we would encourage him to retire to some home where he would enjoy life. All we’re saying is that he is mistaken in his continued vocation.

Heffner: Of course, in this instance, you were referring, as I say, to Bertrand Russell. But throughout this book there is a kind of, well, what should I say, it’s so hard looking at you, meanness of spirit, but my gosh, I think of the programs I’ve done with Ed Koch, when he’s written books and to be his enemy or to be an object of his scorn is quite something. Now he’s in political life, you’re not and yet you’re rather unrestrained in your critisism of individuals.

Hook: There’s a line in Shakespeare, I’m not sure I have it right, I think it’s out of A Merchant of Venice, “the villiany you teach me, I shall execute and it shall go hard and I shall better the instruction.”

Heffner: Stay out of my way, I’m going to get even?


Hook: No. No. I’m not going to pick a quarrel with you, but if you pick a quarrel with me, I’m not going to lie down and let you walk over me. I’m going to do my best to return your fire. And if you be guilty of an injustice to someone else, and I think that your action has not received its proper recognition and criticism, I will undertake to do it, if it involves a cause which is dear to my heart. If I meet someone who defended the Moscow trials and has never recognized that those trials were a betrayal of the truth, and acknowledged by Kruschev and the Russians themselves, I will ask him, “do you still hold your point of view?” If I meet someone who would denounce John Dewey and me as fascists and friends of fascists because we characterize the Soviet Union as a totalitarian power in 1939 and who is given an opportunity to withdraw his characterization, as a result of a letter that Dewey had sent him, refused to do so, I would ask, “what’s your position today?” And if he tells me, “oh, I’ve changed my mind about the Moscow trials,” I would say, “oh, I’m so happy to hear it. On the basis of what evidence? Did you have any more evidence today than the evidence that we supplied in 1940 when you made that remark?” No, I think it doesn’t show persecutory zeal, it’s simply a demand to establish the historical truth.

Heffner: But there is zeal there and I see it in the smile on your face, too when you talk about it.

Hook: If you mean to imply that I do not accept the Sermon on the Mount literally, namely, that if someone smithes me on one cheek, I’m not going to turn to him the other. In fact, I can understand a man who will forgive a slight and an injury, maybe a saint-like character, but I cannot understand a man who will forgive a slight, an injury to others… he’s prepared to forgive others.

Heffner: Fair enough. Now in terms of these slights and injuries of a political or an international political, philosophical level… are we talking about innocence generally? Or are we talking about people who purposefully permitted themselves to be hoodwinked, fooled, whatever? Are we talking about agents?

Hook: One cannot generalize about people in that way. But let me make it clear in relation to some of the things that I’ve written in my book. That although I’ve been very critical of Communists, I regard Communism, originally, as a disease of idealism. I believe people who have been drawn to the Communist idea, have drawn to it in virtue of its promises of a better world. But what I discovered is that when an individual was drawn to that ideal and remained faithful to it and defended the actions and practices of the Soviet Union in all of its forms of behavior, then I discovered that they lost their idealism, they became transformed, they became cynical. For example, after the people who joined the Popular Front, which the Communists organized in opposition to Hitler, then became the Nazi Soviet Pact, where Stalin and Hitler embraced each other. And at that point, if they still followed the Soviet Union, then I never gave them credit for idealism. Especially when it became known that Stalin turned over to Hitler the German Jewish Communists who had fled Germany when Hitler came to power to the presumed safety of the Soviet Union. And after that pact, Stalin turned them over to the Soviet Union. How could anybody then still defend the Soviet Union?

Heffner: You know it… I was very much interested in the point that you make in your book that those who moved to Communism out of idealism rather than out of a sense of economic need, those who moved towards Communism when it was a question of idealism in the early part of this century, rather than those who turned to Communism after the Depression or during the Depression here, remained idealists and, I would gather, you would say, they were Socialists. Well the others were not, the others were much more hard-boiled.


Hook: It depends. If they joined the Communist Party and remained, then they became operatives and they certainly were not idealists. But remember that the leaders of all Socialist, even Communist, movements were individuals who came from the strata of society that is more middle-class, very few workers, actually. The leaders of the working class movement, beginning with Marx, himself, you know there was great difficulty and Manifesto Marx says that it is not “consciousness that determines existence, but social existence determine consciousness.” Well, that may be true for some large classes, but doesn’t explain the behavior of Marx himself, of Engels, who lived on the surface value which is father sweated out of the English proletariat.

Heffner: You weren’t that critical at the beginning, however.

Hook: No. Well, I knew there was a theoretical difficulty. See, that’s a theoretical difficulty in Marxism, namely his failure to recognize that there are certain ideals that are independent of class origins. But you could not account for the idealism of the leaders of revolt against their own society in terms of economic class interests. Or in terms of the mode of economic production.

Heffner: You consider yourself, still a determinist?

Hook: No, I … after all, I’m the author of a book called The Hero in History which examines the relationship between environmental conditions and individual action. And I’m a pluralist in reference to causation so that I would say that I believe that every event has a cause. But the juxtapostion of different events cannot be accounted for in terms of a law. I’ll give you a specific illustration: In my book, The Hero in History, I offer, I think, the first historical analysis of the conclusion that if it hadn’t been for Lenin, there wouldn’t have been an October Revolution. Now that runs counter to the main thesis of historic materialism which asserts that all the great events of history are merely…

Heffner: Inevitables.

Hook: No. Are merely functions of the development of the mode of economic production. The triumph of Communism in the Soviet Union had less to do with a mode of economic production than it had with the remarkable leadership of Lenin. Now originally Trotsky, who disagreed with my point of view, thought or was prepared to say that if Lenin hadn’t lived, someone else would have taken his place. He implied that he might have taken his place.

Heffner: Don’t you think that’s true?

Hook: No, because Trotsky goes one subsequently to admit that he could never have led the Bolshevik Party, he was a Menshevik until the very last days. And the members of the Bolshevik Party detested him. He would never have been able to lead them to the conquest of power if Lenin hadn’t been on the scene.

Heffner: When you talk about leadership.

Hook: Yeah?

Heffner: When you talk about the role of the heroes in your book, still in Out of Step you write, “although I have puzzled over the problems concerning the nature and nurture of moral courage, and you might say of the development of the hero, I am not satisfied that I have found any adequate answers to them, nor as far as I know, has anyone else.”

Hook: Well, that’s in reference to another problem I, for many years, following my teacher, John Dewey, have believed that intelligence is the fundamental value because it is the judge of its own limitations. Every other value, whether its love or health or whatnot, can be carried to excess. Only intelligence knows what its own limits are. To quote Santayana, “is not reason… to be only wise?” But during the ‘60s I made a shocking discovery. I discovered that human beings who were as intelligent as I, and sometimes even more intelligent, lacked the moral courage to defend the convictions that they held. When facing rioting students, they would say to me, “oh privately we agree with you, but publicly we cannot.”


Heffner: But the important thing there is how do you? And that’s your question. And how do you nurture it?

Hook: I must confess there are some problems I do not know the answer to. I do know this, that moral courage without intelligence, can lead to barbarism. Followers of Ayatollah Khomeni and other fundamentalists, they have moral courage and physical courage. And without intelligence, you get barbarism. But intelligence by itself is not enough, you have to have intelligence and moral courage, too. Now my teachers had that. Morris Cohen, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, they assumed that if you had convictions you spoke up for it. Even if it made you unpopular. But then to discover so many of my colleagues were trembling out of fear that they would be criticized even in the student newpapers. Trembling that they would be in a minority or that some people may not enroll in their courses, that took me by surprise and I haven’t recovered from the shock of the ‘60’s in seeing people whom I… whose intelligence I respected in their specialized discipline, but whose civil virtue and moral courage…

Heffner: Civic virtue and moral courage lead me still to say our time is up. You’ll have to come back and discuss that issue again. Thank you Sidney Hook.

Hook: All right.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.