Julian Baggini: Individuals? Or members of society? That's what the right to die is about

The social contract we all implicitly sign limits our personal autonomy for our own protection

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It has become a depressingly regular ritual. Every six months or so, someone with a terrible debilitating illness who wants to be helped to die has their case heard at a High Court, the Supreme Court or the European Court of Human Rights. Sometimes, as happened on yesterday, the result is a firm rebuke. Occasionally, they win a minor victory. But every time a Bill comes before Parliament which promises a comprehensive shift in the legal status of assisted dying, as last happened in 2006, it is aided to a gentle death.

For proponents of assisted dying, it is convenient to believe that the issue is a simple conflict between individual autonomy – the right to decide matters of life and death for ourselves – and a superstitious belief in the sanctity of life, the demand that human beings must not "play God". Remove ignorance and religious dogma, and it seems obvious that the right to die as we choose is part and parcel of the basic right to live as we choose.

However, more sophisticated opponents of assisted dying also base their arguments on the rights of the individual. For the pro-camp, it's all about the right to choose the time and manner of your own death. For the antis, it's the right of the individual to be free from the threat, real or otherwise, of being bumped off, coerced into suicide, or of being seen as resource-draining malingerers too selfish to do the decent thing and hasten to their graves. The pros want to protect the rights of the weak to take the exit they don't have the means to go through by themselves; for the antis, it's about protecting the right of the weak and impaired to remain alive, respected and cared for.

Still, even at this level of sophistication, the root of the problem still lies buried. For if it is simply an issue of competing personal liberties, most, if not all, the arguments against can be dealt with by the provision of appropriate safeguards. The real problem is that we do not employ a rich enough notion of what personal liberty means to see why assisted dying requires very sensitive handling.

The naive liberal view is that the individual is sovereign and so, in the well-worn words of John Stuart Mill, "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

But this at best glosses over and at worst ignores some important truths about the social nature of human beings which the apparently straightforward phrase "harm to others" skates over. The simple liberal view takes each individual to be an atomic unity and so harm can only be measured in terms of harm to specific individuals. But there is also a sense in which society can be harmed more generally.

It's hard to articulate just what this means, but the fact that most people feel there is something to it can be captured in the wince induced by the famous words of that ultra-liberal Margaret Thatcher, who famously said "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

It would indeed be a nonsense to think that our ultimate concern should be for abstractions like "nation" or "culture" rather than individual, breathing human beings. But that is not the insight contained in the sensible notion of the "common good". The truth we need to deal with is that the common good is not arrived at simply by adding up individual goods. Rather, the common good is what enables individual lives to be nourished rather than degraded by the society they live in.

Take, for instance the argument that if assisted suicide were to be made legal, it would diminish the overall respect for life which we all benefit from. As Rowan Williams once put it, "To say that there are certain conditions in which life is now legally declared to be not worth living is a major shift in the moral and spiritual atmosphere." There need be no privileging of a vague "good of society" over individual welfare here, just a recognition that the good of individuals depends in all sorts of ways on the quality of the social air they breathe.

One principle that follows from a recognition of this is that infractions of personal liberty can be justified when they improve the welfare of individuals on the whole, even when they on occasion diminish the welfare and freedoms of particular people. The argument against assisted suicide on these grounds is not that your doing it directly harms others, but that your having the right to do it requires changing the social ecology in such a way as to diminish the ability of all individuals to thrive in it.

That is very tough indeed on the few people for whom assisted suicide would be a welcome release. But in order to benefit from the fruits of a democratic society, we have to accept limitations on our own freedom that sometimes do not suit us and which, considered in isolation, cause no harm.

Indeed, sometimes we go one step further. The social contract we all implicitly sign can also include Ulysses clauses: demands that society limits our personal autonomy in order to protect ourselves in moments of weakness, folly or intoxication.

Taking your own life is so grave and irreversible that we might indeed think it worth including such a clause: no matter how much I insist that I want to die, society must not help me to achieve this goal, and may indeed seek to frustrate my doing so. Again, the consequence of such a clause is that, at times, it prevents people from being helped to die when it really would be better if they were allowed to do so.

But laws and social rules cannot be made for exceptions: they are imperfect tools for achieving what is in general best. And the courts can't even begin to help us untangle this, since their judgments must and can only be based on interpretation of the law as it stands.

As it happens, I do not think that these arguments against assisted suicide are unanswerable. The problem is that they are rarely articulated and even more rarely addressed. But as long as we continue to think of the issue as simply one of individual liberty battling against outdated theology and misguided concerns about unintended consequences, we're never going to be able to grapple with them.

 

Julian Baggini's latest book (with Antonia Macaro) is 'The Shrink and the Sage'

www.julianbaggini.com

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