Exploring modern dilemmas with ancient wisdom
When Geetanjali Rogers graduated from high school, she was faced with a predicament that is common to many young people: she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Thus, when the time came to go to university, she chose to study as broadly as she could.
“Actually,” she says, “at first, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science, because I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I really did like science at school’. And it’s true that I enjoyed subjects like physics and maths, but it was only two days into my first semester that I went, ‘Okay, I definitely do not want to do more chemistry.”
When she approached her mother for advice, she recalls her mum saying: “Why don’t you just pick up a different subject? Any subject. Just pick one.” Geetanjali replied: “Okay, I’m going to study Ancient Greek.”
She recalls her mother looking at her as if she were crazy, but Geetanjali really enjoyed learning the language. “It was fascinating to discover how ancient languages could unlock a different way of seeing and thinking about the world.”
Geetanjali eventually opted for a double-degree in science and arts, majoring in the ‘hard’ subjects she seemed to have a natural aptitude for – physics and pure mathematics – and graduating with honours in the ‘soft’ subjects she had grown to love – philosophy and classical Greek. During that process, however, she began to lean one way more than the other.
In the summer before her honours year, Geetanjali was awarded a scholarship to work with an international physics team investigating methods of storing electricity – a rare opportunity in a crucial area of research, given the global transition to renewable energy.
“It was a great experience, but at the end of it, I realised that physics is perhaps not where my talents lie,” says Geetanjali, who went on to become a schoolteacher in maths and philosophy, later enrolling in a Master of Professional Studies of Theology at ACU to facilitate teaching religious studies.
“My thinking was, ‘Well, I could go into physics and I will be a good physicist, but this is not my calling’. I kept thinking about how, as a female, I would be potentially taking an opportunity from another scientist who could be absolutely brilliant and naturally talented. And besides, it was clear to me that my passions lay elsewhere.”
A live debate
It was during her master’s degree in theology that Geetanjali delved deeper into the subject of suffering: how it can define us as people, and change the way we see ourselves and others.
Her research into the biblical story of Job, whose experience of suffering resonates profoundly with many, together with previous engagement with the work of Australian bioethicist Peter Singer, led her to the realisation that suffering plays an important role in shaping and structuring our society.
“I was and still am really interested in understanding the nature of personhood,” she says, “and what I found is that suffering is one of those fundamental experiences that goes to the heart of what it is to be human, or more specifically, a person. It is both a moral and definitional category.”
When it came to choosing a subject for her PhD thesis, Geetanjali decided to consider the concept of suffering in the context of one of society’s most divisive ethical issues: the physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia (PAS&E) debate.
The fact that euthanasia is a live debate is important, she says, because it makes it easy to see the relevance of her research.
“It seemed like a constructive and useful way of forming a bridge between historical Christian thought and a relevant modern context,” says Geetanjali, whose PhD is provisionally titled, Reconceptualising Suffering in Physician Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Through Compassion.
“Additionally, the fact that this is a current debate creates many opportunities in terms of dialoguing with people. Whenever somebody asks, ‘What are you exploring in your PhD?’, and I tell them I am looking at euthanasia and suffering, and what compassion means in that context, people always have an opinion and they want to
say something. I think that is very helpful because it means people want to engage with your work and they think it is important. That is always very heartening, especially in theology where non-religious people tend to oppose developments or research on principle.”
Thanks partly to the unique perspective that comes with her multi-discipline background, Geetanjali’s research has the potential to shed new light on the debate.
She combines the methodical and structured approaches of scientific research with the critical and analytical methods employed by classicists and philosophers to examine the ethics of euthanasia, and how the concepts of suffering and compassion can be best understood in this context.
Central to her thesis are the ancient languages and cultures that she first became familiar with many years ago, at the beginning of her higher education journey.
“I’ve long had a soft spot for ancient languages and ancient texts because I’ve discovered that there is a lot of wisdom in there,” says Geetanjali, who is currently exploring the work of Augustine and Chrysostom – great thinkers whose writing remains relevant to modern-day issues.
“The ideas that are raised within these ancient texts can be critiqued more easily, because we are not attached to them or entrenched in them. They are framed by a different time and in a different context, but there is logic in them that holds an absolute importance and a pivotal relevance to this entire debate. End of life suffering is not a new problem.”
Geetanjali’s thesis also contains what may be the world’s first-ever comprehensive analysis of all current euthanasia laws – a painstaking project that has gleaned many insights. For example, ‘suffering’ is mentioned in the legal documentation of all 29 jurisdictions that have physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia laws, while ‘compassion’ is only mentioned in the legal documentation of six jurisdictions, despite it being a key motivational factor for the laws.
In her thesis introduction, Geetanjali states that the rationale for the introduction of laws permitting euthanasia commonly has to do with eliminating or minimising suffering.
“Often this reasoning is cited as being the only compassionate course of action,” she writes, adding that the question she poses is “not whether we should allow for euthanasia, but what compassion looks like in this scenario of unbearable suffering”.
“One of the key arguments I have come across in supporting PAS&E is the idea that if life changes for the worse, then it is no longer worth living,” Geetanjali says. “I think we need to approach that with more of an open mind and accept that things can change, for the worse or for the better. Finding ways to respond to change positively, with the support of others and with the support of community might be more helpful than limiting the definition of compassionate action to PAS&E.”
In other words, her view is that euthanasia might be just one of a range of compassionate options for those experiencing what the legal documents term as ‘unbearable’ suffering. In her current study of the work of Augustine and Chrysostom, Geetanjali is investigating what those compassionate alternatives might look like.
Shifting the discourse
Geetanjali says she has three main goals with her thesis: firstly, to identify gaps in legal documentation so that laws can be strengthened; secondly, to inform the way communities respond to those laws and think more broadly about potential compassionate responses; and thirdly, to prompt a level of discourse on the issue that is more informed and less emotionally-charged.
“Rather than a polarised debate about what is morally right and morally wrong, I would hope that our attitude could become one of care and concern,” she says. “In this case, we would focus on looking after other people, and not lose sight of the person at the centre. Instead of condemning someone for making difficult end-of-life choices, we would approach them with a great deal of empathy and love.”
While she has recently started the second year of her PhD, Geetanjali is optimistic about the prospect that it will promote constructive discussion on what is an important and vexed ethical issue.
Keen to use philosophy and theology to tackle modern-day dilemmas? Explore the options.
See Geetanjali’s entry in the ACU finals of the Three-Minute Thesis competition.