The Living Obligation
An Examination of What the Right to Live REALLY Means…
And How it Affects the Ethics of Euthanasia and the Abortion Debate
In the United States, as well as in various other parts of the world, many people are opposed to the moral permissibility of euthanasia, and many religious devotees believe suicide is a sin. Of course, these two moral stances are often not mutually exclusive. But rather, they are usually held simultaneously, especially if the subscriber is of the Christian persuasion. And this supplies evidence as to why most Americans vote against proposals to legalize active euthanasia, and is perhaps why the Christian-dominated U.S. prohibits it in 48 states. Anti-euthanasia advocates, more often than not, primarily base their conjecture on the premise that human beings “lack the right” to kill themselves. Plus, these same prohibitors also tend to maintain that assisted suicide is equally immoral, and they then habitually, reflexively, and mistakenly base this belief on the notion that “life is a right” to which we are all entitled. And therefore interfering with, or putting an end to, the continued existence of ourselves or others is popularly believed to be immoral.
Before we delve into the depths of an argument that contends that possessing the simultaneous belief that we have the right to live, but lack the right to die, is a conflictive ideology, it is important to note that rights and obligations are integrally related. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. I do not possess a right to live, if the opposing party who wants to kill me does not possess an obligation to refrain from killing me…. which is why astronauts have no right not to be killed by a stray asteroid, because the asteroid has no obligation not to smack astronauts out of the sky.
“Suicide naysayers” believe that we are not only obligated to refrain from killing those who do not wish to die (obviously), but also that we must refuse the wishes of those who truly and desperately do wish to die. But claiming that human beings do not have the right to end their own existence (whether it be in situations in which the term euthanasia applies, or via “plain, old-fashioned” suicide), while at the same time asserting that all humans possess the right to live, is a logical contradiction that has gone pathetically unnoticed for far too long. If the educated population (which, unfortunately, may or may not include the lawmakers and voting populace who are capable of changing public policies) realized how inane and illogical it is to hold these two contradictory viewpoints, this “intellectual awakening” could potentially and directly end the suffering of our terminal and agony-ridden fellow citizens, and it could also end the callous dismissal of their right to make autonomous decisions…. even when that decision is death. There is a blatant, yet commonly unrecognized, contradiction present in simultaneously holding the view that we have the right to live, and yet we lack the right to intentionally terminate our own, personal existence, because the possession of a right inherently includes having the right to choose not to exercise that right, while at the same time still maintaining possession of the right that is “unused.” (Yes, this can be confusing, but upon merely a short exposition of this fact, you are likely to be astonished as to why you did not notice the transparent obviousness of this truism before…. That is, if you happen to be an unwitting member of the vast majority who were previously unaware of this and are therefore about to become enlightened.)
Take having the right to vote as an example to help explain why holding a right means having the right not to exercise it. Possessing the right to vote must also include the right to elect not to vote. For if we did not have the right to choose not to vote, then voting would not be defined as a right at all. Voting would be an obligation. Obligations must be met, and we are morally, legally, or otherwise not permitted to “opt out” of fulfilling our obligations. Legally speaking, paying our loathsome income taxes is an obligation in the United States, and we are not permitted to simply choose not to pay our annual taxes because we don’t feel like it. (Not without the risk of discovery and subsequent penalty, anyway.) However, voting, which for the purposes of clarification, I am going to treat as a right instead of a privilege that our forefathers and freedom fighters struggled to implement (“No taxation without representation!”), and the suffragettes arguably fought even longer and harder to possess, is a right that we are both morally and legally permitted to refrain from exercising for any reason we choose. Although, since this right was so vehemently and arduously won, many Americans do believe that all registered citizens should vote out of respect for the past struggles of voting advocates. However, simply because one may decide not to vote, this action does not mean that the non-voting citizen loses his right to vote. Nor should he suffer legal or moral ramifications because of this choice. Choosing not to exercise a right is as much of a recognition that the right exists as opting to exercise the right is, because feeling morally compelled to “use” a right treats the right as if it is instead an obligation instead of what it actually is- a right of freedom, or a choice, that one is entitled to either freely make or not make.
Legal obligations are represented in the form of laws. And one is not permitted to disobey a law without the risk of incurring legally implemented reprisal. Morally speaking, an ethical obligation means that we are expected and bound by vow, principle, ethical understanding, logical introspection, or respect for equality to perform a given action, and choosing not to perform our obligatory actions results in the perception that we committed an immoral injustice, thus resulting in our objectively being, or viewed by ourselves or others as, “an immoral person.”
Since in any desired utopian society, legality and morality ideally would “go hand in hand,” but in reality, often sadly do not, it is necessary for one’s educational expansion, and perhaps in order to avoid severe depression caused by our (at times) “shameful” history, to mentally separate the two. After all, legal mandates have historically trailed behind on the heels of ethical realizations, and the law has therefore often been forced to “play catch up” to morality. For example, the unpopular understanding (if only by a few) that slavery was highly immoral came long before slavery was deemed illegal. And the realization that women possessed the right to vote was also a forgone, albeit ignored, conclusion long before the implementation of the 19th amendment. This phenomenon rarely, if ever, happens the other way around, where the passing of a law occurs before the agreement that it is morally necessary to do so, because this occurrence would entail a logical impossibility and would contravene the purpose of establishing laws in the first place. (This is because, hopefully, most laws are established out of a judicious and enlightened need to protect, permit, or forbid certain moral and immoral actions, rather than the dogmatic (however commonly believed) alternative, in which our rights, obligations, and/or actions are viewed as morally meritorious or heinous simply because the law protects or forbids them.)
Even though it may not initially seem to be the case, one must take all of this into consideration in order to correctly perceive this argument’s thesis, that having the right to live must necessarily include the right to die. Because if living is a right that all persons possess, then all persons also have the right to choose not to exercise their right to live, and therefore, all persons possess the right to die. The right to die is inherently tied and logically bound to the right to live, just like having the right to vote, as opposed to being obligated to vote, must necessarily include the option to choose not to vote. In order for an action, concept, or state of being to be considered a right, it must include choice as its primary component. Otherwise, what we mistakenly perceive as a right is really an obligation “disguised in a right’s clothing.” Thus, the right to live includes the right to choose to die.
Now, not all legal rights are universally seen as morally permissible. Pro-life advocates surely recognize that women have possessed the legal right to terminate pregnancy for the last forty years, but they still believe abortion is far from morally permissible. And this demonstrates why it is a mistake to assume that morality and legality are synonymous. Like pro-life supporters, anti-euthanasia advocates believe life is a right that all human beings obtain, perhaps from the moment of conception. Other similarities between these two belief systems becomes clear when we consider that, according to pro-lifers, the right to live does not include the right exercise one’s autonomy by obtaining an abortion. And those who morally condemn euthanasia and suicide believe that the right to live does not include the right to exercise one’s autonomy by committing suicide. But both camps are logically bound to the truth that if life is a right, and not an obligation, then choosing to die must be a right as well. Of course, this truism shouldn’t really impact the pro-life movement, since embryos and fetuses are incapable of making any choices at all, including the choice to live or die. The point at which it all falls apart for pro-lifers and anti-suicide advocates is that the right to live stems from the right of autonomy. The right to control or govern the affairs of one’s own body is a prerequisite of sorts for the right to live. Since the right to make bodily choices depends first on the ability to make bodily choices, an embryo or fetus’ lack of choice-making ability would negate their possession of autonomy, and therefore their possession of a right to live, just as my physical inability to fly like Superman negates the existence of my right to fly like Superman. (See “Autonomy IS Life” on morellaty.com.)
While writing this essay, I became a bit flummoxed at this point because I wondered for a moment if a lack of ability always led to a lack of the right to that ability. After all, barring any unforeseen mishaps in development, fetuses will one day be able to make choices, so perhaps their right to autonomy, and therefore their right to live, should be preserved due to the presence of future possibilities. I was able to quickly dismiss this thought from my brain, since it relied on the inherently flawed potentiality argument, beautifully disproven by Judith Jarvis Thomson and the like. But then I asked myself whether paraplegics, who lack the ability to walk, therefore lack the right to walk. Of course, this question relies on the supposition that there IS a right to walk, and of this I am unsure. What was more concerning than whether “the right to walk” exists was whether the lack of possessing a right to walk would then render a paraplegic’s right to medical treatment, in the hopes of gaining the ability to walk, nonexistent. After all, if he has no right to walk, does he have no right to be treated in the hopes of one day walking? Upon reflection however, I realized that what I was really asking was whether paraplegics, just like able-bodied people, are entitled to competent health care. And this was an answer of which I was certain. After all, if rights and obligations maintain an integral relationship, then another scenario instantly popped its way into my head. I do not have the right not to get “terminal” cancer, because cancer has no obligation to refrain from infiltrating my body. And I do not have the right to be cured of terminal cancer, since no one is under the obligation to do the impossible. However, I perhaps do have the right to receive treatment for cancer and for health care professionals to do all they can to improve my quality of life. And this is simply because those same health care professionals have an obligation to TRY to cure me and treat me to the best of their ability. And the same can be said for paraplegics. In this case, it is not a paraplegic’s lack of ability to walk that denies his right to do so, it is the fact that no one is obligated to cause him to walk that denies him the right to walk, if his prognosis for one day walking is slim to none…. but the doctors who treat him ARE perhaps obligated to try to improve his quality of life as much as they can. In other words, all patients are entitled to competent health care. So all the paraplegic is entitled to, is not the right to walk, but the right to be provided with the opportunity to improve his circumstances if they can be improved. Furthermore, he cannot be thwarted from pursuing treatment, because others have the obligation to refrain from interfering with his health-care-related bodily choices, or in other words, his autonomy. Any rights he may have in regards to his attempt to walk are only present because he is an autonomous individual…. And therefore it seems as if autonomy itself is a precursor for nearly all possessed rights, and autonomy is only held by those who have at least a minimal ability to use it. Having no ability to make choices whatsoever negates the right of autonomy, just as my lack of having any ability whatsoever to breathe underwater negates my right to live like a fish.
In an attempt to get back to the issue at hand, in order to preserve the beliefs of those who oppose the choice to die, ongoing human existence is forced to become an obligation, and this particular theoretical reconstruction would undoubtedly affect the pro-life movement’s ability to hold on to any sort of reasonable and logically sound argument…. Or so it will be demonstrated later.
In case you were wondering what might happen to our standard obligation to not kill those who have a right to live, since the right to live includes the option to choose not to live, rest assured that this does not mean that others are somehow released from their moral obligation to refrain from killing us without our consent. This is because having a right necessarily entails that others have an obligation to respect our rights, and they must refrain from infringing upon them without our permission, until the time of our death, or until such time as we freely, autonomously, and permissively forfeit our rights. (And this is exactly why when we choose to vote, we cannot be intentionally blocked or restrained from doing so. And even when we choose not to vote, we still cannot be stymied if or when we change our minds.) But what if life was not a right but a privilege? In order to demonstrate the relationship between privileges and obligations (or you may want to categorize them as “duties” for the sake of clarification), think of this concept as akin to the option or privilege of owning a car (or any other object). When you purchase a car, it becomes your property, even an extension of your autonomy, and you are entitled to all of the rights involved in and attached to ownership. Even though owning a car is a privilege, ownership comes with certain rights. You have the right that no one may steal your car without egregious reprisal, or drive it without your expressed and uncoerced permission. You have the right that no one may vandalize your car or steal bits and pieces of it without being punished for doing so. (Although criminals often get away with this behavior if they are not caught.) And all others are obligated to abide by these restrictions, simply because you chose to own property. However, you are by no means obligated to own a car, nor are you entitled to, guaranteed, or have a right to ownership, and so if you decide to freely, and with your informed consent, sell your car to another person, then you no longer possess the right for it not to be stolen or vandalized. Just as you have the right to protect your property, and others have the right to respect your ownership of said property, you also have the right to relinquish this property to another person. Once this happens, it is logically impossible for someone else to steal or vandalize a car (or any object) that you do not own anymore.
Comparatively, this would be true if live was a privilege as well. Once you freely agree to give up your privilege to live, either by making the decision to end your own life, or by giving your expressed and informed consent to allow someone else to kill you, the obligation for others to refrain from ending your life no longer exists. In other words, you may choose to not exercise your privilege to live any longer. You can “relinquish your privilege to live away,” so to speak. But just as you are able to change your mind about selling your car, up until the point in which a contract is signed, or money changes hands, or the registration is put in someone else’s name, or the car itself is handed over to another person, you certainly have the right to change your mind regarding foreswearing your privilege to live up until the moment that you cease living…. in which case you would simply be unable to express your preferences anymore, given that you would be, well, dead. The moment death occurs, it is too late to ask for your privilege to live back. And this is, of course, a logically true and obvious conclusion.
As briefly mentioned above, the point at which the right to live and the example of “vehicle ownership” may differ is that no one has the right to own a car. Owning a car, or any other non-essential form of property, is a privilege, and human beings reflexively conceive if life as a right and not a privilege…. but then, somehow, many of us attempt to rationalize the permissibility of capital punishment by claiming that executed convicts lost their privileges to live by exercising extremely immoral behavior. Privileges differ from rights in that they must be earned, and then they must continue to be earned in order to be maintained. Perhaps part of attaining the privilege of owning a car is that you “earn” the car with a decent credit rating, and then continue to earn the privilege to possess the car by not skipping your monthly car payments. Once you have ceased to pay the balance on your partially-purchased vehicle for a certain amount of time, you forfeit the privilege to own the car, along with the included rights that came along with the privilege of ownership, such as the right for the car not to be stolen, or even unjustly repossessed by the bank without cause.
As mentioned previously, life, too, may be a privilege, and not the “automatic” right we habitually assume it to be. (See the article, “Not A Right at All,” on morellaty.com for arguments supporting this theory.) However, the contradiction involved in dually maintaining that we have the right to live, and yet not the right to die, is just as present and problematic if life is actually a privilege instead of a right, since privileges also entail no obligation to continue possessing them. And since they are privileges, and therefore dependent upon one’s own actions for ongoing possession, it is conceivable that they are even “easier” to forfeit than rights…. especially since rights are possesed forever, are not “action-dependent,” and one does not lose his or her rights simply by choosing not to exercise them temporarily. After all, if a person chooses not to vote in an election, he or she does not lose the right to vote because of this choice. Privileges though, only exist when they are earned, and certain immoral or illegal actions can potentially render them non-existent to the individual who “loses” them. To stick with the same comparison, driving is a privilege, whereas car ownership should perhaps be conceived of as less of a privilege and more of an option limited to those who can afford it. And this is simply because options tend to be amoral and privileges often carry moral implications. It is neither moral nor immoral to choose to purchase and own a car. But driving is a privilege, and driving recklessly, an action that can cause a driver to lose his privilege to drive, is an immoral action. Driving responsibly should be viewed as morally commendable.
At any rate, in order to be granted the privilege to legally drive said car, one must earn this privilege by passing a written exam and demonstrating certain skills. Ongoing possession of this privilege is earned through obeying the rules of the road and avoiding the accumulation of citations. But along with the privilege of driving, just as is the case with rights, we have the right to choose not to drive at all. In fact, we may decline any or all opportunities to take advantage of any privilege. Thus, if life is a privilege, then it makes little sense to claim that we are bound to continue exercising it. Simply because the privilege to drive is there, waiting to be earned if we so desire, does not mean that we must drive at all costs, regardless of our desire to do so. And likewise, if we have a privilege to live, we can choose not to hold this privilege any longer than we choose. To disallow this would require defining life as a concept that is different from a right or privilege, and to label or conceive of it as something else entirely. In this case, we are going to see what happens when we conceive of life as an obligation, which is the only option left for anti-euthanasia advocates if they wish to maintain that suicide is immoral.
Anti-euthanasia activists, and those who claim suicide is a “sin,” or that we do not possess the right to purposefully terminate our own lives for whatever reason, cannot logically also believe that life is a right (or privilege). But unfortunately, the act of maintaining a belief or opinion does not always include the ability to understand the correct usage or definition of the terminology one employs in order to express that belief or opinion. So perhaps what those who morally condemn self-termination actually mean is that we have an obligation to live, and not a right (or privilege) to live. This perspective would mean that the relationship between rights and obligations, at least insofar as life is concerned, is subject to revision, because having a right normally necessarily entails that others have an obligation to respect those rights and not infringe upon them. So if living is an obligation, and not a right, then in order to maintain one’s view that suicide and assisting others in achieving death is immoral, the right to live would no longer exist. We would instead possess an obligation to live…. And an independent obligation at that, one that is not tied to any particular right anyone else possesses.
However, the very existence or establishment of this “new” paradigm would inevitably lead to certain problematic implications. As briefly mentioned above, contending that life is an obligation would even affect the pro-life movement’s primary mandate, that fetuses have a right to live. But if all humans, including fetuses, are obligated to live, then this means that all humans are required to make decisions that further their continued existence in order to fulfill this obligation. And fetuses cannot make decisions. See the problem? Having legal or ethical obligations necessitates the ability to understand what those obligations are, as well as the ability to perform obligatory actions. This is because the choice not to abide by our obligations towards others carries certain penalties, either legally or morally. And if the act of not fulfilling an obligation didn’t incur legal punishments or the objective judgment that the unfulfilled obligation caused an unethical action to occur, then this means that the entity who did not fulfill the obligation never really possessed an obligation at all. This is exactly why infants and toddlers are not obliged to “do” anything. Can you imagine attempting to claim that they are? The reason why we are able to confidently assert that those who do not abide by their obligations are unethical, or committed an immoral action, is because, to put it plainly, we believe “they should have known better.” One cannot morally vilify a person for not fulfilling his or her obligations if the person did not understand the obligation or was unaware that the obligation even existed. When swimming in the ocean, I do not possess the right not to be eaten by a shark, because the shark is unaware that it has an obligation not to eat me. And the shark’s under-developed mind, and therefore obligation-oblivious state, means it has no such obligation. Again, this is because rights do not exist without obligations, and vice versa, and obligations only exist through even the most basic realization and understanding of them. Whereas possessing a right does not require that one understands that right or is even aware that they have it…. which is why we are able to rationally claim that infants have a right to live but have no obligation to refrain from killing others who have a right to live. (No one vilifies or morally condemns fetuses for causing the deaths of their mothers, and no pregnant woman has a right not to die from “natural” pregnancy complications… at least, she holds no such right that her fetus is obliged to “respect.”) But certainly fetuses qualify as the quintessential example of humans who are unaware of the existence of obligations. And it cannot be argued that a fetus could somehow transition from having a right to live to having an obligation to live, since rights are permanently held once they are obtained until death.
Furthermore, it cannot be denied that the right to live is born out of the right of autonomy. For if I have the right that you not choke me, then I also have the right that you not continue to choke me until I die. Since the act of murder is dependent upon physically imposing upon a person’s body without their permission, committing murder must first involve a violation of autonomy- an initial action of infringing upon a person’s right to deny another from causing them bodily harm, before that perpetrator causes such egregious harm that their violation of another’s autonomy causes the death of the autonomous individual. And this will continue to be the case until such time as we are able to murder others via telepathy. (hahaha.) But even then, a comically impossible ability to “wish someone dead” would have to involve doing something to a person’s body against his or her will, thus violating that person’s autonomy, before and while this violation causes the autonomous individual’s death. This is because murdering someone with your thoughts, as opposed to using your hands, or a weapon held in your hands, would still have to cause bodily harm to that person in order to bring about death. And I cannot see a means of getting around the fact that causing death can only be achieved through assault or interfering somehow with the corporeal functions of one’s physical being.
So then, if we think of life as an obligation, what would become of autonomy? Surely autonomy cannot also be an obligation. How could we be obligated to govern the affairs of our bodies? This would mean that I would have to determine everything that happens to my body. There would be no “passing the buck,” so to speak. Others could never “decide for me.” This would disallow husbands from deciding how their comatose wives should be treated. (Or vice versa.) Plus health care would become practically nonexistent, since only the owners of bodies could decide what was best for themselves. And imagine being a parent under this new paradigm! Children would be obligated to make every decision that concerns their bodies, and not doing so would mean that they immorally fail to fulfill this obligation. And trying to finagle a worldview in which individuals are obliged to exercise autonomy, but certain individuals are obligated to overrule that autonomy, and that in some cases, people may allow others to decide what is best for their body, would cause indecipherable, complicated, and confusing rules and exceptions. The beauty of the Right to autonomy is that one can choose not to “exercise” it (by allowing others to make decisions for us every now and again) and then “choose to take it up it again” at any point without ever truly loosing the right to it. (And yes, in case you are thinking of what was previously written, it is true that embryos and fetuses do not possess the right to autonomy, and therefore also the right to live, because they lack the ability to make bodily choices and assert preferences, which presents itself as a problem only for pro-life supporters. But for more explanation on this, I refer you to the two other “morellaty” articles mentioned in this essay.)
Other implications arise out of the logically convoluted way in which we presently view life and death, as well as the reflexive intrinsic value we place upon our right to live autonomously. You see, there is a problem with being against the moral permissibility of euthanasia and/or suicide, because anti-euthanasia and suicide supporters are opposed to the notion of killing oneself directly, but are often not opposed to the notion of “allowing oneself to die.” In other words, our belief in preserving the sacred right of freedom allows us to kill ourselves “indirectly” and even “slowly.” We can take the example of the religious mandates held by Christian Scientists, who believe that suicide is a sin, like most Christians do, but also believe in the right, and their divinely inspired “rule,” to refuse medical treatment. But even when the most devout members of this sect believe prayer can cure deadly illnesses, it cannot be denied that there exists a mental “sliding scale” of recognized possibilities that range from a sneaking suspicion, to an unspoken realization, to a realistic probability, or even to a rationally-held certainty that refusing medicine may very well bring about the death of the ailing person they are praying for. So in this case, the obligation to live can be accompanied by the obligation to refrain from directly killing another person, but not necessarily the obligation to refrain from helping another person to continue existing, or to save another’s life by any means necessary. (This is true amongst the non-devout and, of course, as well as those who hold the tenant to not interfere with “God’s plans” at its highest). But this ideology does not make sense if life is an obligation and not the right we automatically assume it to be.
If we consider DNR orders, or even the decision to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, or to clog one’s arteries daily with an extremely unhealthy diet, we can see the disparity between enforcing an obligation not to kill oneself directly, but allowing for the moral permissibility that one may “indirectly,” yet intentionally, through recognition that the act is dangerous, kill oneself through purposeful, life-threatening actions, albeit “slowly,” by exercising carelessness, neglect, or disregard. So while I may not be morally permitted to drown myself, somehow I am permitted to chain myself inside a tank of water merely for the entertainment of escape-artist enthusiasts. And this doesn’t make much sense.
The obligation to refrain from directly causing the death of a person, but the moral permissibility to stand idly and consciously by as another person dies, resembles the subtle difference between directly and intentionally killing oneself versus purposefully or neglectfully “allowing oneself to die.” If we are obligated to live, and others are obligated not to kill us, wouldn’t this necessarily entail that we are also not permitted to purposefully “allow ourselves to die,” and comparatively, that others are not permitted to allow us to die?
The answer to this quagmire is yes, and the logical and problematic implications in maintaining that we have an obligation to live, rather than a right to live, are as immense and numerous as they are inescapable…. even for escape artists. The obligation not to directly & “quickly” kill oneself would also have to entail the obligation not to allow oneself to die through disregard, carelessness, neglect, or daring acts. And this is because life is synonymous with continued existence. An obligation to live entails that we are obligated to continue existing, and this directly implies that if we are obligated to live, then we are also obligated to refrain from interfering with, or ignoring, anything that would allow us to continue existing. Nor could we commit actions that interfere, or could potentially interfere, with our continued existence. Call this the obligation of non-interference, if you will. The obligation to continue existing, through the restraint of “directly” and “quickly” killing oneself, would have to mean that one is obligated to continue existing AT ALL COSTS, since obligations are not optional and cannot be ignored or disregarded without moral or legal reprisal. (Remember, paying taxes is an obligation, and we therefore cannot simply “opt out” of paying them.) This means that the obligation to refrain from actively killing oneself with an intentional action also means that one is obligated not to kill oneself through inaction or actions that interfere with our best chances for survival. So signing a DNR order, a living will, or even intentionally committing actions that carry a high risk of death, would be equally as immoral as directly killing oneself (committing suicide), since the obligation to continue existing would have to include these latter actions.
Furthermore, it does not make sense to claim that we have an obligation to live, but only insofar as we refrain from “directly and quickly” causing our own deaths. Why should the “quickness” or “slowness” of the cessation of our existence matter? And if the time in which death occurs does matter, how quick or how slow would death have to occur in order to be morally permissible? And how likely or eminent must death be in order for my actions to be condemned on moral grounds? If I swallow a pill that will kill me in a year, did I commit suicide upon my ingestion of the pill or at the moment of my death? And regardless of the answer, what is the difference between swallowing a slow-acting suicide pill and committing negligent “unhealthy” actions that will kill me in a year (or ten)?
Perhaps it is one’s intention that matters and not the speed or likelihood of one’s death. Maybe this is the criterion upon which we should rest moral judgements about the obligation of non-interference. If I intend to die in a year, and that is the reason I swallow the pill, then perhaps this intention can give others a reason to consider me immoral. However, let’s face it- swallowing a pill that you believe will kill you, based on the warning label on the bottle, or the testimonials of others who have witnessed the pill’s effects, is really no different than choosing to engage in actions that are unadvisable because they are likely to cause your death. After all, it is possible that the suicide pill may not kill you, just as it is possible that hanging yourself by the neck or slicing your wrists may not kill you, and if one’s intention is truly to commit suicide, there are far more effective means of doing so than by swallowing a very slow-acting pill. Likewise, engaging in highly dangerous activities may or may not kill you, and yet many people choose to engage in such activities despite even the most stern warnings that the likelihood of death is high. Plus, since you alone are the only one who is aware of, and capable of interpreting, your own intentions, if the sole basis for immorality truly rests on the intention of death, in order to avoid “being immoral,” a suicidal person need only creatively manipulate his motives. He can simply hold a fistful of narcotics and rather than think, “I hope this kills me,” or, “I intend to die,” before ingesting them, think to himself, “It’s time to determine whether or not I can survive this!” After all, I must admit that in the midst of my crazy youth, in which my equally insane friends and I enjoyed the practice of jumping off bridges into the ocean below, there were times in which I thought, “I’m about to see whether or not I can survive this jump.” And this was especially true when our daring escapades took us to progressively higher bridges. In truth, does a man who jumps off the Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridge not think the same? In this case, the intention can easily become not necessarily to die, but manipulated into the intention to determine whether or not one lives.
Claiming that we have an obligation to continue existing, and that we are only morally permitted to die when an occurrence that is “out of our hands” or beyond our control happens to kill us (what some would dub “death by the will of God”), would create situations in which we would be forced to micromanage or micro-analyze almost every aspect and facet of our lives and decisions. For example, since the decision to choose to eat a double-bacon cheeseburger could possibly shorten our lives, depending upon how many of these meals we have eaten in the past, then one would be obligated to make a salad instead in order to preserve their obligation to continue existing. Eating a salad would not necessarily interfere with our continued existence, whereas eating the burger very well could. But then, in order to truly fulfill our obligation of continued existence, instead of just “half-assing” it, one would have to forgo laziness in favor of making sure that one washes the lettuce thoroughly in order to guarantee that one does not succumb to death via the ingestion of pesticide. And even before the salad is eaten, one should probably make sure that the vegetables that go into the salad are purchased from organic suppliers, so that one can consume the most amount of vitamins in order to abide by the obligation not to cause a situation that would shorten one’s life or contribute to the killing of oneself. As a matter of fact, perhaps one should omit junk food from one’s diet altogether, since eating unhealthy foods shortens one’s life and certainly contributes to the number one killer of American citizens, which is heart disease. And on that note, shouldn’t one micromanage all facets of one’s life in order to guarantee that one is not performing any actions that could potentially interfere with the obligation of continued existence? So no more reckless activities, or in other words, no more fun. As you can see, the most problematic implication of claiming that we have an obligation to live, or continue existing, is that it cuts down on the ability for one to enjoy life. In the pursuit of living, we would be forced to give up “living well.”
Furthermore, if one is not morally permitted to “kill oneself” through bodily neglect or dangerous activities, or even inaction (refusal of treatment), it would make sense that one also should not be permitted to “inactively kill” someone else, either. Because, for further consideration, which action is more unethical- suicide or murder? Remember the SATs and those annoying little analogies we all had to answer? “Cheese is to crackers as ketchup is to burgers,” or whatever? (I’m writing this while hungry.) Well, if the obligation to continued existence leads to the implication that we cannot also allow ourselves to die, then it would make sense that the accepted notion that we should not murder would also entail that we should not allow others to die as well. After all, those who are opposed to the moral allowability of euthanasia and suicide believe that these actions are wrong for the very same reasons that murder is wrong. According to them, we may not kill ourselves because we lack the right to do so, and we may not kill others because they have the right to live…. which deprives us of the right to kill them. We lack the right to do so. We are obligated to continue existing just as we are obligated to allow others to continue existing. Of course, suicide does not occur without first gaining the intended victim’s (which would be oneself) permission to die, but according to many of those who condemn it, self-termination still interferes with “God’s plan” and prematurely cuts off one’s continued existence (the rest of one’s life). In the case of murder, it is the continued existence of another person, rather than oneself, at issue. If we are all equal, then my continued existence is just as valuable as, and equal to, yours.
But this may be the very reason why it is essential for rights and obligations to have a relationship. We only have obligations insofar as they relate to the rights of others. And we only have rights in so far as someone else has an obligation to respect these rights. But if we hand out obligations like candy, rather then integrally and relationally tying them to the rights of others, then what we end up with is a series of obligatory rules, and then a subset of rules underneath those primary rules to explain them, illustrating when and where and how we should avoid or obey those categorical mandates. In other words, by claiming life is an obligation, we would be forced to explain that we have an obligation to continue existing, but only as long as we do not kill ourselves intentionally and quickly, and then of course we would be forced to explain how imminent or likely death must be in order to be morally acceptable or unacceptable. And somehow, we would also be obligated to refrain from killing other persons. But if asked why this is so, we could not answer that it is because other persons possess a right to live, because they wouldn’t. We would have to assert that it is because they have an obligation to live. But it is unclear how my obligation to refrain from killing you relates to your obligation to continue existing. Your obligations are your own, and you alone are responsible for fulfilling them. How would the fact that you have an obligation to live cause the existence of my obligation not to kill you? To illustrate, consider the example previously mentioned regarding taxes. I am obligated to pay my taxes. But does that mean you are obligated to let me pay my taxes? Would it be immoral if you paid them for me? No. I could not condemn you for doing so, nor could I consider myself immoral for not submitting the payment myself. Perhaps it is more accurate to claim that you are obligated not to interfere with my ability to pay my taxes, although this happens often every time the cost of living rises, and I am less and less able to give the government a portion of my dwindling checking account. But certainly others are under no obligation to insure that I am able to make the payment. Thus, my obligation to pay my taxes does not cause others to be obligated to insure that I pay them, nor does it mandate that businesses lower their costs so that I am able to do so, just as my obligation to live would not cause others to be obligated to allow me to live. So where would the obligation to allow others to continue existing come from then? How could we justify the existence of the obligation to refrain from interfering with the “living obligation” of others if life is really an obligation as opposed to a right?
I understand that I cannot murder another person, but only because I also understand that I am obligated not to infringe upon another person’s autonomy, because they have a right to that autonomy. My obligation exists because of the existence of another’s right. This is easy to grasp. However, it is less clear as to whether or not I must abide by an obligation that is not tied to someone else’s rights, but to someone else’s obligations. And since the obligation is to continue existing, I must wonder whether or not I am obligated to assist others in their continued existence, or as stated above, simply refrain from interfering with their continued existence. But regardless of the wishes of others, anti-euthanasia advocates have made it perfectly clear that I cannot assist others in dying, even with their permission. So does this mean that I must help people live at all costs and in all circumstances… Perhaps with the exception that I should not sacrifice my own obligation to live for others? Or should I forgo this exception if I am less important than another?
If killing oneself is even slightly more morally permissible or acceptable (forgivable?) than intentionally killing (murdering) someone else, then the obligation to continue existing, even by avoiding inaction or neglect, would imply that one also has a moral responsibility and obligation not to kill someone else through one’s own inaction as well. This would entail mandated, morally required good samaritanism. In other words, the obligation to continue existing would have to include the obligation to guarantee the ongoing existence of others. And this would mean that an array of problematic consequences and moral responsibilities would be heaped upon citizens.
Thus, the recognition that your money is not better spent choosing to buy yet another pair of patent leather black pumps, instead of financially providing access to feed a starving African child, would be just as morally aberrant as if you purposefully starved this child yourself. And is this a claim we are really comfortable making? Is the choice to not save another person’s life through inaction really as bad as murder? Some would say yes. Others, such as the conservative religious “right,” who condemn suicide and euthanasia on the basis that it is a sin, and yet seem to have no problem contributing funds towards the construction of yet another multi-million-dollar church, instead of forwarding that money to people who literally cannot live without it, would be guilty of committing a grave logical contradiction, and even a mortal sin themselves, if they continue to believe that life is a right, but we do not have the right to kill ourselves, which of course, as you have seen, means that life is instead an obligation.
But if life and continued existence is an obligation, then we also lack the right to choose to allow ourselves to die. Thus, this means that we lack the right to allow others to die as well, if the SAT’s analogy section taught us anything. “Suicide is to Allowing Oneself to Die as Murder is to Allowing Others to Die.” Remember, if the obligation to continue existing leads to the implication that we must continue existing at all costs, then the obligation not to cause the death of others must lead to the same implication- that we must not contribute to the death of others in any way or form. And these two obligations lead down the same road because the reasons for the existence of the obligations would be the same. However, if all of these complications are merely “hiccups” that “living-obligation” supporters can deal with, then so be it. If not, then it is high time that those who insist that life is a right, and yet still think we may not choose to die, realize that either they need to alter their conception of the word right and deal with the implications of doing so, or else they must change their views and accept the logical conclusion that euthanasia and suicide are neither immoral nor sinful actions, and truly are rights that we do in fact possess. If life is a right then, by definition, choosing to die is a right as well.
* Rights are the possession of the right-holder forever. They are not dependent upon whether they are initially earned or how well the holder behaves in order to maintain them. Privileges, however, must be earned, and it is possible that, through our own actions, we may lose certain privileges that we previously possessed. For the purposes of clear explanation, this essay assumes that voting is a right that all registered voters possess, even though, in reality, voting more closely resembles a privilege, since illegal and/or immoral actions can cause us to “lose” our voting privileges.
For Your Consideration: The impetus for this article came from a paper on euthanasia, written and submitted last semester by one of my more narrow-minded students. I am grateful that this kind of student is exceptionally rare. The student contended that “Life is a right all humans possess.” And yet, he then vehemently argued that we do not have the right to end our own lives, and those who commit suicide are “weak-minded individuals.” To him, those who endure unimaginable pain and suffering were made to suffer “for a reason” and he believed that they needed to “toughen up,” so to speak. According to the student, this belief was based on “how he was raised.” He wrote that he was taught, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” a sentiment I challenged by providing the retort, “If God never gives people more than they can handle, why do people kill themselves? Isn’t the decision to commit suicide made because the person simply cannot “handle” their pain any longer?” My response was then met with his repeated opinion that those who kill themselves, or long for death, are “weak.” So perhaps his callous idiom is in need of some tweaking (as much as he himself is undoubtedly in need of a nice, long stay at a labor camp or the effects of chemotherapy, since callousness usually stems from a lack of personal suffering and a sheltered and pampered existence). Maybe it isn’t entirely accurate that “God never gives us more than we can handle,” but rather, “God never gives those who can handle what God gives them more than they can handle.” And as ridiculous as this sounds, which it does…. although it might make a funny tee-shirt or bumper-sticker, if this belief about God were true, just think how little suffering there would be in the world. And for that reason, I wish it represented the true state of affairs here on Earth…. Then there would be no need to debate the ethics of euthanasia, suicide, or abortion at all, and I would be out of a job. But it’s a small price to pay for an end to all suffering.
As a college professor, my students often teach me as much as I teach them. Sometimes these lessons provide me with motivation and reasons to formulate and write original arguments, due to the espoused assertions or even questions that my students ask. And sometimes, but thankfully not often, the idea for a new article comes from a student’s determination to say or write something extremely ignorant, naive, or callous, either out of spite, malice, frustration, or because the student’s parents just didn’t quite fulfill their obligation to produce fully contributing members of society. I’m often baffled as to why people say the hurtful things they do from time to time, and so I’m equally unsure where some college students derive their blatant insensitivity. But if the willfully ignorant determination of others has taught me anything, it’s that we shouldn’t deride or chastise the “stupid” and insensitive things people say or do. Instead, we should use the presence or expression of ignorance to create something that can possibly change the perspective of the rational masses. We should use it as an opportunity to educate.
In other words, when you encounter a particularly ignorant individual, who says or writes or makes a bigoted assumption or close-minded judgmental remark, don’t just “turn lemons into lemonade.” When people want you to eat the rotten lemons they were raised on, especially when these lemons were the ONLY food they were given to eat, don’t shove the lemons back down their throat. Instead, grow your own damn lemon tree, then offer amazingly informative lemonade to everyone who is thirsty for knowledge…. Including the rotten lemon-eaters themselves. Chances are, the lemon-eaters will spit it out, even if it tastes like freshly-squeezed heaven. Why? Because it’s new, and their palettes are unfamiliar with the taste of enlightened goodness. They have gone thirsty for so long that they are unable to bear being quenched. But knowledge, logic, and information are acquired tastes. Don’t give up. Keep offering knowledge to the ignorant thirsty masses, and eventually, they will wonder how they ever survived the drought. A good place to start is your own home. Don’t dehydrate your family, your friends, and especially your children by feeding them bitter, sour, hate-filled rhetoric. If variety is the spice of life, then rational, reasonable, non-dogmatic, and logical thought must be the most essential sustenance in the world, wouldn’t you say? Cheers!
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