Thursday, April 07, 2005


Just a few slight thoughts on various distinctions that sometimes aren't made in disputes over public ethics.

There are two very different sorts of pro-life issues. The first is the inalienability of the right to life. The second is the governmental protection of it. This requires us to make some important distinctions between the way we treat euthanasia and the way we treat abortion.

Although it's not the only issue, the primary issue in cases of euthanasia is very often the inalienability of the right to life. Most euthanasia advocates put forward arguments that would require us to say that the right to life is alienable. That is, they hold positions that entail that we can alienate our right to life, or be presumed to have alienated our right to life, to someone else (friend, family, a doctor, the government). For those of us who believe that it is obvious that the right to life is not alienable, this is necessarily an utterly irrational move.

This can be contrasted with the case of abortion, in which inalienability is virtually never an issue. The primary line of pro-choice reasoning is not that the fetus has alienated its right to life (which would be utterly irrational, as well, and in a sense even more utterly irrational, since it cannot even be made to sound like it makes sense); the primary argument is the Roe argument that the government must be limited in what it can do with regard to the female body. In other words, while other arguments are often put forward, the real issue in the abortion debate is the limits of government. This is not an utterly irrational move; it is certainly true that government must be limited. The only question is whether the line of limitation is being drawn in the right place. Given this, one cannot treat euthanasia and abortion as parallel issues. The one is (in most of its forms, at least) simply perverse. The other, however, raises a genuine issue, even on the assumption that the pro-choice movement is wrong; ignoring this issue (and it is often ignored) opens a major vulnerability in many arguments for anti-abortion laws. This is why, despite being pro-life, I have much, much, much more sympathy for the pro-choice movement than for the euthanasia movement: the pro-choice movement has a real argument that needs to be taken seriously.

A different set of distinctions. We sometimes talk of a right to die with dignity. There are at least two ways to gloss this.

(1) A right to die (so as to preserve dignity)
(2) A right to preservation of dignity (even in dying, or especially in dying).

(2), I take it, is relatively uncontroversial. (1), however, is immensely controversial. Sometimes, however, people talk as if (2) implied (1); which is certainly not true without some controversial assumptions. (2) does, I think, sometimes (if some plausible conditions about impossibility of real treatment are met) bring us to the conclusion that the only thing we can genuinely do for a person is to sit vigil as they die, as many families do every day of the year. There is no shame in dying, and no shame in coming together with family so that a loved one will not die alone; indeed, if human dignity means anything, this is one of the most common ways in which human dignity is exhibited. But this is very different from acting to cause someone's death, as if death as such, rather than humanity in the face of it, were what gave one dignity in certain cases. The two need to be kept quite distinct, by people on both sides; something different underlies each.

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