“A Society Where Moral Values Differ”

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of people not only claiming, but rejoicing in a society where people’s “fundamental moral principles differ” scares me. And yet sadly that is the very society we seem to live in. Let us for now dismiss all the other current issues and focus on the most important one at hand: the sanctity of life itself is being questioned, with no sense of distortion.

On October 19th, 2010 in Great Britain, several politicians gathered together to debate the topic of Assisted Suicide at the Royal Geographical Society (covered by www.intelligencesquared.com)

The debate was called for by a multiple sclerosis patient Debby Purdy, opting for a change in law. The debate covers a wide array of thoughts circulating the topic of assisted suicide, such as: prosecutions of British citizens flying patients over the border to Switzerland to have assisted suicide done legally; the fact that suicide was officially legalized in 1961 but assisted suicide remained illegal; and the vague cut-off as to how vulnerable a patient has to be in order to allow assisted suicide (hours to live, days, weeks, months?).

The debate began with politician Emily Jackson, who stated:

The existence of legalized assisted dying provides reassurance to people. It in fact appears to enhance their ability to tolerate the present burdens of treatment. It is the prospect of being able to maintain control and autonomy at the end of life…

She claims that research supports this, and I cannot  doubt that this is probably true. But I do not see how knowing you can die a peaceful death whenever you want gives you the ability to tolerate a treatment. Medical  treatment is focussed on extending your life. You would more likely decide not to start or complete the treatment if you had the option of a way out. Death provides no reassurance to endure anything, it rather provides temptation to endure nothing; to escape everything.

What Emily is stressing however is probably that legalized assisted suicide will give people a sense of autonomy, a sense of choice (does this ring a bell?). I am a firm believer in free choice, freedom of the human person and their ability to make decisions. But of course, if a man is intent on killing my mother, I WILL do whatever it takes to stop him, and will by no means hold myself back on the basis of “choice”. Looking at human experience, it is clear that we DO in fact have a common morality.

Emily continues, saying:

In a liberal society, where we accept that people’s fundamental moral values differ, we should strive to ensure that people…can coexist without any of us forcing our moral values upon anyone else. So I would not enforce assisted death on them, but THEY would  force me to endure a death that I find intolerable.

Now there a several things wrong with her argument. First of all, a society founded on Liberalism, is generally characterized by equal rights and equal voice of all the people. A 19th century philosopher Thomas Green developed the term positive liberty  on which many societies still stand. This form of liberty views society “as an organic whole in which all individuals have a duty to promote the common good”. I don’t know about you, but “relative morality”and the “common good” do not seem to be the same thing.

Also, her argument which states by not legalizing assisted suicide the government imposes its morality on vulnerable patients is a counter-argument, for in saying that we should not impose morality on one another, she is herself imposing morality upon us (I will not even go into the absurdity that “life” has become a moral construct and not a right).

 But please do not only listen to my comments, I really encourage you all to listen to this debate, as it provides insight into the opponents way of thinking. It allows us to understand better the minds of the patients who wish for this “peaceful death”. Towards the end, Patrick Stone, on the opposing side, makes a very reasonable claim:

What would be gained by legalizing assisted suicide for those patients would be a small amount of extra autonomy to choose the hour and the day in which they die. But is that sufficient justification to expose large numbers of vulnerable patients to increased risk?

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3 Comments on ““A Society Where Moral Values Differ”

  1. In the support of Emily Jackson first statement : « The existence of legalized assisted dying provides reassurance to people … », Richard Allen Posner, who is judge at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, said :

    « The right to seek assistance in committing suicide has value to the holders even if they never exercise the right. The right of suicide is an option, and options have value independent of the value of exercising them, just as insurance has value for people who never have occasion to file a claim with an insurer. Knowing that one can end one’s life if it becomes unbearable creates peace of mind and thereby makes life more bearable » (Richard A. Posner, « Euthanasia and health care : essays on the policy dilemmas of aging and old age », The Tanner lectures on human values, Yale University, October 10 and 11, 1994).

    You said : « What Emily is stressing however is probably that legalized assisted suicide will give people a sense of autonomy, a sense of choice ». John Paul
    Stevens, who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from December 19, 1975 until his retirement on June 29, 2010, said :

    « If a doctor prescribes lethal drugs to be self-administered by the patient, it is not at all clear that the physician’s intent is that the patient “be made dead”. Many patients prescribed lethal medications never actually take them ; they merely acquire some sense of control in the process of dying that the availability of those medications provides »(Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702).

    About the liberal society argument, United States Columbia Court of Appeal stated in 1972 :

    « The notion that the individual exists for the good of the state is, of course, quite antithetical to our fundamental thesis that the role of the state is to ensure a maximum of individual freedom of choice and conduct » (In the Matter of Charles P. Osborne 294 A.2d 372).

    In Canada, Judge Wilson, judge at the Canada supreme Court, also said in 1988 :

    « The Charter is predicated on a particular conception of the place of the individual in society. An individual is not a totally independent entity disconnected from the society in which he or she lives. Neither, however, is the individual a mere cog in an impersonal machine in which his or her values, goals and aspirations are subordinated to those of the collectivity. The individual is a bit of both » (R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30).

    About Emily Jackson argument : « People’s fundamental moral values differ », Gandhi said :

    « Wanting to impose on others rules of our individual conduct, would be an intolerable breach of freedom of conscience ». The original french version is : « Vouloir imposer aux autres les règles de notre conduite individuelle, serait une entorse intolérable à la liberté de conscience » (Gandhi, Tous les hommes sont frères : vie et pensées du Mahatma Gandhi d’après ses oeuvres, trad. par Guy Vogelweith, Commission Française pour l’UNESCO, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1969).

    Ronald Dworkin also said :

    « Tolerance is a cost we must pay for our adventure in liberty. We are committed, by our love of liberty and dignity, to live in communities in which no groups is thought clever or spiritual or numerous enough to decide essentially religious matters for everyone else. If we have genuine concerns for the lives others lead, we will also accept that no life is a good one lived against the grain of conviction, that it does not help someone else’s life but
    spoils it to force values upon him he cannot accept but can only bow before out of fear or prudence […] Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious form of tyranny […] Though we may feel our own dignity at stake in what others do about death, and may sometimes wish to make others act as we think right, a
    true appreciation of dignity argues decisively in the opposite direction, for individual freedom, not coercion, for a regime of law and attitude that encourages each of us to make mortal decisions for himself. Freedom is the cardinal, absolute requirement of self-respect : no one treats his life as having any intrinsic, objective importance unless he insists on leading that life himself, not being ushered along it by others, no matter how much he loves or respects or fears them. Decisions about life and death are the most important, the most crucial for forming and expressing personality, that anyone makes ; we think it crucial to get these decisions right, but also crucial to make them in character, and for ourselves. Even people who want to impose their convictions on everyone else through the criminal law, when they and like-minded colleagues are politically powerful, would be horrified, perhaps to the point of
    revolution, if their political fortunes were reversed and they faced losing the freedom they are now ready to deny others. Because we cherish dignity, we insist on freedom, and we place the right of conscience at its center, so that a government that denies that right is totalitarian no matter how free it leaves us in choices that matter less. Because we honor dignity, we demand democracy, and we define it so that a constitution that permits a majority to deny
    freedom of conscience is democracy’s enemy, not its author » (Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion : An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom, New York, Vintage books, 1994).

    Personally, I am in favor of a decriminalization of assisted suicide but I’m against a decriminalization or a legalization of voluntary euthanasia.

    If you are interested I just finished a master thesis on the legal and ethical aspects of end of life decisions. NB : The thesis is in french.

    Eric Folot

  2. Hi eric! Thank you so much for commenting. I understand that my post makes uneducated assumptions, and forgive me if that is the case. I know i’m not as learned as you are on the topic, but I am grateful for your input, as it will help me a lot. Many of your points are very correct, and of course I realise some of my mistakes on Liberalism. My beliefs would not be supported in a liberal society, where death is considered a right.
    I am really interested in your stance on assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. Why are you against voluntery euthanasia and not assisted suicide?
    if you would prefer not to reply here you can always reply to my email. thank you again for your input!

  3. Hi Gianna,

    Thanks to you and your text it was really interesting ! On my stance on assisted suicide and euthanasia I would say this :

    For assisted suicide but against voluntary euthanasia !

    About the difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide, one must distinguish between the legal, ethical and religious arguments. One cannot just say without qualification that there is no difference between the two : in one case it is the patient himself who take his own life (assisted suicide), whereas in euthanasia it is the physician. One must first specify on what grounds (legal, ethical or religious) he draws is arguments. In the field of ethics, one can reasonably argue that there is no difference between the two. However, in the legal field, there is a difference between euthanasia (so-called first-degree murder with a minimum sentence of life imprisonment) and assisted suicide (which is not a murder or homicide and which the maximum sentence is 14 years of imprisonment). In the case of assisted suicide, the cause of death is the patient’s suicide and assisted suicide is somehow a form of complicity (infraction of complicity). But since the attempted suicide was decriminalized in Canada in 1972 (and in 1810 in France), this complicity (infraction of abetting suicide) makes no sense because this infraction should only exist if there is a main offence. But the suicide (or attempted suicide) is no longer a crime since 1972. So, logically, there cannot be any form of complicity in suicide. The offense of assisted suicide is a nonsense. Judge McLachlin said :

    « In summary, the law draws a distinction between suicide and assisted suicide. The latter is criminal, the former is not. The effect of the distinction is to prevent people like Sue Rodriguez from exercising the autonomy over their bodies available to other people. The distinction, to borrow the language of the Law Reform Commission of Canada, “is difficult to justify on grounds of logic alone”: Working Paper 28, Euthanasia, Aiding Suicide and Cessation of Treatment (1982), at p. 53. In short, it is arbitrary »

    In contrast, voluntary euthanasia is considered a first-degree murder. The doctor kills the patient (at his request) by compassion to relieve his pain and suffering. There’s a violation of one of the most fundamental ethical and legal principles : the prohibition to kill a human being. Our democratic societies are based on the principle that no one can remove a person’s life. The end of the social contract is “the preservation of the contractors” and the protection of life has always founded the social fabric. We’ve abolished the death penalty in 1976 (and in 1981 in France) in response to the « broader public concerns about the taking of life by the state » (see United States v. Burns, [2001] 1 S.C.R. 283) ! Even if voluntary euthanasia (at the request of the patient) may, under certain circumstances, be justified ethically, we cannot ipso facto concluded that euthanasia should be legalized or decriminalized. The legalization or decriminalization of such an act requires that we take into account the social consequences of the legalization or decriminalization. The undeniable potential of abuse (especially for the weak and vulnerable who are unable to express their will) and the risk of erosion of the social ethos by the recognition of this practice are factors that must be taken into account. The risk of slippery slope from voluntary euthanasia (at the request of the competent patient) to non-voluntary euthanasia (without the consent of the incompetent patient) or involuntary (without regard to or against the consent of the competent patient) are real as confirmed by the Law Reform Commission of Canada which states :

    “There is, first of all, a real danger that the procedure developed to allow the death of those who are a burden to themselves may be gradually diverted from its original purpose and eventually used as well to eliminate those who are a burden to others or to society. There is also the constant danger that the subject’s consent to euthanasia may not really be a perfectly free and voluntary act ».

    On the risk of slippery slope see : http://www.calgaryherald.com/opinion/When+doctors+kill+instead+heal/3207897/story.html?cid=megadrop_story#ixzz0uOzK6VuC

    You can watch online (or download) a debate that took place at the Royal Geographical Society in London on the evening of October 19th 2010.

    The debate is entitled : « Assisted suicide should be legalised: the terminally ill should have the legal right to be helped to end their lives ».

    The speakers are : Sue Lawley, Alex Carlile QC, Richard Harries, Emily Jackson, Debbie Purdy, Mary Warnock, Patrick Stone

    The website is : http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/assisted-suicide-should-be-legalised

    You can also watch the Quebec Bar intervention at the Commission for the right to die with dignity : http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fr/video-audio/AudioVideo-32475.html?support=video

    And Margaret Somerville intervention : http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fr/video-audio/AudioVideo-32849.html?support=video

    Eric Folot

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