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John Stuart Mill and the Right to Die
The consistency of individual autonomy, as Mill outlined, indicates that just as we can live as we wish (with certain constraints), we ought to be able to die as we wish, too.
Today is human rights day in South Africa. This piece seems to me appropriate, given that I think the right to die should be the next step in universal human rights.
A British man, Tony Nicklinson, wants to die. In 2005, Mr Nicklinson suffered a stroke that has left him with “locked-in syndrome”. This syndrome is, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of voluntary muscles in all parts of the body except for those that control eye movement.” Mr Nicklinson is only able to communicate through a perspex board, which interprets his blinking. He wishes now to end his life “lawfully”, because he considers it “dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable”. He is, therefore, seeking protection for any doctor that aids him in suicide. At the moment, the case is proceeding after a ruling from a High Court Judge.
Killing, whether oneself or others, is obviously a difficult topic. We cannot so easily dismiss it as merely a private affair of the individual, nor place it within the domain of government to restrict people from doing so. What we can be certain of is that each case demands its own engagement, looking at the facts, the evidence and the arguments. The imposition of outrage, premised on vague notions like dignity or sanctity, are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful.
What Mr Nicklinson’s case demonstrates though is the inconsistency of state interventions on individuals’ activities. Furthermore, Mr Nicklinson’s reasoning of banality and incapability – as a functioning adult – confirm findings in euthanasia research that indicates these as being the most common reasons for wanting euthanasia (or, in Mr Nicklinson's case, doctor-assisted suicide though I'll use "euthanasia" in this post) – it is not, as many people think, merely physical pain or the inevitability of death.
Destroy your lungs but don’t kill yourself
We’ve noted previously that John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle seems to be tacitly in place in Western societies, when we allow others to harm themselves through personally chosen activities: from smoking to rock-climbing. As Mill noted: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” When it comes to Mr Nicklinson’s case, we have a strange inconsistency: our principle that allows smokers to destroy their lungs disappears when it comes to the idea of ending the life we’ve otherwise allowed to be harmed. We allow a person to slowly or quickly destroy his life, but we don’t allow him to end it – even when the choice is determined by that same person.
Who else, rather than Mr Nicklinson, should decide how he should live or, indeed, whether he should live at all, when he is capable of communicating and contemplating this choice? It is true that we ought do all we can to provide him with reasons to live, since this amounts to giving more information with which he can make a more informed decision: the more information one has, the better decision it will be. This is not coercion but making available more evidence so that Mr Nicklinson is able to exercise his autonomy.
As we noted, we have no good reason to stop him from performing a self-harming act, unless it unnecessarily and excessively harms the lives of others.
To take an extreme but not uncommon example, a good reason to prevent someone from suicide is because of the young children he or she will leave behind, who cannot look after themselves. Even here, though, we have to ask if we really want children being looked after by a suicidal person. One way of responding that I can see, instead, is a good reason to remove the children from the parent so that he or she can die in peace – safe with the knowledge that his or her children are being looked after.
Indeed, each case where we prevent a rational, competent adult (also assuming this person isn't temporarily insane, depressed and so on) from committing suicide because of loved ones is usually a reason to indicate to that suicidal person that he or she ought to make sure their loved ones are looked after before “exiting”. There is no definitive, all-encompassing response or reason to prevent a rational, competent adult who wishes to commit suicide from doing so. This doesn’t mean we give up, it merely means we accept whatever his or her choice is after, as Mill put it “reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him but not … compelling him.”
Accepting the conclusion
I do not think death is essentially a harm and, indeed, consider Mr Nicklinson’s a benefit, if that is what he wants. Regardless of my or your view, we must remember that we live in societies that allow people to destroy their lungs, livers and lives in general. They can do so because we respect individual freedom.
Why then do we say it’s fine for a person to destroy his lungs, drive extremely fast cars, drink excessively, but not end his life upon his choosing, with his full consent, and painlessly? This is a violation of the very principle that allows us to live freely. We become hypocritical.
If we want our citizens to live as long as possible, then we cannot allow for smoking and these other activities (indeed, we should ban almost all red meat if we want healthier, longer-lived citizens); if, however we say others should be allowed to destroy their bodies, because choice matters more than presumed beneficial paternalism, then we have to ask why an informed, important choice like the right to die is removed.
Mill was aware, as am I, that this principle might be construed as overtly self-focused and unconcerned with the lives of others. But that misses the point. In a later chapter of On Liberty, Mill writes:
“It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose that it is one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution, there is a need for a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good than whips and scourges, either of the literal of the metaphorical sort.”
It is for the good of all that we assess the consistency of our application of freedom. In cases where we allow people to destroy their lives but not end them, we are incredibly hypocritical if we can provide no good reasons why a private decision, made autonomously, should be impeded. We’ve noted even when there is a possible harm to others, this is also not a definitive – despite it being the most compelling – reason to prevent them from killing themselves.
I predict that many will mount the usual and/or refuted arguments of the dangers of euthanasia. But if you do, I ask you to keep in mind two things. Firstly, ask yourself whether those arguments actually apply to Mr Nicklinson’s individual case and, secondly, whether the choices of others should trump Mr Nicklinson’s choice to kill himself (with doctor assistance).
Image Credit: Zsolt, Biczó/Shutterstock
Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.
- If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
- Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
- In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.
- White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
- Carbon is an essential component of life.
- White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
What Are White Dwarf Stars?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7b046e546ce994682b2553a8c978eb32"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/77a1KSxfaR0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.
- Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
- The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
- What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
3 Tips on Negotiations, with FBI Negotiator Chris Voss | Best of '16 | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b86d518e9f0c9f9d7a7c686e07798152"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-FLlBchonwM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This question forces a response, but—and this is key—the other person has to consider your side of the argument. They have to look at the situation from your perspective if they hope to offer a solution.</p><p>Offering a real-world example, Voss mentions coaching a high-end real estate agent. They were leasing an expensive home in the Hollywood Hills. The first time the negotiators asked the "how" question, the leasing agent relented on a number of terms. A little while later, they asked again. This time, the agent said, "If you want the house you're going to have to do it," signaling that the end of negotiations had been reached. </p><p>Voss says that "how" is not the only word that works. "What" is also a powerful entry into negotiations, such as "What am I supposed to do?" Again, you're forcing the other person to empathize. </p><p>This is a particularly tricky skill during a time when most conversations are online. Nuance is impossible without the immediacy of pantomimes and vocal fluctuations. Whataboutism is too easy an escape. </p>
Aikido Morihei Ueshiba (1883 - 1969, standing, centre left), founder of the Japanese martial art of aikido, demonstrating his art with a follower, at the opening ceremony of the newly-opened aikido headquarters, Hombu Dojo, in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1967.
(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)<p>Online debates often amount to little more than frustrated individuals pulling out their hair. In his book, "Against Empathy," Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom writes that effective altruists are able to focus on what really matters in everyday life.</p><p>For example, he compares politics to sports. Rooting for your favorite team isn't based in rationality. If you're a Red Sox fan, Yankees stats don't matter. You just want to destroy them. This, he believes, is how most people treat politics. "They don't care about truth because, for them, it's not really about truth."</p><p>Bloom writes that if his son believed our ancestors rode dinosaurs, it would horrify him, but "I can't think of a view that matters less for everyday life." We have to strive for rationality when the stakes are high. When involved in real decision-making processes that will affect their life, people are better able to express ideas and make arguments, and are more receptive to opposing ideas. </p><p>Because we "become inured to problems that seem unrelenting," it's imperative to make the problem seem immediate. As Voss says, giving the other side "the illusion of control" is one way of accomplishing this, as it forces them to take action. When people feel out of control, negotiations are impossible. People dig their heels in and refuse to budge. </p><p>What seems to be weakness is actually a strength. To borrow another martial arts metaphor, negotiations are like aikido: using your opponent's force against them while also protecting them from injury. Forcing empathy is one way to accomplish this task. You may get more than you ask for without the other side ever realizing they surrendered anything.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>