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Death & Morality

In Defence of Deciding to Die

Alex Carley looks briefly at the role of reason in the euthanasia debate.

Rarely is philosophy so pertinent to everyday life as in the case of voluntary euthanasia. In a world which some believe to be overpopulated, there are people fighting for what they believe is their right to die. Yet, for many of us, this is a case where a belief in a right does not entail the existence of that right. The question of the right to die is in many senses an ethical one. As such, it usually involves arguments based on some ethical system. Yet different ethical systems are often mutually exclusive and require extensive justification in themselves. Add to these factors the belief in a life after death, and we are left with a philosophical quagmire where the euthanasia issue might seem hopelessly irresolvable. However, the philosophical method affords us a means of escaping this impasse. By breaking down the problem into its constituent parts and clarifying what each of these parts are and how they relate, it is possible to rebuild and re-present the issue far more coherently than general discussion has generally permitted.

The purpose of this article is to expose a problem which is often overlooked, and yet sits at the very heart of the debate. Once it is dealt with we shall be in a better position to face the rest of the task of understanding what to think about euthanasia. Our question is not strictly an ethical one, and this may be the reason for its general neglect in the discussion. Our problem is the nature of rationality in relation to thinking about death.

Imagining Nothing

If we assume that there is no afterlife, then death is the annihilation of the agent. Upon dying, then, an agent ceases to exist. One common problem with trying to comprehend this is our inclination to think about our own deaths from a first person perspective. Typically, we imagine seeing darkness, construe this as nothingness, then believe that this is what being dead will be like. Sometimes we go further and liken this nothingness to eternal sleep. The problem is that in thinking in these ways we have cheated death by a sleight of hand. Since any experience must be had by someone, in our common imagining of it something of the individual survives death. One must live in order to sleep, for instance. We imagine a state and call it ‘death’, when really, death is the removal of the possibility of our ever again experiencing a state. Perhaps the view of death as eternal sleep is a kind of purposeful naivet é, a defence mechanism which makes life more pleasant. Yet death viewed as nothing is a state in only the logical sense, as a sort of ‘null-state’; for the agent there is no state of death.

Philip Devine of Providence College calls this confusion over death its logical opaqueness. He, along with others, argues that death’s logical opaqueness makes most reasoning about it confused, and therefore irrational. If by default we imagine death as an experiential state (eg of emptiness), then we’ll be unable to reason about it correctly. The reference point of our musings will always be misplaced, fictitious. So, if we feel inclined to imagine death as a tangible nothingness, or a fuzzy darkness, we should accept that we are incapable of being rational about it. We are unable to use the word appropriately and so always mean something else, something incorrect, by it. However, the failure of the first attempt is not proof of the failure of all further attempts. If we agree with the line of reasoning about death being merely and only the removal of the possibility of ever again experiencing a state, and we take that to heart, then we may become able to use the word ‘death’ appropriately. At any rate, it is clear that death’s logical opaqueness is not an insurmountable barrier to understanding, but rather, a hurdle that can be leapt over.

Reasoning About Reasoning

Some philosophers have argued that no decision to end one’s own life can ever be rational, for the following reason. Rationality, they say, must always be future-orientated. They claim this to be shown by the way we critique the decision-making of others. When we judge an action to be rational we do so on the basis of the current state of the agent. We look to see if this state would be improved as a result of the decision. Thus one state key to a decision’s being judged rational is future to the state in which the decision is made. From this comes what Derek Parfit (in Reasons and Persons) called a Two-State Requirement for any decision to be deemed rational: the present state in which the decision is made, and the future state which will result from the decision. The problem for judging the rationality of euthanasia is that it precludes the future states of anyone who decides to opt for it – once the process is complete, they will have no future states. On this basis, it is then argued that euthanasia can never be rational, since there will be no future state by which to assess the benefit done to the agent. By virtue of the very nature of rationality, the critics claim, euthanasia is therefore non-rational, if not irrational.

One obvious problem with this argument is its implications for the writing of a last will and testament. The deposition of such documents is such a common practice that few would want to call it irrational, and the thought that usually goes into their composition makes us reluctant to call them non-rational. Yet, on one reading of the above argument, the rationality of determining this or that legacy cannot be judged, since it will come into effect only when the person making the will ceases to be. Thus no last will and testament could be rational.

This absurd consequence can be circumvented by modifying the argument only slightly, and stipulating that the future state required for the rational weighing of benefits need not be experienced by the agent who made the decision. So it is possible for a last will and testament to be written rationally, on the basis of one’s heir being significantly benefitted in a future state, when the will comes into effect. This of course is a method of reasoning which is utilised all the time. In fact, it could be argued that all non-self-involving reasoning must function in this way.

The equivalent problem of reasoning about euthanasia may be resolved, as long as the agent is making the decision to die on the basis of perceived improvement of the lives of those around him/her. But this is exactly what worries some concerned ethicists and leads them to argue against the legalisation of euthanasia. They say it is a slippery slope indeed if sick people are encouraged to make decisions about euthanasia based on consideration for family members, the burden felt in their current state, and the possibility of their future states being improved.

My preferred response is to drop the Two-State Requirement for rational decision-making altogether, by demonstrating that, whilst it is often a method used to judge the rationality of decisions, it is not a necessary condition for rationality, and other rational means for making decisions exist.

Better Than Life

A serious problem with the two state (‘future benefit’) requirement for rationality comes to light when we consider the converse of choosing euthanasia – deciding to embark upon treatment which will save your life. Consider an agent who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The doctor offers them a potential cure which causes pain so great that many patients abandon the treatment mid-way. The question is whether or not the agent is rational to choose to undergo the treatment.

The agent is faced with a comparison of alternatives. On the Two-State Requirement, this comparison is not possible. Given that the option of forgoing treatment results in death, it cannot on that scheme count as a rational alternative. So their only ‘rational’ course of action is to accept the treatment – regardless of the fact that it is not guaranteed to work, and will cause them extreme pain. The Two-State Requirement, then, confronts our concerned ethicists with problems close to those of the slippery slope they sought to avoid in the euthanasia case: the removal of patient autonomy. My suggestion is that it is possible to judge some states to be worse than nothing, and thus it can be rational to extinguish them. It is possible to make a rational decision about a present state based on a set of minimum conditions for a good life. If the present state is one of pain so extreme that these minimum conditions are absent, and one judges on the basis of good evidence that the treatment will continue this state of agony, then one can rationally decide to forgo treatment. The style of reasoning here is not the two state one, in terms of future benefit; but rather a decision based on that current state alone – whether or not to extend that state. Of course, the same can be said for reasoning about euthanasia. If an agent judges their current state of life as failing to meet their minimum conditions, they can rationally decide to end that state, and end their life.

Unfortunately, all too often people are faced with decisions involving death. Yet it should not be surprising that death can be suitable for rational contemplation. If it is suitable for rational contemplation, then euthanasia need not always be irrational.

© Alex Carley 2012

Alex Carley studied philosophy at the University of Manchester, and now debates with regulars at SandBar.

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