The truth of ethics
March 18, 2020
On abortion
March 23, 2020

Some time ago, Germany adopted a law that permits doctors to render assistance to suicide by providing the means. Relatives were already permitted to do so, under the condition that the actual taking of the lethal medicine be done by the person herself. The issue is closely related to the question if euthanasia should be permitted. Discussion about its ethics is often reduced to trench warfare. Both sides rather seek to discredit than to understand each other’s arguments.

The euthanasia debate is about the patients’ possible motives for euthanasia, practical procedures, alternatives like palliative medication, border cases like severely handicapped newborn babies, children with terminal diseases or mentally ill people and the ethical objections of doctors to perform. In my opinion, all of these only become relevant after first discussing the standard case of euthanasia: mentally competent adults committing medically assisted suicide. There are only two fundamental questions: what is the meaning of life, and who has power over it?

The meaning of life

For most people life is sacral, be they religious or not. The will to survive is characteristic for every living being and so is people’s general admiration for life as such. Seeing life as a miracle lies at the root of every religious belief. All great religions preach respect for life and are generally negative to killing, including suicide. But basically, respect for life is not dependent on religion.

In 2017, a Japanese train driver committed seppuku after allowing a train to depart 20 seconds early.

In spite of our general respect for life, there are justifications for killing, showing that respect for life is never absolute. In war, killing is permitted under the argument of self-defense. Christian theologists find arguments to combine forbidding euthanasia with supporting the death penalty. In Hindu tradition, women may throw themselves on their husband’s pyre; terminal patients are permitted to fast themselves to death. Though seppuku largely disappeared, in some Japanese communities suicide is still considered honorable in case of failure. In Confucianism suicide is permissible if it is necessary to achieve ren, the ideal of goodness.

Max Scheler 1874 – 1928

Until now I only discussed human life. An overlooked question is why we should distinguish between respect for life in general and for human life in particular. Though saying to respect life in general, we kill germs, swat flies, exterminate weeds and eat animals and plants because it appears inevitable to do so. The need to kill does not imply disrespect for life. It may be combined with deep thankfulness for the animals and plants that serve to feed us. If we see life as one whole, it becomes more acceptable to see killing – also of people – as sometimes inevitable.

Most religions explicitly emphasize the exceptional position of man in the whole of creation. Anthropologic philosophers like for example Max Scheler have tried to find secular arguments for the metaphysically privileged position of man. But these views are no more than theories.  We may believe that we are special, but we just don’t know. What would happen if we found out that flies pray? Would we stop swatting them?

“[it] follows from this, that every natural thing has by nature as much right, as it has power to exist and operate; since the natural power of every natural thing, whereby it exists and operates, is nothing else but the power of God, which is absolutely free. “ Baruch Spinoza, A Political Treatise, 1676

Respect for life in all its forms does not exclude taking lives in special cases. Judgments in these cases are essentially man-made. As a consequence, decisions on permitting people to have euthanasia seem to necessarily take the form of the application of rules to a specific case. We shall deny this in dealing with our second question: who has power over life?

Power over life

In discussions about the value of someone’s life, the question arises who has rights over it. Most constitutions defend the right to live as a right of the individual, together with other human rights. These rights may be freely used insofar as they do not conflict with the rights of others. In cases where they do, positive law has to define the borders.

Life may be considered as a gift or as something that is just there. In the latter case, it is either somebody’s possession or something sacrosanct. If seen as sacrosanct, maybe even created, it will force us into the position that not only human life, but all life is sacrosanct. This only leads back to the argument of the previous section: in spite of the sacrosanct character of life, killing is sometimes necessary. The central question is: who has the right to kill and in what case? We have to decide on the general ethics of killing and on who is to decide if killing is necessary in a specific case. In the case of human life, only two parties may claim to decide on it: the community or the person herself.

For ‘community’ we may read any group of people who might claim a right to kill: family, tribe or state, whether they claim to act in the name of gods, spirits, tradition, honor or in the name of the community as such. If birth and upbringing are seen as a gift from community, then it might be considered to require quid pro quo, but the question is: does this include the obligation to stay alive in spite of suffering? The general lust for life of people and their sense of social obligation to partners, children and family offer enough reason to live; therefore, we might respect people who wish to die nonetheless. Moreover, no culture allows unnecessary suffering of animals; compelling people to suffer unnecessarily is only being justified from unjustifiable religious or metaphysical ideas about the special status of human life.

Appealing to human dignity is a common error of those hoping to legalize euthanasia. It is exactly the appeal to the special status of human life that keeps afoot the opposition.

Everybody is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, meaning that it is first of all the individual who has right over his or her own life and is essentially free to decide, as long as this freedom does not interfere with the freedom of others. Only in that case should the state play a role.

The reasons for taking one’s own life as well the way to end it – with or without assistance – are no case for the state; such is an invasion of the private life of the mentally competent individual. As every individual is considered mentally competent unless otherwise stated, both assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legal, whatever the reason.

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