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Euthanasia Debate: Counterpoint (II)

Tim Chappell’s reply to Joachim Jung.

If the problem is pain, the solution is pain relief. If the problem is depression, the solution is psychotherapy. If the problem is grief, the solution is comfort and support. If the problem is amputation, the solution is prosthesis. If the problem is loss of dignity, the solution is loving and respectful treatment. What is the problem to which death could be a solution? It would have to be life itself. But life is not a problem. Life is a gift.

Part of what it means to love other people is to be prepared to help someone with her problems – to act in her interests, as I put it before. Helping her with her problems can include providing pain relief, psychotherapy, prosthesis and so on. It cannot include helping her to die. For being alive is not one of her problems. It is the context of nearly all possible solutions to her problems.

Nearly all” because, sadly, not all problems are soluble. Some terminally ill patients suffer terrible pain. In cases in which someone will die soon no matter what, nothing can be done to protect or promote her interest in being alive. But something can be done to promote her interest in freedom from pain. So here the doctor is justified in doing more to prevent pain, and less to preserve life, than he would for other patients. But this is not euthanasia. So long as the doctor’s objective is pain relief, it is palliative care.

Why are euthanasia and suicide wrong? Because the worst thing you can do to someone is to violate her interests. According to the argument I put forth in my article, the deepest interest that we all have is our interest in existing. So the deepest violation of someone’s interests that you can commit is to kill them.

Dr Jung’s article offers no alternative account of interests except an unargued equation of interests and desires. But I say that we can desire what violates our interests; and that in extreme cases – like euthanasia and suicide – we should be legally prevented from pursuing it. Maybe Dr Jung will accuse me of paternalism here. Yet he himself thinks that people should be interviewed before being approved for suicide, to check that they really mean it.

So presumably he intends that those who are not approved should, as far as possible, be forcibly prevented from committing suicide. The difference between Dr Jung and me is not, then, the difference between a paternalist and a nonpaternalist. So what is the difference? One difference is that Dr Jung apparently accepts what I call the “respectable view of the self.” Like many other philosophers, he assumes without argument that individual persons have no value in themselves; they are merely receptacles for the instantiation of value and disvalue.

No wonder, then, that he thinks persons who fail to instantiate positive value are disposable. His way of thinking treats the person as a means to an end, the end of utility maximisation. I call this “the consumerisation of the self,” and I reject it. Individual persons are not just possible pleasure-receptors. They are goods in themselves.

Another difference is that Dr Jung is fixated on death. He finds suicide romantic, and advocacy of suicide heroic. In one way, this is just silly. In another, it is sad and disturbing. Any agent who can choose to act at all is always confronted with an indefinite multiplicity of alternative options. That Dr Jung, like too many others, finds our relatively small range of murderous options so hypnotically attractive, and our enormous range of non-murderous alternatives so completely invisible, says something very worrying indeed both about him, and about the society that makes his view seem plausible to him.

© Tim Chappell 2003

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