What Do Opponents of Assisted Suicide Really Value?

This post originally appeared on The Latest. See also here for a longer discussion of the same topic.

One way to frame the question of whether assisted suicide should be allowed is as a dilemma between individual liberty and dignity on one hand and the value of human life on the other. It can be said that individuals should be allowed to make the decision to end their lives when there is no hope of recovery and perhaps little left for them to expect except pain.

Yet, one could also say that every human life should be valued, no less so if the person is old or sick, and thus it is wrong to end a life.

The terms used on both sides of the dilemma seem more or less universal; it may be a more ‘liberal’ position to advocate the possibility of assisted suicide (within limits, of course) and a more ‘conservative’ one to oppose it, but conservatives recognize the value of liberty and liberals recognize the value of life.

However, I think that this apparent universality is an illusion, and those words really hide behind them the kind of difference in moral thinking that is typical between liberal and conservative mindsets.

This difference was clearly brought out in a study conducted in Finland that in my experience seems to exemplify attitudes found elsewhere as well. As mentioned in the news article about Hawaii I am commenting on, a practical risk of allowing assisted suicide is said to be the risk of people being pressured to use it against their real wishes.

However, in a survey asking laymen about their opinions about assisted suicide, not one of those opposed to it gave any such practical reason. Instead, all of the opponents had a religious perspective and talked about things like the value of human life and only God being allowed to end a life. (Source, in Finnish: “Uskonto ja kuoleminen” by Leila Jylhäkannas, in Uskonnon paikka, eds. Outi Fingerroos, Minna Opas and Teemu Taira.)

This brings up the view that a human life is valuable even if it has no obvious value – or even has a negative value – to the person whose life it is. While just about everyone can agree that a person’s life is of great moral importance, not everyone agrees with this more specific view.

A person’s life, it might be said, is obviously valuable if the person is valuable, because everything good the person can ever experience, anything they can ever accomplish in this life, is dependent on their having that life.

If this is your conception of the value of life, it is natural to accept assisted suicide in the case that the life in question can only contain pain. If, on the other hand, life is to be valued regardless, we are talking about a fundamentally different conception of what’s right.

Such hidden differences can make ethical discussion difficult. The best we can do is to evaluate each argument carefully and make sure it is not hiding something else behind it.

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