The View from Hell

Just another WordPress.com site

Archive for the ‘sorrow of choice’ Category

Velleman’s Sorrow of Options

with 4 comments

In most liberal moral philosophies, freedoms, rights, and choices are accorded high value, whether or not rights are seen to be important only to the extent that they promote overall welfare. Sometimes, however, it is argued that rights should be curtailed because agents may make “wrong” choices if given certain rights. For instance, if people have a right to eat fatty foods, they may irrationally choose to over-indulge, causing themselves harm, because they lack the cognitive ability to make the “correct” decision that does not harm them. To the extent that the right is removed to benefit the agent, rather than to benefit others he might harm (such as the public health system), this is known as paternalism. Paternalism substitutes the state’s decision for that of the actor, presumably on the grounds that the actor lacks the ability to make the decision that will best promote his goals. Paternalism obtains when there is a fear that the actor will choose wrongly.

In contrast to this, J. David Velleman, in “Against the Right to Die,” presents an admirable non-paternalistic argument about how being given a choice may harm an agent – that is, that merely having a choice may harm an agent, even if he is perfectly rational and makes the “correct” decision one hundred percent of the time. Velleman takes an example from the world of negotiation from Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict:

. . . having an option can be harmful even if we do not exercise it and – more surprisingly – even if we exercise it an gain by doing so . . . . The union leader who cannot persuiade his membersship (sic) to approve a pay-cut, or the ambassador who cannot contact his head-of-state for a change of brief, negotiates from a position of strength; whereas the negotiator for whom all concessions are possible deals from weakness. If the rank-and-file give their leader the option of offering a pay-cut, then management may not settle for anything less, whereas they might have settled for less if he hadn’t had the option of making the offer. The union leader will then have to decide whether to take the option and reach an agreement or to leave the option and call a strike. But no matter which of these outcomes would make him better off, choosing it will still leave him worse off than he woudl have been if he had never had the option at all.

Velleman relates another option from Ronald Dworkin’s paper, “Is more choice better than less?”: a night cashier in a convenience store is made worse off by the option to open the safe, because his having this option makes him an attractive target for robbers. Once robbed, he’s better off opening the safe, but overall, he’d certainly be much better off – less likely to be robbed in the first place – if he didn’t have the option to open the safe!

Velleman also discusses a dinner party invitation as a potentially harmful choice. Given an invitation, I may refuse or accept, but I am denied the option of simply not going without answering – I have to either accept or hurt the host’s feelings, and even if I “correctly” chose the best option of those two, I might be yet better off having never been offered the invitation.

Velleman’s target, obviously, is assisted suicide in cases of severe disability or terminal illness. A terminally ill person without the right to die has, in a sense, the “right to live” – and need not justify his “exercise” of that right to anyone. He simply lives, and hasn’t the option to die. However, given a right to die, there is a sense in which he loses the right to live without explicitly choosing to do so. People in this scenario (and Velleman is only talking about the terminally ill and the severely impaired, so his argument does not apply to ordinary suicides) frequently depend on others to care for them, and may be concerned about imposing a burden on others by living. This burden can only be said to be imposed by the ill person if he has some choice not to impose it – that is, a choice to die. The ill person may be best off with no choice, continuing to live and be cared for by others. But given the choice between imposing a burden on others and taking his life, he may rationally choose to die, though he would have preferred not to have the choice at all. Velleman notes that not only the burden of care, but also the exhaustion of the ill person’s assets (which may be expected to pass to his heirs on his death) may be considered, rationally, by the ill person in deciding whether to die. In the situation where an ill person enjoys living and wishes to live, but not so much that he would impose a burden on his family, the right to die makes him worse off, even if he makes a rational decision once the right is offered. “I am arguing that we must not harm others by giving them choices,” says Velleman, “not that we must withhold the choices from them lest they harm themselves.”

While Velleman elicudates a valid and real concern for some terminally ill or severely disabled people, even Velleman himself recognizes that the argument should not prevent assisted suicide in all cases. His proposed solution is to do nothing, and leave the current system in place, where there is no institutional right to die, but some suffering people may still (illegally) be offered euthanasia at their doctor’s discretion. (Velleman does not address the social injustice of allowing this service to be offered only to those with a relationship with a doctor, that is, wealthy people.) Velleman also founds his argument on a Kantian belief that it is immoral to commit suicide, which I obviously reject. He says:

. . . if I believed that people had a moral right to end their lives, I would not entertain consequentialist arguments against protecting that right. But I don’t believe in such a moral right . . .

My interest in Velleman’s argument – the sorrow of choice – is that it applies in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, depending on where one puts the initial assessment of value.

Now that I’ve explained the argument in detail, I’m going to put in in a shorter outline form, so we can see how the moving parts work, and apply it to new problems. I’m going to be putting things in what might sound like flippant language – I do this in the interest of clarity, and not in any way to disparage Velleman, who is like a god to me.

  • The right to live is morally important, and the right to die is not.
  • Given the right to die, people who are a burden on their caretakers might choose to die rather than be a burden, even if what they really wanted was to live without having to explicitly choose to live.
  • Therefore, the freedom to die harms the person.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even to harm them by giving them choices.
  • No right to die.

An interesting feature of this argument, which I alluded to in my previous post on life rights and death rights, is that, given different starting conditions, it might act as an argument against a right to live.

Some people, of course – I put myself on this list – would prefer to die, but might not wish to explicitly choose death. Given that we are stuck with a “choice” to live, many of us continue to live, miserably, rather than bear the responsibility for the harm our deaths may cause. We are certainly harmed by having the option to continue living; we wish that we might die or be killed in our sleep, but we are denied our best option by a “right” to continue to live. If we started with the assumption that the right to die was more important than the right to live in many circumstances, the sorrow of choice would act in favor of euthanasia – even without consent.

This argument – and I don’t mean it either as a reductio or as a serious statement of my position – goes like this:

  • The right to die is important, more so than the right to live.
  • Given the right to survive (on a respirator, say), people who wish to die will suddenly bear responsibility for choosing death, and may choose to go on suffering in life instead, even though they’d prefer to die, all things considered.
  • Therefore, the suffering person is harmed by the choice to remain alive.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • Euthanasia for everyone.

Although Velleman says he doesn’t recognize a moral right to die, he indicates that as part of his consequentialist “sorrow of choice” project that he’d be happiest to distinguish between those who would be harmed by the right to die, and those who wouldn’t be harmed, and offer the choice only to those who wouldn’t be harmed by it. (Velleman would leave this discretion in the hands of doctors, who would be acting illegally in the cases in which they offered assisted suicide.) If choice is such an important harm, and can be a harm in either direction, perhaps it would be best to try to distinguish between four groups: (1) those who would be harmed by having the option to die; (2) those who wouldn’t be harmed by the option to die; (3) those who would be harmed by the option to live; and (4) those who wouldn’t be harmed by the option to live. Group (1) will be forced to remain alive; group (3) will be euthanized without consent; and groups (2) and (4) will be offered appropriate options. (Again, I don’t mean this as a reductio, exactly, nor as a statement of my true thinking – with this argument, just now, we must think of ourselves as playing with philosophical tinker toys, free to see how they might fit together. If it has any purpose other than exploration, this paper is intended as a check on being too sure of our intuitions. Non-suicidal intuitions have been allowed to define the conversation for far too long.)

The sorrow-of-choice argument may be fruitfully applied – in a less shocking manner – to pronatalist and antinatalist concerns. In the antinatalist camp, we might see being brought into existence itself as the harmful choice that is forced upon a person to his detriment. Being brought into existence forces all kinds of choices onto a person – not the least of which is the choice to remain alive. If a person would be best off never having existed – and this is certainly true of many people, even if we don’t admit Benatar’s central claim that it applies to everyone – then bringing him into existence, and offering him choices, even the best of which make him worse off than before he was born, is a harm. The argument would look like this:

  • The interest in not existing is important; the interest in coming into existence is minor compared to it.
  • After having come into existence, some people will be worse off, even if they make every decision perfectly, than if they had not been offered choices by being brought into existence.
  • It is wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • It’s wrong to have babies.

The harm can be either to the being brought into existence, or to the potential parents. The argument, applied to the interests of potential parents, works either to support outlawing contraception and abortion, or to support outlawing procreation, depending on which is seen as having the greater force as a moral right. Just to sketch out what the arguments would look like in each case:

  • Procreation is an important right, compared to the right not to procreate.
  • The choice not to procreate forces people to justify their reproductive decisions; they may prefer to have ten children without explicitly choosing to do so, but given the choice, opt to have none or to have only two, rather than burden society.
  • They are harmed by being given the choice to procreate or not.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • No condoms; babies for everyone. (Interestingly, this could be taken a step further, toward outlawing celibacy or forcing in vitro fertilization for the celibate, but that’s too silly even for the Catholic church, isn’t it?)

In the other direction, the birth-proscription argument goes like this:

  • The right not to procreate is important, compared to the right to procreate.
  • Given the right to reproduce, people who don’t wish to breed may feel they have to justify their decision, to their parents, grandparents, and spouse, for instance. They may rationally choose to procreate rather than be responsible for destroying their families’ procreation interests.
  • They are harmed by the choice to reproduce.
  • Birth control pills in the water.

Given the judo-like nature of the argument, it must be clear by now that everything depends upon where the initial assessment of value is set. But at least this must counter the objection to antinatalism, that birth can be a good thing for the person who is born because it gives him greater freedom and more options, compared to not existing. Options, we have seen, are often in and of themselves a serious harm.

Advertisements

Written by Sister Y

May 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm