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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
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.