Wednesday, April 28, 2021

What is the “Good” of Euthanasia? Part II: Subjective justification implies no objective moral vindication

By Gordon Friesen, EPC board member

It is my conviction that the greatest challenge, of our times, lies in (correctly) understanding the moral evolution at the base of so much recent social change, including the arrival of legal euthanasia which concerns us here. Not the changes themselves, that is to say, but our faulty understanding thereof.

Now that might sound intuitively silly. For we would more naturally assume that the harm of euthanasia (whatever that might be) lies simply in the effects of the act itself, regardless of what anybody might think, of the one, or the other. Unfortunately, however, I would suggest this natural thinking, and those natural assumptions, are precisely what has brought us to our most uncomfortable current position! For there is a huge difference between legal euthanasia, conceived as a regrettable, exceptional recourse, available as a choice only, in extraordinary circumstances (as originally proposed); and euthanasia as we know it today (an increasingly routine, procedure conceived as ideal treatment – as a veritable panacea even -- for whatever might ail us). Yet neither the nature of euthanasia, nor its legal status, has changed between times. What has changed, clearly, is only our understanding of these things, and our attitudes towards them.

Quite simply: euthanasia was previously deemed to be objectively “wrong”; was then allowed as a strictly limited subjective choice; and since that time (by the strange alchemy of human understanding) has been translated to a new status of objective “right”! Clearly, something is indeed wrong with this picture.

The most important point, however, is that these changes in mentality (and hence the regrettable effects they are producing) would appear to be the result of fallacious moral thinking; and are hence capable of positive adjustment through the rigorous correction of those errors. Nonetheless (may the reader be forewarned) that correction is not of an easy nature, because it requires suspending our most fundamental intuitive moral assumption: that things really “are” either good or evil (right or wrong). And that suspension, ironically, appears to be no less difficult for those who depend upon it to carry their point, than it does for their more traditional adversaries.

Let us first illustrate these problems (and their correction) in reverse.

Many people demand access to recreational drugs as a personal choice. In fact, the question is very similar to that settled around the sale of alcohol in the 1920’s. It is admitted that freely available and normalized consumption of drugs and alcohol will ruin many lives, especially those of less capable people who will be more easily swept away in their dependence. However, more sophisticated people will claim that they have no such fragility, fully understand the risks, and finally, that for them, even debilitating addiction is a voluntary autonomous choice, that others must respect.

Similarly, there are those who would normalize the practice of prostitution. We immediately recognize the risk of people being drawn into such a life, and the actual trafficking and slavery which results from responding to a potential demand which has always been much larger than the willing supply. However, once again, certain people will defend their own personal right to profit from any economic opportunities presented.

As regards assisted death, it has always been intuitively obvious (and is now empirically confirmed) that numerous people (often described as “vulnerable”) will die for very regrettable and probably preventable reasons, due to normalization of euthanasia. However, as with addiction and prostitution, often highly charismatic people will insist that they are in no way “vulnerable” and must be allowed to do as they please. In the end, the argument is very close to that of mountain climbers who denounce the “unfairness” of restricting access to particularly dangerous slopes (in order to protect the alpine equivalent of the vulnerable) and is, in fact, the argument of everyone who demands the personal freedom to undertake any potentially self-destructive behaviour, whatsoever.

As we must agree, however, this is always a self-centred argument. And in the case of assisted death, indifference to danger for others is pushed to the extreme limit. Above all, there is no suggestion that any of these behaviours are “good” (in the old-fashioned sense). It is merely declared that they must be allowed as a personal right; that there is no question of “right” or “wrong”, but of personal sovereignty alone; or as Billy Holiday so poignantly sang: “It’s nobody’s business, if I do...”

But that is where the fatal conceptual problem lies, because hardly anybody actually thinks like that.

Yes, we believe that people should be free to do as they please. But we also believe that people should “do the right thing”. In fact, a large part of the population still believes that it is the role of the Law to ensure that the right thing is done.

In this simple perception, the fact that some particular behaviour is legal converts automatically to the notion that it is ‘right' (or at least ok). Moreover, a change of law to permit a previously prohibited behaviour is often perceived as a correction. The natural humility and deference of the individual, towards the opinion of the group, results in an adjustment of attitude perceived as the adoption of a newly revealed truth. Following prohibition, for example, the popular perception actually arose that there was something morally wrong with people who chose not to drink!

We see, then, that the moral needle does not like to adopt a neutral and ambivalent position. Any moderate shift, intended to allow more subtle adaptations to specific circumstances, is intuitively interpreted as a repudiation of prior belief. And then the needle swings wildly from one side to the other. This is not a small thing. For in our specific western post-modern circumstances, the rational desire to accommodate greater subtlety in individual moral judgment has resulted in the unfortunate lionization of any and all reckless behaviours, accompanied by a correspondingly aggressive devaluation of any vestiges of formerly prudent normality.

But what a terrible moral dilemma! The validation of individual choice has, in theory, led us to a much better place and in our ideal sense of who we are; but we are also surrounded by the practical harm caused from naive assumptions about basic changes in the nature of right and wrong. Are we therefore fatally obligated to decide between the evils of choice, and the choice of evil? Between apparent social decay or the radical application of a repressive system today most properly associated with the Communist Party or the Taliban?

In my humble opinion, there is no turning back on this point. Either contemporary society must rise to the challenge of individual choice and liberty, or succumb in the attempt. Quite clearly, people will not forgo their new found freedoms. The point, then, becomes whether or not we are willing (or able) to make the intellectual effort required to understand what the acceptance of those freedoms really means... and what it does not mean.

In the case we are discussing here, a longstanding multi-millennial consensus previously prevailed concerning the dangers (conceived as the “evil”) of euthanasia. Most recently, it was cleverly -- and for many people very convincingly -- argued that there might exist extraordinary circumstances in which a reasonable person might be justified in wishing to terminate his or her own existence. There was never a true and common definition of what such circumstances might be: only, that some such might indeed exist; and that the final judgment of “if”, and “when”, must be the exclusive prerogative of that individual directly involved.

However, due to the powerful magic and the fundamental resulting misunderstanding of the moral principles at play, it has apparently been publicly assumed that euthanasia is now “right” (in general), and in particular: that the so-called safeguards and definitions intended to merely rope off the maximum area within which the play of personal subjective choice would be allowed to operate -- that this arbitrarily defined space within which individual people would be allowed to freely express themselves, regardless of the harm that might ensue -- these criteria of eligibility, then, are now to be interpreted as a true description of the conditions under which individual people are, indeed, justified in demanding medical termination. Not MIGHT be justified (and therefore must be allowed to choose for themselves) but simply ARE justified as a matter of fact.

Further, the perfectly natural but thoroughly catastrophic popular extension of this first error consists in a more and more general belief (and the institutional assertion) that people responding to the given definitions SHOULD be terminated.

In other words, that which was extraordinary, and marginal, has been now been normalized. Furthermore, our only hope of correcting this problem would apparently carry the obligation of educating the greater population in subtle conflicts of moral theory which have already been at play in our judicial system for the last one hundred years, without, as yet generating any widespread understanding thereof. Perhaps the euthanasia question will materially assist in this process. However, it would be too passive, in my view, to stop at this conclusion. On the contrary, without re-litigating the right to die, we dispose of powerful practical arguments of applied political force.

If this be about choice, then let OUR choice be heard!

We Want Doctors That Do Not Kill

-- Gordon Friesen, Montreal, April 28, 2021 (français) (english site in development) (personal philosophical musings)

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