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A Discussion of Euthanasia

By: Ryan Ringer
December, 2005

Perhaps the single most fundamental question in political philosophy is the question of the state�s role in the life of the individual. This question is applicable to almost every political issue, and the distinction between a political and moral issue is very often indistinct. There are some very important questions to be considered. First is the question of the ownership of one�s life � to whom does one�s life belong; that is, what is one able to do with one�s life? (Life, in this case, being assumed to include one�s body, as the two are, for the time being, inextricably linked. Without a body there would not be life, and without life the body would be irrelevant.) The second is the question of the state�s interests � does the state have a moral right or duty to pursue its interests, what are those interests, and at what point does the state�s right to pursue those interests come into conflict with the rights of others? Finally, there is always a question of individual morality with which one must concern oneself � irregardless of the state�s decisions, what is the moral thing to do?

When the issue of euthanasia is raised, as in other issues dealing with death, the initial response of most people is an emotional one. This emotional response is irrelevant philosophically. The pursuit of an answer to these questions with regards to the issue of euthanasia must be undertaken with ever-watchful vigilance to ensure that one does not begin resorting to emotionalism, platitudes, or religious � and thus, non-provable and deeply personal � beliefs. It would be just as easy to say that it is �disgusting� or �monstrous�, or some such, to prevent a suffering individual from ending their life, as it would be for opponents to say similar things. The goal of this piece of writing is as much to answer the above-stipulated questions as it is to avoid resorting to emotional reactions, which are unhelpful and useless when it comes to determining issues of morality.

Some would say that there is no simple answer to the question of euthanasia, but from a moral point of view, the answer could not be any more clear or simple, and it can be answered in the same way as any other question, using the investigative questions previously outlined. The question of the ownership of life � to whom does it belong � is particularly relevant to this discussion, because it does not merely deal with a person�s day-to-day life, and what rights he has (forgive the use of the male pronoun; centuries of use have neutered it) insofar as carrying out his daily whims. It is in fact the most raw expression of this question. Other issues � whether one has the right to use one�s body; one�s life in pursuit of sexual satisfaction, or inhalation of a narcotic, or to accumulate wealth freely � are all ones which must be subjected to this question, but the raw nature of euthanasia, in which one�s life is quite literally in the equation, illuminates the debate by showing the most powerful possible example of ownership of life. As to the moral right, or the moral duty, of the state to pursue its own interests, the question is applied thusly: does the state have a right or duty to pursue its own interests, do these interests include the preservation of life, and at what point does the principle of the preservation of life come into conflict with the rights of others? Again, this is particularly potent, because what is being dealt with is the state�s moral right or duty to preserve the life of someone who does not wish to live, and the question becomes then, does the state have any such right? The answer is in large part determined by the answer to the first question.

Finally, the personal moral question � irregardless of the state�s decisions, is it moral to end one�s own life?

The answer to all three of these questions follows: the individual is the owner of his own life and body, the sole determiner of both; the state has the right and the duty to pursue its interests, and while these interests do include the preservation of life, they do not include the contradictory position, which is stripping the individual of the control of his life; finally, since the decision to end one�s life is a profoundly personal, non-general one weighing many variables, it is impossible to provide a general sanction, merely an understanding that it is not always immoral to take one�s own life, and it is not always moral. Given these things, it is an unavoidable conclusion that euthanasia ought to be legal and available for individuals who choose it.

Life is inextricably linked with the body. Without life, the body would be a dead shell, a mass of matter undistinguished from its surroundings by anything remarkable. Without a body, the question of life becomes quite irrelevant, because the understanding of life is that it must exist in, that is, as a body. There is simply no way to separate the two. Therefore, the moral implications of one also apply to the other. This is a rudimentary concept � when the body dies, the life ends; killing the body kills life. So then is the question an easier one to understand. Who owns one�s body in this event is synonymous with who owns one�s life. Bodies, being physical, are more easily understood as objects, and objects can be owned, just like lives. The question is, who owns the body; who owns the life? There are some who would answer that it is God, or that life is a gift from God, or some such. This falls under the category of emotionalism � it has no relevance or usefulness to this discussion. God is a concept in which many people place faith, but it is not demonstrable, nor is it knowable. The concept of God is one which is so devoid of any kind of rational verifiability that it really has no place in this discussion. Another option is that life belongs to the state. How such a thing is possible is a mystery. Given that the state is nothing more than a collection of human beings, one must question the validity of the assertion that the state can own life. How did this group of people come into possession of an individual�s life? There is no basis upon which to rest the assumption. If ownership is assumed, it must come from somewhere.

The only possible answer is that the individual possesses sovereignty over his own body and life. At the most basic level, to have any understanding of morality � utilitarian or egoistic � it must be assumed that an individual is a rational agent. In a neutral state of nature, there is no concept of dominion � every individual is sovereign unto himself. This, unfortunately, leads to Hobbesian anarchy. But the only option is not a surrender to the state. In fact, for the state to exist, individual human beings must come together and come to an agreement by which they relieve themselves of certain absolute freedoms � such as retribution � so that they can live more peacefully. This is not undertaken for the sake of surrendering freedom, but for the sake of protecting one�s own life and body. That individuals are able to make this agreement assumes, on a moral dimension, that they have absolute sovereignty over their own bodies, and in no way can it be assumed that individual sovereignty over one�s life has been surrendered, given that the purpose of the agreement is to defend that very sovereignty from others, as it would surely be violated in anarchy by those with the ability to do so.

Since this state is nothing more than a collection of human beings, it is subject to the same moral rules as human beings. Ergo, the state is not permitted to violate the right of sovereignty it is bound to protect. However, as a collective, the state does have certain interests which are undeniable � the most obvious being protection of the citizens. The question is, then, does the state have a moral right to pursue its own interests? The answer that it most obviously does. Inherently, there is nothing wrong with self-interest, as human beings are required, in order to survive, to pursue this interest. The state, therefore, as a collection of human beings, is also duty-bound and within its rights to pursue these interests, in order to ensure its own survival, that is, the survival of its citizens. So, with respect to life, is it in the state�s interests to preserve life? The answer is once again an affirmative � that is, after all, its primary purpose. The state is not only morally permitted, but also duty-bound to protect life, as without performing this function, it is essentially a useless arrangement.

The state�s duty to preserve life, and the individual�s absolute sovereignty over his body established, the question of euthanasia becomes much clearer. These two factors overlap when it comes to the next question, which is, does the state�s interest and duty to preserve life include outlawing euthanasia? To answer this question, one need only remember that the primary purpose for the existence of the state, at its most basic level, is to protect the sovereignty of individuals from being violated by others who do not respect such sovereignty. This is why the state was formed in the first place, the principles upon which rational human beings congregate into a state � not protection of the self from the self, but protection of the self from others. If the state becomes the aggressor which seeks to deny sovereignty over one�s body and life to the individual, then it has failed to act upon the most basic purpose for its existence. And for the state to assert that it is doing such a thing in the name of state interests is an utterly perverse reversal in position of Orwellian proportions. Since the purpose of the state is protection of individual sovereignty over life and body, then it is impossible for the interests of the state to include violating individual sovereignty over life and body. The two concepts are mutually exclusive and cannot logically co-exist within the same system of thought. The self-contradictory nature of such a position is enough to invalidate the legitimacy of the state entirely. A state cannot legitimately exist if it is direct opposition to the purpose for its existence, and as such, its interests, which must necessarily include maintaining legitimacy so as to continue to exist legitimately, cannot include opposing this sovereignty, and thus opposing its own legitimacy, and existence. Therefore, as euthanasia is a decision made by an individual qua the same individual, the state has no legitimate interest in overriding that decision.

Regardless of whether or not the state�s position on euthanasia is a legitimate one, euthanasia remains a moral problem for the individual on a personal level. It is complex in that euthanasia is neither always right nor always wrong. The most fundamental moral duty of the individual is to pursue one�s rational self-interest. It is possible to argue euthanasia from a utilitarian perspective � in that reducing suffering is conducive to the general happiness, and therefore, if one is suffering unbearably, one ought to end one�s own life � but from an egoist�s point of view, euthanasia is not open to public sanction. The general happiness has very little to do with an individual�s rational decision regarding euthanasia � rather, the individual�s happiness is the primary consideration, as euthanasia is a personal decision, which does not physically affect anybody aside from the person opting to die.

What could possibly cause a person to opt for death? The fact that the potential reasons are limited only by each individual who contemplates it is one of the reasons why the decision is a personal, and not a public one. Only the individual has the necessary wealth of knowledge about himself and his experiences to make such a decision and be trusted to have made a good one. Dignity is one reason people sometimes choose to die, wishing to end their lives by their own control, rather than waste away, or desiring to die several months early while still relatively healthy, as opposed to succumbing to some disfiguring and disabling disease. This is just as noble a reason as another common one, which is an escape from suffering. The individual�s pursuit of happiness is ultimately his noblest purpose, and if happiness is rendered impossible by uncontrollable conditions, there is certainly nothing, from a moral standpoint, wrong with ending one�s own life. While self-destruction precludes future happiness in many instances and therefore suicide is often immoral, as it permanently eliminates the ability of the individual to pursue their own self-interest, there are some situations where it is the only option available. The great irony here is that, in most states where euthanasia is illegal, suicide is legal. It is therefore legal to end one�s life for immoral, self-destructive reasons, but illegal to die with dignity or to escape tremendous suffering. Ultimately, it is possible to say that euthanasia is usually moral, where as suicide is usually not, when euthanasia is defined as ending one�s life to escape suffering or to die with dignity, and suicide is defined as ending one�s life as a self-destructive rather than self-interested act.

That euthanasia ought to be available to those who choose it is an unavoidable conclusion in light of this understanding of sovereignty of life. In a neutral state of nature, human beings have absolute sovereignty over their bodies and lives, however, this sovereignty can be violated at will by others. In order to protect, not to deny this sovereignty, human beings enter into a state, in essence a pact of mutual protection. It is the function of this state not to deny, but to protect and preserve life. However, it cannot do this by violating individual sovereignty over life. Euthanasia is a choice which is deeply personal and can be legitimately and morally made by an individual, and the state has no moral right or duty to restrict individuals from acting on a desire to end their lives.

Euthanasia is profoundly important to understanding the moral implications of state intervention in personal decisions; in sovereignty over life and body, because it is such a raw example of the principle. Life and body are inextricably linked, and in violating one the state violates the other. It is not life-preserving to prevent people from making a conscious decision to die, it is life-denying. Emotionalism making a brief appearance, it is truly frightening when one can understand the sheer Orwellian nature of a decision by the state to deny sovereignty of body and life in the name of preserving it, and that people hold with this self-contradicting view. Such is the perverse nature of a society which allows self-destructive, meaningless suicide, but prohibits an individual from giving consent to die with dignity or free himself of suffering.

Copyright 2005, Ryan Ringer