Etienne Vermeersch, moral philosopher and leading public intellectual, dies at 84

Etienne Vermeersch, emeritus professor of moral philosophy at the university of Ghent and one of the country’s most prominent ethicists and public intellectuals, has died at the age of 84.

Vermeersch died last Friday, but his passing has just been announced. He opted for euthanasia, the legalisation of which was one of the major crusades of his long career.

“The creation of the euthanasia law is one of the best things I have done in my life,” he told De Morgen in 2017. “I haven’t lived for nothing. If you know that you, together with others, have helped ease the pointless suffering of thousands of people, then you’ve added your weight to the balance.”

Death held for him no fears. He told Het Nieuwsblad, also in 2017, of how he wishes to be remembered – if he were remembered at all.

“It would be pleasant if I were to be remembered as someone who did his best. I have an epitaph in mind, although there will be an urn, not a gravestone: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. I was not, then I was, I am no more, it troubles me not.”

Vermeersch was a free thinker, and as such an exception in a country where the Church still has a strong influence in politics and social movements. Rik Torfs, professor of canon law and former rector of Leuven university, described him as “a romantic of reason,” who believed unshakably in the power of reason to bring solutions. “He held reason in such high regard that he found it more difficult to understand the more emotional aspects of society.” He was successful in supporting laws on abortion and euthanasia, Torfs said, but less so on questions such as limiting births for the sake of the planet.

André Léonard, former archbishop of Belgium, once debated Vermeersch for three straight days on a variety of moral questions, and found less opposition than he might have expected.

“One day, off camera, I dared to ask if he would mind if I prayed for him. ‘I can’t stop you,’ he answered. ‘It won’t do much good, but it also won’t do any harm.’ He will know by now which of us was right.”

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