Right to die or force to live?

Can it ever be moral to allow, or even help someone to end their life?

As a secularist and a humanist, I value life – a lot.  In the words of Richard Dawkins “We are all going to die, but that makes us the lucky ones!”.

I find life incredibly interesting, from the ecstatic highs, to the rather morose and melancholy times, all of it is a rich and rewarding experience.

Should an individual however, have the choice of when he or she can end their lives?

My immediate answer is to say, well yes.  As a material naturalist, and non-theist, I do not believe in ‘sin’ or any kind of after-life.  It therefore seems to me that the post-life situation, is something akin to the pre-life on, i.e. non-existence.  That is not in itself a reason to engage Thanatos, however it sets the scene, that we can consider the dead-state  a neutral zone – neither intrinsically positive or negative.  Therefore, considerations about the termination of ones life, should be more concerned with balancing up the positives and negatives of the duration of the remaining temporal existence.

When I’ve engaged in debates on this topic before, I’ve been accused of advocating a utilitarian approach to philosophy.  This approach is often scored, rightly, as taken literally, it can seem to condone almost any action, so long as it benefits the majority.

One of the examples often given is that of the hospital waiting room.  Supposing a team of surgeons are working on multiple casualties from an automobile accident.  There various patients between them require a liver, replacement lungs, a new kidney, a few litres of blood and a replacement cornea.  As it happens, in the waiting room is a gentleman who happens to be a perfect match for these various patients.  Now, following a strict utilitarian methodology, should the surgeon seize the unwilling man, and bundle him off to the operating room to be harvested?  After all, this process is likely to save the lives of the other patients, and it is therefore in the greater interest?

This is – of course – not right.  I hope it does not need to be explained why this is the case. However, in the interests of debate, I shall.  The reason, is because of the universal right of human’s to self-determination.  This is one of the principles which separates religious and secular humanist thinkers.

The principles of the secular humanist are attuned to the idea that we are agents of choice.  Secular humanists do not recognise the right of another human, or any other agent, to ‘own’ other humans.  Many religious people, on the other hand, see their god(s) as a presiding force, the designer and owner of the human race.  Accordingly, they believe that although a person may have the ability to choose, they should chose to follow the path which their god(s) have set for them.  It is therefore seen as a ‘sin’ to end ones life, as this is an act of destruction not only against the self, but also of the creation.

I won’t spend time to expound this argument, as I find it is weak to any form of enquiry, let alone the multitude of cases where ‘god’ is quite happy to comment the death and destruction of multitudes of beings, and commit the most heinous crimes in the interests of ‘martyrdom’.  One particular situation which always springs to mind is the distain which Christians feel towards suicide – and yet are totally relaxed about the self-sacrifice of their own God, through his alter-ego, Jesus.  A cognitive dissonance which I can no longer tolerate.

The way that I make sense of the biblical anxiety around self-slaughter, is an understanding of the historical settings of those books. Written thousands of years ago, by a herd of desert wandering Jewish shepherds.  Their lives must have been short, and tough.  It’s understandable that in those distant and arid times, self-annihilation must have been an appealing thought.  An end to the misery and torture.

I think it’s certainly possible that the ‘suffer on’ mentality of monotheism, and it’s shame-ridden attitude to suicide, comes from these austere times.  In those circumstances, these dogmas and prohibitions would have acted as a pro-social check, to stem death march of the downtrodden shepherds, and avoid the mythical stampede of the lemmings.

Another reason why I consider this analysis to be an appropriate, is that when we consider the attitude of other religions and philosophies, particularly the Eastern ones, we find a very different attitude.  The Copernican attitude in China for example, acknowledges the need of the group, over the whims of the individual.  Needles to say that suicide in China is, if not accepted, certainly less taboo.

So, leaving religious sensitivities aside (a message I often espouse to politicians!), let us explore other arguments for/against terminal self-determination.

Returning to the example of the surgeons waiting room, which I used to outline the commonplace critique of utilitarianism, how can we extrapolate from this idea of individual agency.

The answer, to my mind, is the principle of consent.  A person should be expected, where this is possible, to consent to any procedure.  However, in matters of termination planning, I also thing that family, friends and wider family have a consideration too.  This raises the dichotomy of the individual vs. society dichotomy, and as usual with these emotive discussions, absolutism does not help.  So in considerations about the ending of ones life, I do think it is prudent that the thoughts and feelings of loved ones be given due care and attention.

The overarching factor influencing decision-making however, should be an analysis of harm.

I recognise, that, in the current state-of affairs, I enjoy life a lot.  The good bits, and the bad.  However, I can also conceive of situations, whereby the balance of wellbeing in my life could be so bad, as to be generally negative.  If for example I was suffering from a painful and debilitating disease.

In such circumstances, it could be seen, that the act of living could be having a general negative effect on my wellbeing, then surely it would follow that forcing me to continue in life, would be immoral?

This is of course, simplifying the situation, as I have already stated that consent from wider loved ones is advisable.  So, the decision making process would be more nuanced, taking into consideration, for example the effect that a death would have on remaining family members.

However, I have to conclude that the right to die is a universal human right, being such a profound decision, it is not a topic which should be approached in a flippant way, but neither too should it be ignored out of embarrassment or cultural and religious sensitivities.

There are far too many issues associated with this topic to unpack in one blog post, for further consideration I could not recommend Prof Shelly Kagan enough, see below.

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