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Life Rights and Death Rights

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Many of us consider the right to choose to die to be an important liberty interest. The right to die is often seen as an important counterpart to the right to choose to continue to live. Those in favor of maximizing choice may prefer a society that offers both rights, even if they could not personally imagine wanting to exercise the right to die.

Felicia Ackerman, in her essay “Assisted Suicide, Terminal Illness, Severe Disability, and the Double Standard,” points out there may be another right that is cut off merely by having the option to die, namely, the right to live without explicitly choosing to live:

. . . even on the nonpaternalistic assumption that patients will always make the right decision, they may be made worse off simply by having the option of physician-assisted suicide. The presence of this option may cause families to treat patients differently, and in any case, this option deprives patients of the option of staying alive without explicitly choosing to do so and being seen as choosing to do so, and thus without having to justify their decisions to stay alive. (Bolded emphasis mine, italicized emphasis Ackerman’s; Ackerman attributes this line of thinking to J. David Velleman’s Against the Right to Die.)

The concern for losing the right to live-without-choosing is interesting; I argue that what Ackerman and Velleman miss is a symmetrical concern for the right to die-without-choosing. Perhaps this right isn’t often discussed because most people, fortunately, have not been in the position to notice that they lack such a right. But the suffering, particularly would-be suicides, who feel that life is worth living yet do not commit suicide for various practical or moral reasons, often wish that death would take them in their sleep, without requiring them to be an agent of their death.

Really there are four rights in question, two “life rights” and two “death rights”:

  1. The right to live without explicitly choosing to live
  2. The right to (choose to) live
  3. The right to (choose to) die
  4. The right to die (or not exist) without explicitly choosing to die

In the absence of physician-assisted suicide, Life Right 1, the Velleman right, is generally the only right available. Widely-available physician-assisted suicide, implemented in a way which would remove the barriers to suicide I have earlier identified, would ensure that Life Right 2 and Death Right 3 are available. Again, those who favor the maximization of rights cannot rely on the idea that forbidding death also preserves “a right,” since it preserves that right at the expense of two very important rights.

Almost never is Death Right 4 actually available. The right not to exist without explicitly so choosing is, of course, available to the lucky never-born. It might be available to those with a very different life than ours – post-biological beings, for instance, might someday achieve something like Death Right 4. Most disturbing to those who value Life Right 1, though, is that Death Right 4 is available in cases where another person, or a natural process, kills someone at a time when he has not explicitly requested to be killed. This is the fervent desire of most suicides, I suspect; but we are denied this right because we are saddled, very much against our will, with Life Rights 1 and 2.

It seems to me that the denial of important death rights to those who wish to die must be considered equally with the consideration of life rights for those who wish to continue to live. I can imagine two justifications for considering life rights as more important than death rights, neither of which I find particularly moving; I am interested to know if anyone else has ideas that would justify seeing life rights as more important than death rights.

First, the life rights might be seen as creating a more revocable situation, and preserving more freedoms (if I continue to live, I can always choose to die or to live; but if I die, I cannot choose anything). However, forcing life really does not preserve choice. If we force life, we deny the death options, preserving only the life “options,” which does not really maximize freedom. Being forced to preserve all one’s options, and never allowed to make choices that remove options, is hardly freedom.

Second, the life rights might be more protected because more people prefer life to death. But, in addition to the fact that majority preference is not much of a reason, many freedoms are guaranteed very much in spite of being unpopular choices. Refusing life-saving medical assistance (separate from the suicide cases) is certainly an unpopular choice, but one it is seen to be important to have available.

I feel that a greater recognition of death rights, and of the fact that at least one of the death rights is necessarily violated as a condition of existence, is important for questions of suicide and antinatalism. In fact, Velleman’s examples where having an additional option puts one in a worse position could serve equally well as examples in favor of antinatalism. (I hope to specifically address his negotiation example and his invitation example in a future post.) Once born, we might, in a just society, possess the right to choose to live or to die; but we lack the choice to not exist without explicitly choosing to die, making us worse off in the case that we would prefer never to have existed. Many of us dearly wish for Death Right 4, but nevertheless are either stuck with Life Right 1 or choose Life Right 2.

Basically, I see Velleman as in a bit of a bind – if he’s right, and options often make us worse off, and offering an option is a morally suspect act, then that is a strong argument in favor of antinatalism, which weakens it as an argument against having a choice to die. If Velleman is wrong, on the other hand, then he merely fails to provide an argument against the suicide option.

My position is, if the right to assisted suicide is wrong, because it harms some who would be better off if they didn’t have the option to die (my synopsis of Velleman’s argument), then birth must also be wrong, because it harms some who would be better off if they hadn’t been given the option to live. It’s a good short article if people want to read it (I’ve linked to it above, in the block quote – it’s a PDF). He says, “I argue that we must not harm others by giving them choices, not that we must withhold the choices from them lest they harm themselves.”

Interestingly, along the same vein, perhaps the Velleman piece could be read equally well as an argument against the right to contraception, as much against the right to suicide or in favor of antinatalism, depending on whether the reproductive interest is seen as essential.

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