There's something odd about the debate surrounding assisted suicide. On the face of it, the issue is quite clear: is it morally justifiable to help someone who is terminally ill to a death of their choosing?
However, most of what most people are actually talking about concerns the side effects and unintended consequences. It's about our ability to trust doctors, the need to protect old people from being coerced into going too gently into that good night, or upholding a necessary taboo against cold-blooded, state-sanctioned killing. The thin end of the wedge is worrying only because the other end is so thick, and it's what's at the bottom of the slippery slope that's scary, not what's at the top.
Shifting the focus from the act itself to its wider consequences is not an entirely unjustified move. This is to a large extent a debate about the law, which has to be concerned with all the effects of a practice, not just its inherent morality. Nevertheless, if we are to engage in a serious national debate about the morality of assisted dying, that discussion is impoverished if we do not tackle head-on the moral issue at its core: to what extent should we respect the desire of a fellow human being to end his or her life earlier than is necessary?
This is a profoundly uncomfortable question to contemplate. Unpack it, and you actually find it contains two of the biggest questions we could ask: may I choose the time and manner of my own death and may someone else help me implement that choice? The first deals with our ultimate responsibilities for ourselves, the second our ultimate responsibilities to others.
That is a lot of ultimate responsibility, and if we've learned one thing from the existentialists it's that responsibility is something we'd usually rather avoid or deny, especially when it concerns our very existence. Sartre and Camus disagreed about much, but both saw in their own ways that human beings are reluctant to accept that our continued existence is a matter of choice. We could at any time end it all, and recognition of this fact provokes deep anxiety.
Sartre's analysis of vertigo captures this beautifully. The full terror comes not from the worry that one could slip and fall, but the realisation that there is nothing preventing us from taking the one step that would end our world for ever. What then happens when we confront someone who does decide they want to step off the edge of life? In the case of a depressive suicide, what we are faced with is a dreadful sadness. But in the case of someone who kills themselves on the basis of a calm judgement, our reaction is likely to be more one of cold terror. What they force us to consider is the fact that life is not just a fact of life, that we can weigh its value and determine that it has all been spent. It presents us with the possibility that we might reach the conclusion that death is sometimes preferable to life, and be right.
I'm convinced that many find this thought so troubling they will go to great lengths to deny it. So, for instance, people argue that anyone who judges that they are better off dead has got to be mistaken. They're depressed but they don't realise it, or they have misjudged what the future is likely to hold. This is deeply patronising to the many men and women who have decided that life with their terminal conditions is not worth living. To say that they are just mistaken is to say we are better judges of the value of other people's lives than they are themselves. This is not compassion but arrogance.
The irony here is that people often object to euthanasia because they think that it entails some kind of judgement on the value of others' lives. A severely disabled person who chooses to die, so it is argued, sends out the message that a severely disabled life is not worth living. But it does no such thing. The person who decides that their life is not worth living under such circumstances is saying nothing about the value of someone else's life in similar circumstances. To use a trivial example but a structurally identical one, if I walk out of a Lady Gaga concert, I'm not saying it's not worth anyone else staying. The suicide who walks out on life is likewise not saying everyone else has to follow.
Others claim that every suicide represents a failure of society to provide the conditions that would make life bearable. But by making a suicide the responsibility of others, it denies the responsibility each of us has for ourselves. Such a response is also a way of simply avoiding considering the serious possibility that sometimes suicide may indeed be a rational choice, which is precisely the possibility I think we find it hard to countenance.
This possibility of the rational, justifiable suicide is at the core of our unwillingness to tackle the issue head-on. When we are asked to consider actually helping someone to kill themselves, the existential terror is just magnified. Respect comes cheap when it requires no action. You can test how much a straight father really respects the homosexuality of his son when he has to prepare the spare room for him to sleep in with his boyfriend. We can kid ourselves we really respect someone's choice to die more easily if they do the deed themselves. If we're asked to help, then suddenly that respect can seem less than total.
Ruminating on these deep issues provides no easy solution to the legal problem. My inclination is that it is indeed the unintended side effects that should concern us most. But I don't want the core issue to be lost in this necessary political debate either. Accepting that a person has the right to die, and may even be right to die, is not just a moral imperative: it's essential if we are to recognise fully the extent to which we are each and every one of us responsible for our very existence.
Julian Baggini (www.julianbaggini.com) is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine