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Euthanasia Debate: Counterpoint (I)

Joachim Jung’s reply to Tim Chappell.

Tim Chappell claims: “Since a person’s interests are all to do with developing and exercising these capacities and abilities, it follows that it is never in anyone’s interest to die. In fact, dying is the most extreme possible negation of anyone’s interests.” I doubt that one can take such a statement seriously in face of the fact that numerous people end their lives prematurely year after year. In the United States more than 50,000 people take their own lives every year. In Japan 37.9 persons in 100,000 commit suicide annually, in Switzerland it is 40.8, in Russia 74.3. Can one seriously claim that all these people are not in a position to recognize their own interests, and need uninvolved specialists (psychiatrists or philosophers) to enlighten them on their ‘real’ interests and goals?

I furthermore wonder: what are the life interests of a terminally-ill patient, who suffers from excruciating pain and has become incontinent? What goals and projects can he pursue when he lies in his feces, knowing that he has only a few days or weeks to live? This case is depicted in Sherwin Nuland’s treatise How We Die (Vintage, 1997, p.231), a book that provides an array of similar instances. It is characteristic of the opponents of euthanasia that they never have the guts to discuss such concrete cases. Instead of condescending to the facts of real life, they argue for maintaining the taboo withwhich assisted suicide is laden, and for ending the debate. But if Chappell wants to end the debate, why does he join it by writing an article like this one?

The opponents of euthanasia are not vexed by pain or despair but they admonish patients to pull themselves together and “pursue their life interests” even if their state has become hopeless. The adherents of this view arrogate to themselves the right to question the autonomous decision of the patient. Chappell objects that a physician should not comply with every wish a patient voices. To underpin his opinion, he advances the following comparison: “If someone’s autonomous choice is to rob banks, we think they should be stopped, not allowed to get on with it.” It is clear that nobody is entitled to rob a bank because the bank is not his property. But a patient is certainly entitled to take his own life because it is his possession.

It is deplorable that tradition-oriented philosophers who rate liberty as the paramount value all too often exhaust themselves in lip service. They continuously quote John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin but they shy away from the consequences a really free life involves. I have tried to point out at what conclusions you must necessarily arrive if you take the value of freedom seriously and comprehend humans as autonomous beings who decide on their own in the crucial situations of their lives. I am currently working out a book on this approach, entitled Individualism: A Theory of Liberty. (It is due to appear in early 2004.) There I argue that life in itself does not constitute a value because you have always to take its quality into consideration. The meaning of life is not living but being happy. If this goal is obstructed, if a person’s life is replete with distress and devoid of any pleasure, and if it can be ruled out that he will ever regain a normal life, then he has the right to turn his back on this world. And I see no reason why, once the decision is made, he should be abandoned by his friends, counsellors and physicians.

© Joachim Jung 2003

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