After Euthanasia: Will Our Heroes Still be Heroic?

Posted on March 14, 2011

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From a guest blogger:

The Glorious Dead?

A sculpture inside the European Parliament in Brussels is said to represent the interconnectedness of all people. Life in particular is a myriad of interconnected events, ideas and of course people. It has been even been said that a baby throwing a rattle out of its pram affects the farthest star (albeit not very much!). It should be no surprise, therefore, that opponents of euthanasia should insist that their objections are about more than the sufferings of particular individuals.

When confronted with the suffering of a good person our immediate reaction is, naturally, to wish to diminish the pain. When it is caused by a terminal illness it might appear that hastening death might be a legitimate way of reducing suffering altogether. Unsurprisingly, this debate sets issues of sanctity of life against the mantra of the individual’s right to choose.

In order adequately to uphold their position euthanasia advocates must assume that the individual’s right to choose death does not bring with it any meaningfully adverse consequences for other people or for society at large. One person can, in their view, choose life, another death, another marriage and another celibacy without any significant consequences for other people. This line of reasoning, however, ignores the fact that humans do not function in total isolation from one another. Marriage in particular is an institution that necessarily relies on society as a whole and that affects all members of society whether they like it or not. Likewise, life-related issues cannot leave out of the picture the social dimension. We all participate in life and any proposed alteration to the value in which life is held must inevitably amount to more than an issue of personal autonomy.

Moral acceptance of euthanasia necessarily involves such a change. By such acceptance we should be asserting that the individual has a right to value his or her life according to their wish. On the surface of it this sounds fairly straightforward. It seems, in fact, not a long way from saying that someone has free will and a right to self-determination to declaring just such a ‘right’ to end one’s life. Yet, since each individual would be the only authority competent to place a value on his or her own life this would also de facto prevent any rational defence of the position that all lives are equally valuable: exactly what the ‘right to life’ upholds. We should henceforward have a right to life, but only if we valued that life highly enough. People value their experiences in different ways; indeed, the reasons why one person valued life and another did not would become irrelevant. One person might be in indescribable agony yet still possess the will to live, while another who suffered from depression but was otherwise healthy might think life not worth living and seek euthanasia. For consistency’s sake one must allow that if one person can put a very low value on life, another can, logically, rate his or her own life very highly indeed. This ‘privatisation’ of the value of human life has at least one very curious knock-on effect.

If euthanasia is to be considered morally acceptable the concepts of martyrdom and self-sacrifice will need re-evaluating. It is reasonable to suggest that the self-sacrificing hero or martyr values something higher than their own life. This may be family, beliefs, country or even all three at once. But by asserting that human life is only as valuable as the individual rates it, is one not assuming that the value of the hero’s life is less than that of the coward who wants to survive at all costs? In contrast to the hero the coward does not value principles or country or family above all else.

If this were generally accepted, the lives and deaths of St. Thomas More, Socrates and all those who gave their lives in two world wars are less significant than those of persons who forsook principles in the name of self-preservation. Those who have sacrificed themselves for others are figures more tragic than heroic. St. Thomas More obviously did not think his life worth as much as his beliefs. He could have escaped the executioner’s blade if only he had believed his life to have been worth more than his faith.

What we have hitherto regarded as heroic sacrifice becomes by this new approach an admission of inadequacy. If these men were willing to sacrifice their lives we must assume that they were not worth all that much in the first place.

I do not mean to suggest that advocates of euthanasia are necessarily cowards. Nor is cowardice per se what the moral acceptance of euthanasia would innevitably entail. But by allowing euthanasia society would not only be changing the value we place on life but also the view we should take of sacrifice and martyrdom even for the noblest of causes.

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