Is there a right to die?

The right to die has been hotly debated for decades, most recently because of Terry Pratchett’s campaign in the UK. In this area, as well as in the area of abortion, we observe two fallacious positions: one right-wing, religiously-motivated faction which seeks to impose life on everyone and everything, even corpses, and one slightly less right-wing, liberalism-motivated faction which proposes a “moderate” position.

Just to be clear before I continue, by right to die I include all the ways by which one can voluntarily die: suicide, assisted suicide (where the means of death have been provided by someone else) and euthanasia (where a third party performs the act).

First, let me reject some arguments motivated by irrational worldviews. First, the Christian belief that killing ourselves is an assault against God’s ownership of human beings, and the liberal/Libertarian belief in self-ownership as justifying bodily destruction; I have debunked both of these as they pertained to abortion, and the same reasoning applies here (self-ownership is tautological, God’s will cannot have any ethical consequences, the Bible does not consider suicide to be unethical).

So, is there such a thing as a right to die? There is a clear conflict between those who wish to die and those who try to stop them from doing so. Following Tucker’s theorem (that the invader’s values must be subordinated to those of the invaded), our criterion to choose who is in the right is by looking at who is imposing eir values on the other.

From this point, the arguments from both sides go roughly as follows. The anti-right view would hold that the prospective suicides are interfering with their own values by desiring to extinguish them (even going so far as to call it “self-murder”), and would also argue that the suicides, if their plan succeeds, interfere with society as a whole and with God’s plans (the latter point, of course, can be dismissed). The moderate view accepts the personal and social losses as being relevant, but balances them with the expected future of the suicides, so that the freedom to die is acceptable in some circumstances as a self-determined choice, and not in others.

I reject the utilitarian arguments on the ground that we can’t possibly make any inter-subjective comparisons. Whether the suffering that the suicides spare themselves is greater or lesser than the suffering of their loved ones is a pointless question. As for social losses, not only is it another consequentialist argument, but studies have shown that when we take into account the potential losses to society due to old age costs and psychological issues, suicide is actually economically beneficial (to the tune of around 150,000$ per person in the US), so I also reject this as a consideration.

So, having whittled down each side, we have two simpler conflicting views. The first is that the suicides are fulfilling their values and that the suicide-stoppers are interfering with the suicides’ freedom to express their values. The second is that the suicides are interfering with other people’s values (say, the suicide’s spouse, who depends on em in order to fulfill relational values) without their consent, and that therefore stopping them is just.

Now the answer is clear. The former narrative is the correct one, because no one has the right to demand that any specific person help them fulfill their values. Again we come back to the house on fire example: if your house is on fire, you can rightly expect the firemen to deal with the fire, but you don’t have the right to demand that any random bystander run into the house to save someone. Likewise, I have no right to expect a specific person to remain alive because I need my relationship with em (the case of a person with children is another matter, which I will take up at the end for the sake of argument flow).

Another problem is that we cannot use emotional distress as an objective standard. While it may be true that a suicide may inflict emotional distress on those around em, this may also be true of someone who decides to remain alive and burden people around em. Should we therefore mandate suicide on that basis as well? I am open to arguments for mandating suicide, but prima facie this seems unreasonable. It seems much more likely that distress is, like all emotions, not sufficient evidence to indicate that criminal harm has been inflicted on someone.

So I conclude that the suicide is actually in the right, and anyone who tries to stop em is in the wrong.

Let’s look further at the issue of consent. In order to be justified, any action must necessarily involve the consent of all parties involved. The anti-right view means imposing the continuation of life on a person without eir consent. This is unjustifiable and wrong. As we know life always involves an element of suffering, to force the continuation of life means to impose a certain amount of suffering on a person. If anything is wrong, this must be it.

Note that I did not make any distinction of age or medical state here, because it is not relevant at all. Nothing in my arguments indicates that age or medical state has any relevance whatsoever. It is wrong to impose the continuation of life on a child or an adult, on a healthy person or a terminally ill person, on a person of sound mind or a person of unsound mind. Granted, whether a person of unsound mind can be said to meaningfully consent is a different matter, but as long as pre-written consent is given there shouldn’t be a problem, like how do not resuscitate orders and advance directives are not inherently problematic.

We may evaluate that a given person’s expected future is “good enough” for them to continue living, but our own personal evaluation is not relevant to another person’s decision. We can’t meaningfully make such an evaluation as anything but a personal opinion, so it’s irrelevant to whether another person should be allowed to commit suicide or not.

Let me make myself clear, so I am understood fully: if a person who is completely healthy and of sound mind declares the intent to die, ey should be allowed to die, no questions asked. Age is not relevant, health is not relevant, expected future is not relevant, mental state is not relevant. Death should be provided to anyone who desires it.

One may reply that, while they agree in theory with my conclusion that anyone should be free to commit suicide, my position is callous because suicide is a bad thing on the whole, and that we should be trying to dissuade people from killing themselves, not help them to kill themselves.

But this sort of moderate position is based on an incommensurate belief in human life as a positive thing. At least the anti-right position is shameless in its authoritarianism and, while professing to be “pro-life,” clearly has no respect for life. In that respect, the moderate position doesn’t really make any sense. How is human life so great that a supposedly rational calculation proves that we should feel justified to force it on other people?

Not only that, but many believe that human life is so valuable that forcing it on people is good for all expected futures except a future of constant, unwavering suffering. This is such an extreme position that it’s hard to believe that it’s actually the mainstream position. When we spit on people’s desperation and freedom in the name of “life,” you know that we truly are fanatics for the cult of life in this society. Like any other form of violent mindless fanaticism, it truly sickens me.

I have already pointed out that it is impossible for any person to rationally conclude that anyone else’s suicide was a mistake. We are bombarded with propaganda trying to indoctrinate us with the opposite belief: “suicide is selfish” (as if other people have a claim to our continued existence), “suicide is the coward’s way out” (see my “losing team” point below), “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” (not all the problems being solved are temporary), “choose life” (why?), and such pap. All of these propaganda slogans are meant to obscure the fundamental fact that suicide puts the person’s death in eir own hands.

People say suicide is selfish. I think it’s selfish to ask people to continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won’t feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it’s also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.
Bill Zeller’s suicide letter

The cowardice propaganda, I think, is especially pushed. There is a strong correlation, I think, between this propaganda and the objection that antinatalism puts us on the “losing team”; again there is this belief in life as a sports game and longevity as the points, and if you kill yourself you’re running away from the field because you just can’t take the heat.

As for “choosing life,” they don’t really want you to “choose.” An actual choice would require viable options, but to my opponents there’s only one viable option, and that’s staying alive at all costs.

Of course there is a sense in which this discussion, like the abortion discussion, is pointless: people will do it whether it’s justified or not. But, as for abortion, suicide often requires the assistance of at least one other person. And making an act ethically unjustified or illegal does severely lower the availability of such assistance (just as the fanatical belief that abortion is unjustified severely lowers the availability of medical and pharmaceutical assistance). And that’s a real problem that causes suffering to real people. All these debates are really just rationalizations on whether we should force people to suffer or not. My answer is always gonna be “hell no.”

I think the belief that suicide is good or bad will depend on one’s worldview. Liberalism cannot admit of the righteousness of suicide because it is predicated on unerring optimism about human abilities and the belief in constant progress. There is definitely a tension there between the belief in “self-ownership,” which logically entails the freedom to destroy oneself (but also to sell oneself, which liberals cannot accept either), and extreme optimism, which generates reluctant acceptance. We observe the same reluctance with abortion and the pro-choice position: “abortion is bad, but people should be free to do it, but we have to get people to stop doing it because it’s inherently bad.”

I believe suicide is good because I hold no belief in human life as having any kind of special status or any optimism about human future (such as a belief in Heaven or a belief in inexorable social progress). It is good for people to be in control of their future, and to decide when it should end. It is not as much that suicide is good in itself (after all, we all die some day, and that fact is not good or bad in itself) as the fact that forbidding people to commit suicide is a fundamental wrong which makes suicide good by comparison.

Anti-right advocates keep whining about human dignity, but suicide is the height of human dignity, and nothing is more of an vicious attack against human dignity than to force sick people to writhe in pain like mangy dogs. “Human dignity” is always the first rationalization of the authoritarian, but they don’t know what human dignity is any more than they know with freedom is.

Anti-right advocates and moderates think there is a paradox between suicide as an act of freedom and the fact that suicide nullifies one’s freedom. But this paradox doesn’t seem to come into play when we consider, for example, the actions of suicide bombers, or the actions of people who put their lives at great risk for a cause. The reason why we don’t think suicide bombers are paradoxical is because the very term “suicide bomber” evokes the reason for the action, and it is this reason which provides the explanation for the self-destroying actions. But suicides also have reasons for doing what they do. As long as we keep a suicide in the abstract as an act of freedom, then we’re obscuring the motives, and the paradox appears relevant. When we look at the underlying reasons, then we are no longer confused: the matter can simply be expressed as the fact that there are values greater than life for the sake of living.

Indeed, I think it is clear that we all hold some values greater than survival. If you ask people if they’d prefer to live 80 years in jail or 79 years of a charmed life, I’m pretty sure everyone will answer the latter. It will do no good to reply that such a choice represents the “suicide” of one year of life. Mere life is not worth that much, and we know it. No human being is contented by the simple fact of existing.

One may further reply that it is not the freedom to commit suicide that they find undesirable, but the suicide itself. But this sort of objection makes no sense to me. Why would you like the freedom to do something you find undesirable? I don’t like the freedom to utter hate speech, but I also know it is absolutely necessary in order to have any freedom of speech at all (people who confuse their personal dislike with objective facts are the ones fucking up free speech for the rest of us).

There is no more crucial freedom than to be free to decide when one is to die, and how. After all, suicide is really a person’s only escape, however bad life gets.

There is really no utilitarian reason for any society to outlaw suicide except the desire to slap a fake optimistic front to some people’s misery. Suicide is one of those things that angers people because it is a signal that there’s something wrong with their society, much like how atheists subconsciously remind religious people that the indoctrination they suffered through was useless. To admit that a suicide is in the right is a blow against all the illusions and delusions we mount to prevent ourselves from thinking about death, and the delusion that we are perpetuating ourselves through our children, our family, our religion, our country, and so on. It is a rejection of the “sanctity of life” that underlies all religions and statist ideologies.

Some use the slippery slope fallacy to argue that assisted suicide pushes us on the road towards making murder legal. Apart from the argument being fallacious by definition, therefore entirely useless, there is a vast difference between assisted suicide and murder, and that is consent. And since consent is pretty much the easiest political concept to identify and evaluate (being as it is just a yes or no question, with caveats to include agreements concluded in the past), I don’t think there’s much risk of murder being confused with assisted suicide.

I said I would talk about people with children. This is a more difficult issue because it involves the opposition of two valid principles: the right to die and the right of the child to be cared for. One obvious conclusion is that a person who is suicidal should not be in charge of a child anyhow, and that thus the suicide doesn’t really take away that much from the child. However, such a conclusion, I think, both underestimates the qualities of a suicidal person and the fact that a parent’s suicide has a deep and lasting impact on a child. Another conclusion would be that no parent of a young child should ever be allowed to commit suicide, but an absolute rule like this is unnecessarily cruel. I think there is probably a middle ground to be achieved in this particular scenario.

Ultimately, of course, anyone who wants to kill themselves will do so, with or without the current suicide prohibition. The real point of a debate on suicide is to address the issue of whether formal assistance (in whatever form) should be provided, and whether the legal and medical establishment should be allowed to persecute people for the (apparently serious) sin of having suicidal thoughts. The latter is absolutely laughable and, I think, indefensible. Having suicidal thoughts, or any other kind of thought, is not a sin, a crime or an illness (although it can be a symptom of such). The former is much more serious.

A more interesting issue (although not directly related to suicide), I think, lies in whether people should be allowed to sue their parents for wrongful life, and to what extent. There are precedents, but the bulk of such cases are leveled against medical practitioners, as if they had anything to do with the child being born. Obviously the most worthy target for such lawsuits would be the parents themselves, as they are the ones who took the decision of having a child without heeding the risks of such an action. The fact that they were badly informed about one of the multitude of risks does not make the doctors more culpable.

25 thoughts on “Is there a right to die?

  1. Gomi June 4, 2012 at 20:26

    I entirely agree with the idea of letting anyone have access to suicide assistance on demand, except for one small issue.

    When I was a kid, I read the Chocolate War. I don’t remember the book in any detail, except for one scene. A character (teenage boy) decides to commit suicide, so jumps off a bridge onto train tracks. As he’s falling, he changes his mind, but is irreversibly plummeting to his death, at that point. His inner dialogue, where he starts begging to live and calling for his mother, was pretty stark.

    Granted, it’s literary license and obviously of the “life is precious” school of thought, but it’s stuck with me.

    Death is a mistake you can’t correct, if a mistake it turns out to be.

    If you’re absolutely positive you want to die, then there should be no barriers in your way. Indeed, I think you should be helped, for reasons of basic compassion.

    But I’ve known too many people who considered, and even attempted, suicide in their youth, who are now glad they didn’t, to think making the option too easy is a good idea, necessarily.

    A waiting period would be an inexcusably cruel hardship on those people who want to die, but maybe a good option for those who might change their minds, given a change of conditions. I don’t know what solution would be best, but there should be some way of separating out those who truly want to die from those who are operating on more of a whim.

  2. Nevar June 5, 2012 at 01:30

    Seriously, you want to impose a waiting periond because someone is gonna put up their hand by mistake? Whether a whim or not doesn’t matter. I think the innate optmism towards life that humans have along with an incredible ability to adapt is what makes people “glad” they didn’t commit suicide. That, and the suicide prohibition is what causes many of these thoughts to arise in the first place.

    If suicide/assisted suicide is made legal, along with putting into place a support network, the way people feel and think about it will change drastically. Second thoughts may not even be a factor. Besides all that, the person falling to his death is probably just experiencing a natural fear of death. This will also diminish greatly with the removal of the suicide prohibition and people will learn that death is just another choice.

    Perhaps read as well if you haven’t.

    • Gomi June 5, 2012 at 05:57

      No, I *don’t* want to impose a waiting period. Like I said, it would be inexcusably cruel.

      And I disagree that it’s just adaptation and optimism that makes people glad they didn’t succeed in suicide. People consider, attempt or commit suicide for a lot of reasons. And *some* of those reasons are temporary. For those people, if they don’t commit suicide, and the temporary reason passes, they *could* be happy with their life, same as many other people.

      This isn’t saying that all people try suicide for temporary reasons, but, by the same token, not all people try suicide for permanent reasons.

      But I think you’re right, that with a change in suicide policy, there would be a change in views towards suicide. A change that would probably reduce it’s “temporary allure.”

  3. Nevar June 5, 2012 at 01:33

    Thx for the entry Francois. You’ve dealt with a number of points that I was a bit unclear about. I feel more confident to handle counter arguments to this position now :-)

    • Francois Tremblay June 5, 2012 at 01:35

      I’m glad I was able to clarify for you. Just from curiosity, what points were you unclear about?

      • Nevar June 5, 2012 at 14:10

        After reading the entry again, it seems it’s mainly only one point. I was struggling a bit with the suffering caused to others by one’s suicide. I would be responsible for causing this suffering when I kill myself. I concluded that perhaps life is just that way and some amount of suffering is unavoidable.

        However you mention that no one has the right to demand that another person help them fulfill their values, or to expect a specific person to remain alive because one needs their relationship with them. Also “It seems much more likely that distress is, like all emotions, not sufficient evidence to indicate that criminal harm has been inflicted on someone.”

        That basically clears it up for me. The suffering those who are left behind experience, is not directly caused by me and I am not responsible for it.

        • Francois Tremblay June 5, 2012 at 14:18
          • Nevar June 6, 2012 at 03:26

            Yes thank you. I read that from your mention of it on Irana’s blog. Also posted it to Gomi above lols.

            Quick note : Not sure if it’s your blog config or something else, but I don’t receive notifications via email even though I tick both the “follow-up” and “new posts” boxes when making a post. Also not stuck in spam.

            • Francois Tremblay June 6, 2012 at 03:31

              Really? I have no idea. That’s WordPress stuff. Did you enter your email correctly when you registered?

  4. estnihil June 5, 2012 at 10:26

    Bravo! Never before have I seen such a well-worded, concise and comprehensive article on the right to die.
    Just one thing: explain to me again why you don’t want a waiting period? My justification for the imposition of suffering was the violation of the right to live (the logic goes: they don’t really want to die, they are doing this to show people they are in a desperate situation – which is true of some people)* from those (and there are many) who could not give meaningful consent – and the only way to be able to give meaningful consent when you’re about to commit suicide is to show that you are firm in your wish to die and it’s not a one-off choice. I’m not sure now whether that’s the correct attitude to have or not, due to this article.

    *I try not now to talk about “future utility lost” because due to the nature of the universe, anything could lead to future positive utility being lost. You cannot be deprived of future positive utility because you do not own a particular future – that would make things, well, weird and unhelpful. Thanks to Bazompora: Here

    • Francois Tremblay June 5, 2012 at 12:24

      Actually, I didn’t say anything about waiting periods, Gomi did. I haven’t even considered the issue at all, in the entry or in my head.

      Did you say you’re justifying the imposition of suffering? Maybe that was a typo, so I’ll wait for confirmation on that.

      Anyhow, I think the main point is this:

      “the only way to be able to give meaningful consent when you’re about to commit suicide is to show that you are firm in your wish to die and it’s not a one-off choice.”

      Okay, but why is suicide a special situation? Why do we not argue this for everything else? We should have waiting periods for new jobs, any sexual activity (including cuddling and kissing), as well as buying anything at all. Or maybe you can demonstrate that suicide is indeed a special situation re: consent. Either way I look forward to your reply (partially because I like you, and partially because you are a commentator on my blog who is not Gomi).

      • estnihil June 6, 2012 at 12:50

        I’m inclined to think that it’s a special situation because it’s probably one of the only situations where no more opportunities will arise. There should be waiting periods for incredibly risky things I feel – anything that could cause death, and suicide is related to that. Ordinary decisions can be recovered from – eventually if you get the wrong job your income could recover. If you kill yourself, you won’t ever have the chance to reverse your decision, while most decisions in life can be effectively reversed (e.g. marriage by divorce). So since non-reversible decisions could possibly have more of an effect than reversible ones, waiting periods should be installed before they are undertaken. If I weren’t against having children entirely, I’d say that abortion should have a waiting period (albeit not too long) installed.

        • Francois Tremblay June 6, 2012 at 14:04

          But you can get lost on “what if”s endlessly for any decision you make. If I lose the chance to get that one job I wanted, I will never get it again. If you have sex with that person, you might regret it later. Every decision is final and potentially regrettable.

          Besides, many decisions we take imply some risk of death. A skydiving jump entails a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying. Car driving entails 1.7 deaths per 100 million miles. Should we have a waiting period before anyone skydives or drives a car? If the risk is too low, then what’s the threshold? 1? (getting shot in the face) 0.9? (jumping in front of a train) 0.43? (the chance of surviving three rounds of Russian Roulette) 0.13? (the added lethal risk of a cancer patient who doesn’t choose chemo)

          I understand where you’re coming from, I’m just trying to clarify the principle.

        • Brian L March 5, 2015 at 21:36

          I realize this is old, but if estnihil believes in waiting periods for ‘incredibly risky things’, sex should be one of them. Forced existence, possibility of STI’s all around. And by the by, I’m with Sister Y on this topic. Even a similar pattern ie. I tried as a child, and again twenty years ago. I would have preferred success.

  5. Sister Y June 6, 2012 at 10:11

    When I was a small child, I wanted to commit suicide (and tried), but was always afraid of what Gomi mentions above – getting a sudden attack of not wanting to die. When I finally made a serious attempt years later, that moment never came – just pure happiness. No moment of my life since then can compete with the peacefulness I experienced in that moment and every day I regret failing to die at that time.

    • Gomi June 6, 2012 at 11:10

      Then you should be given every opportunity and assistance in committing suicide successfully, if that’s what you want.

      Suicide is the right choice for some people, but everyone needs to be able to make fully aware decisions. Like Francois has previously argued against burqas, in our current society, an “informed choice” might just be cultural and social pressure to accept an assumed norm. For some people, that pressure can be for suicide, as much as it can against suicide for most people.

  6. Irina June 6, 2012 at 15:43

    Very good article, Francois, I finally got to read it. You’ve expressed a lot of what I had in mind, and in a better English I might say :) One objection to the assisted suicide being legal that I heard is that it would put pressure on those disabled terminally ill people who are being cared for. That they will feel obliged to choose to be euthanized because then everybody will know it is an option, thus why stay and be a burden. So this makes it wrong. But the suffering of those people who would like to get out, but can not – that’s fine. They should stay alive and keep suffering because god forbid some other people will feel like a burden.
    Also, I never heard of Tucker’s theorem. Makes sense.

    • Francois Tremblay June 6, 2012 at 16:11

      I think that’s a very, very silly objection, given the opposition to euthanasia RIGHT NOW. People are very much not eager to put pressure on terminally ill people to kill themselves. How would that change?

      On Tucker’s theorem, this is the name I’ve given it because I think it’s an important ethical principle. Here is the actual quote:

      “When I describe a man as an invader, I cast no reflection upon him; I simply state a fact, Nor do I assert for a moment the moral inferiority of the invader’s desire. I only declare the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone. That these desires are morally equal I cheerfully admit, but they cannot be equally realized. Since one must be subordinated to the other, I naturally prefer the subordination of the invader’s, and am ready to co-operate with non-invasive persons to achieve that result.”

      • Irina June 6, 2012 at 16:45

        They’re not saying relatives will be pressuring, but that “If the choice of euthanasia is considered as good as a decision to receive care, many people will feel guilty for not choosing death”
        I do share your view that the main reason society wants to have suicide/euthanasia illegal is to escape the underlying conclusion that life isn’t always worth living. That was what I wanted to write about, maybe still will.

        • Francois Tremblay June 6, 2012 at 16:48

          Yes, don’t let me stop you writing about it. I didn’t really explore the subject anyway.

          I feel very guilty for some things I’ve done in the past. I also have regrets for things I have not done. Guilt is something we all live with as human beings, I think. We are all disgusting crawling organisms who go around hurting each other, guilt is something we have to live with.

          • Irina June 6, 2012 at 16:59

            Well, the longer one lives, the more regrets one is going to have. And if one has some morals, one is going to have some self-criticism and guilt. Finding a balance between forgiving oneself and others and still remaining demanding is as desirable as it is difficult. Well…what else is there to do here if not trying to solve difficult tasks?.. (Sleep! That is what Im going to do just now. That’s easy)))

  7. […] I might as well address it here. Actually it was estnihil, an antinatalist, who brought it up on my right to die entry. My reply was that all decisions are final and potentially regrettable, including passing on a job […]

  8. cyanidecupcake May 1, 2014 at 00:03

    Some people would argue that Armin Meiwes assisted the suicide of Bernd Brandes. But whether it’s called “assisted suicide” or “consensual killing” I think one problem is that consent must be proven. With BDSM it can go one of 2 ways: either the defendant claims the victim “likes rough sex” or it was considered harmful regardless of consent (i.e. that consent can’t be given prospectively):

  9. […] As for “choosing life,” they don’t really want you to “choose.” An actual choice would require viable options, but to my opponents there’s only one viable option, and that’s staying alive at all costs.” – Is there a right to die? […]

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