When it comes to voluntary euthanasia, there are a lot of arguments in favor of showing that it can be morally permissible. One of the chief arguments is from an appeal to self-determination. I don’t think this appeal to self-determination, or what some people call autonomy, should convince us that voluntary euthanasia is moral. Self-determination is not what would make voluntary euthanasia moral. If someone got euthanized because of their use of their autonomy, this doesn’t mean that the euthanasia was moral. However, in this paper, I will give what I find as a compelling and serious argument for thinking that autonomy makes euthanasia moral. This notion of self-determination making voluntary euthanasia moral will ultimately come down to a discussion of rights and the right to life. Where those in favor of voluntary euthanasia will want to show that having a right to life does not make it immoral for someone to engage in voluntary euthanasia in the name of self-determination.
For the most part, we want to say that people should be able to determine how their life goes. We want to set up the boundaries of self-determination where my autonomy begins to conflict with another’s autonomy, especially if that conflict is going to harm them, or if it’s illegal. However, if my decisions and actions aren’t going to harm anyone else, infringe on someone’s own self-determination, or go against the law, I should be able to do whatever I want. I should be able to wear the clothes I want, eat the food I want, watch the movies I want, go to school where I want, study what I want, work where I want, live where I want; the list could be endless. I would say we even would hold that in order to rightfully respect autonomy, we must allow people to do things we may feel are stupid or even destructive to their own life. Now, in these cases we may plead and attempt to convince them not to do whatever the act is that we disagree with, but it doesn’t seem like we would consider it immoral to do something others may find stupid. Again, barring those few exceptions I stated earlier, we normally would say it’s morally permissible for people to exercise their autonomy to do things that others may think is silly or unintelligent or in some cases destructive to their life.
I think relationships are a good example of us showing our commitments to respect self-determination. I think we can all envision a time when one of our friends had a boyfriend or girlfriend that we didn’t like, or even didn’t think was good for them. We may have disliked this girlfriend or boyfriend, or thought they weren’t a good person, or even thought that our friend being in a relationship with them was negatively impacting their life. With all that said, I think we still have this sense that we shouldn’t intervene without their permission to end the relationship. I think a lot of times the thought we have is, “This relationship is bad, but it’s their life, so I have to let them do what they want.” Even with all our grievances against the relationship, it seems strange to say they are acting immoral for being in the relationship. We may think they are displaying poor judgement and decision-making skills, but I think to say they are being immoral for staying in the relationship through their own autonomy is inappropriate.
Now those who say voluntary euthanasia is moral will want to appeal to the same sort of usage of self-determination. Just because someone may be uncomfortable with the idea of someone voluntarily euthanizing themselves doesn’t make it immoral. Just because someone may think it stupid, or silly, or a display of poor judgement to euthanize yourself doesn’t make it immoral. If you are entitled to determine if you go to college, where you work, if you work, who you marry, where you live, how many kids you have, if you even have kids; why are you not also entitled to determine how long you live? If you are essentially entitled to determine virtually every aspect of your life, why are you not also entitled to determine when your life ends? How is it not your own right to decide to end your life? How could it be morally wrong for you to use your autonomy to stop your life, the exact same autonomy you used for every other act in life? These are the sort of objections and questions that will be brought up by those who are in favor of voluntary euthanasia and say it is moral. I think it’s now important to investigate why they argue this and how they come to their conclusion.
Arguments surrounding this topic will invariably come down to talks about rights and then the right to life, and the meanings of these things and how self-determination interacts with them. Having a right means that you have an entitlement to act a certain way. In Phillipa Foot’s article, “Euthanasia”, she gives us a couple definitions regarding rights which will be a good place for us to start talking about rights. The first way she talks about rights is in the sense of liberty. This is to mean that, “no one can demand that you do not do the thing which you have a right to do.” (Foot, Euthanasia). So, if you have a right, then you are entitled to act in whatever way that right protects, and no one is able to demand that you do not act that way. If you have a liberty right to eat pizza, then no one can demand that you don’t eat pizza.
This is different and less authoritative than a claim-right. Foot describes a claim right this way in her article, “This is the kind of right which I have in addition to a liberty when, for example, I have a private parking space; now others have duties in the way of noninterference, as in this case, or of service, as in the case where my claim-right is to goods or services promised to me. Sometimes one of these rights gives other people the duty of securing to me that to which I have a right, but at other times their duty is merely to refrain from interference.” (Foot, Euthanasia). What she is saying is if you have a claim-right to a parking space, others must not demand that you don’t use it, and above that, they have a duty not to interfere with you using that space. For the latter part of that quote, she is saying if you were to have a claim-right to sleeping, someone must not demand that you don’t sleep or intervene with your sleeping, and then people also have a duty to help you sleep. These are two different ways to have a claim-right on something. These definitions and distinctions of rights will help us understand what is meant when people talk about a right to life and what kind of right it is.
Before we can start applying some concepts of rights to the right of life, we need to have a definition for what a right to life means. In Joel Feinberg’s article, “Voluntary Euthanasia and the Inalienable Right to Life”, he uses ‘right to life’ to mean “the right not to be killed” and “the right to be rescued from impending death”. It is also shown to us through both articles and much philosophical talk that we are to view the right to life as a claim-right. If the right to life is a claim-right, then people can’t demand that we don’t live or intervene in our living, and have a duty to rescue us from impending death. The last part will normally be qualified in regards to the amount of effort or danger someone must endure to save my life. There are now a number of distinctions that need to be made in order to clear up some further ambiguity about what kind of right is a right to life exactly.
One very important question to answer is, “Is a right to life an absolute right?”. An absolute right is a right where there are no legitimate limitations that can be put on it (Feinberg, Voluntary Euthanasia). This is to say that there are no rights or circumstances that take precedence over that right. This is important because I think naturally we tend to think that someone’s right to life comes before anything and should be held at the highest value and concern. So, if a right to life is absolute, then there’s no situation where someone is justified in killing me or not saving me from impending death. This quickly becomes a position that is difficult to hold. If right to life is an absolute right, then what happens when situations of self-defense require killing to save your own life? If you have an absolute right to life, then your duty must not kill you, but you also must not kill them, even if it’s the only way to save your life. Or what about war? If a right to life is an absolute right, then no one is justified in killing during war and no one must be killed. What about capital punishment?
Besides these sorts of paradoxical outworking’s of considering a right to life an absolute right, it also allows for infringements on other rights that we wouldn’t view as acceptable. If my life could only be saved by taking all your property and overriding your right to property, then you must let me take your property, I would have a right to your property. An absolute right of life would also require people to put themselves in extraordinary harmful situations to save someone from death, even to the point of them losing their own life. Because of the difficulties coming with calling a right to life an absolute right, those accepting voluntary euthanasia will say that a right to life clearly cannot be an absolute right and can be limited and mitigated against in certain situations depending on the circumstances.
The next distinction is the most important distinction of all. Is a right to life a discretionary or mandatory right? Is it a right that you have the power to exercise, or is it a right that you are mandated to exercise? The answer to this question will let us know whether we can appeal to self-determination in claiming that voluntary euthanasia is moral or not. In the article, Feinberg says this about discretionary rights, “It is important to note that if I have a discretionary right to do X, it follows logically that I have a right also not to do X, if I should so choose.” A discretionary right is a right where it is up to your discretion whether you exercise it or not. If you have a discretionary right to going to school, then you have a right to go, or not go to school. In contrast, a mandatory right is a right where you are obligated to exercise the right. If you have a mandatory right to go to school, then you only have a right to go to school and must go, you don’t have a right not to go. This really functions more like a duty depending on how you look at it.
When we apply this to the right to life, we will get radically different conclusions depending on which one we decide on. If the right to life is a discretionary right, then you have the option to exercise or not exercise this right. It is up to your discretion whether you continue to choose to live, or decide to terminate your life. This would be in line with wanting to give a lot of weight and respect to self-determination, because it is your choice whether you exercise the right or not, it is within your autonomy and moral authority to continue living or choose to die. A difficulty that we can see in endorsing a notion of a mandatory right is that we are saying there are undeniable beneficial goods that we are entitled too and must not be interfered with by other people, regardless of how we actually feel about the goods (Feinberg, Voluntary Euthanasia).
This has an extremely paternalistic feel to it and carries with it connotations of demeaning people and their ability to judge what is beneficial for themselves. Also, if we viewed life as a mandatory right, then we would have a duty to stay alive as long as possible. This generally sounds reasonable, except when we begin to think of situations where one’s life is saturated and overflowing with suffering. In these circumstances, it may feel strange and even cruel to suggest that the person has a duty to continue to live as long as possible.
To help us understand a little more how our right to life can be a discretionary right, I want to briefly look at Feinberg’s discussion on inalienable rights. In the article, Feinberg wants to clear up this notion of an inalienable right. He wants to show us that our right to life is inalienable, not life itself. This is to say that we cannot give away or dispose of our right to life, we will always possess our right to life, but we can give up or dispose of our life and don’t always have to possess it.
The important thing to notice here about this is when it is the right to life and not life itself that is inalienable, then this gives you more freedom on how you engage with life. You will always be entitled to your life and have authority over it, but that authority allows you give up your life by killing yourself or letting someone else do it in the case of voluntary euthanasia, or you can keep living. However, if life itself was inalienable, then you would not have the authority to dispose of it. You would have a duty to continue life for as long as possible, as with a mandatory right.
To finish the argument, I want to end it with an analogy that Feinberg and Foot both make. They compare the right to life with the right to property. Foot says that the right to life is not infringed if someone gives you permission to kill them, like someone doesn’t infringe on property rights if you give them permission to destroy it (Foot, Euthanasia). So, if I give someone permission to burn my house down, I can’t then after say they have violated my right to property. In the same way you can give someone the permission to burn down your house or crash your car, you can also give them permission to kill you, and this would not be a violation of my rights. They wouldn’t have violated my rights because I gave them permission, and if the right to life is similar to the right to property in the sense that you have the right to give someone the permission to destroy your property, then you are within your rights to give them permission to destroy your life. If you have the autonomy to let someone harm your property or harm your property yourself, then the same should go with your right to life. You should have the autonomy to harm your life, or let someone else harm your life. If you are within your rights to do that, then there’s nothing immoral with voluntary euthanasia.
We have seen a lot of different distinctions when looking at rights so it will be important to sum up the argument. First off, we have explained that a right to life is a claim-right, so you have the liberty right to life, and people have duties towards you. Also, the right to life is not an absolute right, so there are situations where it can be limited and overridden. It is an inalienable right in the sense that you can never give up or give away your right or entitlement to living, but it then doesn’t follow that you aren’t able to give up or dispose of your life itself. This is important for self-determination because when someone has an inalienable right to life as our constitution suggests, they are still able to express their autonomy by choosing to dispose of their life itself through voluntary euthanasia, without it being immoral.
The most important distinction we made is classifying the right to life as a discretionary right. This is also in line with the spirit of self-determination because if it’s a discretionary right, then it is up to my discretion if I exercise it. I have complete control and authority over my life if it’s a discretionary right, and so I can choose to keep living by choosing to exercise it. Or, in the name of autonomy, I am within my rights to waive my right to life or not exercise the right, and go about means to end my life. The example of comparing the right to life with the right to property was supposed to highlight this feature of autonomy where it isn’t immoral for me to let someone destroy my property, so why would it be immoral for me to give someone permission to destroy my life by killing me?
If you disagree with the conclusion that self-determination makes voluntary euthanasia moral, there’s a couple primary places you should go to attack the argument. You could try to disagree with the conclusion on the right to life being an absolute right. However, in the way absolute is defined, it would seem like no one would advocate for an absolute right in that sense. You then could attempt to show there is a different way we should understand what an absolute right is. Feinberg addresses a couple of these attempts.
One attempt is to view the right to life as having some sort of absolute claim (Feinberg, Voluntary Euthanasia). This really doesn’t help you out much though because an absolute claim can be overridden if it can be justified, and I think appealing to self-determination in ending life in extreme suffering is one of those things that would count as being justified. The next attempt would be having a long drawn out and very specific definition of what it means for the right to life to be an absolute right (Feinberg, Voluntary Euthanasia). This however seems extremely impractical and possibly even impossible to do in principle. It also suggests that within the definition there could arise a circumstance where you would allow autonomy to choose death, therefore making it moral to have voluntary euthanasia.
I think another place you could criticize would be the discussion on mandatory and discretionary rights. You would need to show why the right to life is fundamentally different from every other right and as a result isn’t a discretionary right. You would then need to accept the right to life as a mandatory right, or come up with a different kind of right or understanding of mandatory right if you didn’t like the results that come from making a right to life a mandatory right in the sense that was defined earlier. You could also reinterpret the notion of discretionary and limit it to very confined and restricted senses so autonomy would make voluntary euthanasia moral in certain specific cases but not others. This wouldn’t be a total rejection of the conclusion that self-determination makes voluntary euthanasia moral, but it would suggest that it doesn’t always make it moral, and that there are situations where it would be immoral to use your autonomy to voluntarily get euthanized.
It is clear that the argument for voluntary euthanasia being moral on the grounds of self-determination is very powerful. It does a good job of explaining what rights are and in what sense we want to have rights. It is also clear on how self-determination is linked with the most important distinction we can make about rights and how that relates to the right of life. As I stated in the beginning, I’m not convinced that autonomy is what makes voluntary euthanasia moral. I think the best way to respond to this argument is to show there may be a better way to understand what kind of right the right to life is besides it being a discretionary right, or at least that it’s a discretionary right in a modified and more restricted sense.