Ethical Wills: Putting Your
Values on Paper is, as the name suggests, a self-help guide for those
wishing to write an ethical will. While
there are brief chapters introducing the nature and history of the ethical will
concept, the bulk of the book consists of tips, outlines and writing exercises
designed to facilitate the will creation and storage process for all types and
skill levels of writers. (The book is
an updated and expanded version of Bainess 1998 Ethical Will Resource Kit;
a workbook is also available.) Because
of the frequent sprinkling of graphic boxes and extended quotations, the book
may seem to read more quickly than its 160 pages; a healthy one-third of the
text is taken up by an appendix containing actual ethical wills by authors
ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.
Overall, though, the book should be useful for average lay readers
interested in learning more about ethical wills and as a resource for those
professionalslawyers, medical and hospice personnel, religious, and otherswho
work with them. If nothing else, it is
one of very few of its kind.
So what is an ethical will? Unlike a last will and testament disposing
of ones estate or an advanced directive for health care decisions, an ethical
will is not legally binding. Rather, a
good ethical will transmits values, life lessons, family history, and other
experiences to those left behind when the author dies. One pictures a written version of those few
choice words of wisdom spoken by a family elder on his/her deathbed. While the legal will deals with material
goods, the ethical will is meant to pass on the non-material goods and family
traditions of equal or greater importance.
Thus the term ethical will may be
a bit misleading; ones first instinct is to think along the lines of a living
will or other advanced directive for health care. (One of the example wills in the appendix is actually attached to
the patients durable power of attorney; it is meant to help guide her children
in situations she could not foresee.)
Baines chooses quite consciously to use it, however; ethical wills have
been around since Biblical times, and peaked during the Middle Ages in Jewish
communities. Baines says he wants to
tap into and preserve that tradition.
Many wills are also largely normative in nature, passing on the authors
collected wisdom on how one should live.
Nevertheless, it would be nice if a less confusing name could be found.
Such terminological quibbles aside,
Ethical Wills distills the best of Barry Bainess experience as a
hospice physician and ethical will workshop leader and facilitator. He is not so much the author of this book as
its compiler; the voices of friends and other contributors speak here as much
as his own. But that is in large part
the point; no one method for writing an ethical will is going to work for
everyone, so as many approaches are included as possible. Bainess main goal is to promote the writing
and use of the ethical will itself, to try to ensure that the most important
words between family and friends do not remain unsaid. Who can argue with that?
© 2002 Lara Winner
Lara Winner, M.A., is a
doctoral candidate in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics at the
University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is interested in mental health/mental
health ethics both because it is a traditionally underserved area of medical
ethics and because it can provide valuable insights into the interrelationship
of mind, body, and spirit.