A spectre is haunting Europe — and, indeed, the civilised world. I’m not talking about communism (this time). Rather, this spectre is of a completely new kind of society. It advances under humanitarian labels: the ‘right to die’, the ‘good death’ (the literal meaning of euthanasia) and indeed sometimes that most hallowed of rights: autonomy and the right to self-creation.
The contentious question of a ‘right to die’ has come to the foreground yet again with the appeal of Tony Nicklinson for a guarantee that his doctors will not be prosecuted for ending his life at his behest. Mr Nicklinson suffered from locked-in syndrome, a pattern of brain damage so pervasive that it leaves the sufferer without any conscious control of his body. His descriptions of the indignities he has to endure due to his condition are heartbreaking, and no-one who witnessed him tear up when his appeal for death was denied could feel untouched by the suffering this man has gone through. There is a horrid cruelty in condemning a man to live in that condition, and Mr Nicklinson himself did not carry on. He refused nutrition, and died a few days afterwards. After seven years of no control over any aspect of his life, he was incapable of asserting control over his death.
How, then, can one justify the argument that life is always valuable? How can one, short of being of an extremely cruel disposition, claim that Mr Nicklinson’s life was in fact worth living, and worth not destroying? That is the question those seeking to usher in this entirely new kind of society are posing. How can one not be moved by Mr Nicklinson’s tears at what David Allen Green (aka Jack of Kent) called a ‘dreadful’ verdict? It seems to be almost shameful to question a man’s right to die.
The best battles, Sun Tzu writes, are won before they are even fought. The proponents of a new kind of society have already won in that sense. They have won by winning — and dominating — the rhetoric around the issue, and all debate is in vain until that is untangled. The dice are loaded — the debate is impossible to win because it has, in a sense, already been framed to be unwinnable for the ‘pro-life’ side (much as I hate that expression). Yet their rhetoric is philosophically unsound, and that is a glimmer of hope for regaining the upper hand.
Consider, for instance, the very question whether life is ‘worth living’ — or keeping alive — when it offers nothing but pain, in ‘perpetual despair’ (something readers of Jonathan Jones are presumably no stranger to). Consider how deftly it short-circuits the question of life’s main object, and imposes a terribly reductive hedonistic view of human life’s worth. The principles of pleasure and pain are undeniable, but there is a deeper question here. When and why is life worth living? What *is* human life about? Is human life a profound process of experiencing the world in its entirety, the good and the bad, living to the full of our abilities (however much or little that may be) — or is it about chasing pleasure, and discarding life once that becomes arduous or impossible? The implications of the view that a life filled with pain alone (which even most reports of Mr Nicklinson’s life contradict: there is no denying that he can, and does, experience pleasurable moments) is worthless are hardly discussed. Presumably, then, if the object of human life is the pursuit of happiness, someone being artificially kept alive and his brain’s dopaminergic (pleasure/reward) pathways constantly stimulated has a worthwhile existence? Most of us would deny that. We want more: we want the real deal. However pleasurable, there is something profound with a life that is not ‘real’, that is so detached from the actual experience of ‘life’ as this crazy, wonderful kaleidoscope of all colours of human experience from the most distressing to the utterly joyful. For life to be all about the twin motivations of pleasure and pain and the wish to avoid one and pursue the other mindlessly reduces man to a near-animal state. Worse, it fails to account for some of the best things about being human: reason and moral action. Some things are pleasurable and yet we don’t do it — most of us would really love to have Poussin’s *Dance to the Music of Time* hanging in their living room, but even if one would be assured there would be no risk of punishment, few of us would actually go out and steal it. We are higher beings than what is implied by necessity in this argument. But by the rhetoric of pleasure, pain and suffering and the complete absence of a serious discussion about the inherent value of life, the debate has been rigged and decided before it has even started.
Or consider how the side usually so proud of seeing the issue without emotions and deriding their pro-life opposition as ‘emotional’ has centered the debate around the misfortunes of Mr Nicklinson. But, as Their Honours recognised in the Nicklinson verdict, there is a systemic impact, and that impact is immeasurable. Quite beyond the fact that Mr Nicklinson wanted the High Court to carve out what would have effectively amounted to a fully fledged defence of euthanasia to the charge of murder, Britain would have woken up to a new kind of society the next morning. To allow the Nicklinson verdict is to usher in a new kind of world, one dominated by the culture of ‘disposable humanity’. The cornerstone of civilisation is that life is inviolable, that life is the highest good, and allows no compromises. The moment societies begin to carve out exceptions, they begin to slide down a slippery slope that ends in the gas chambers of Buchenwald or the cold, snowy ranges of Norilsk and Vorkhuta.
Human goods — and judgments of the High Court — are universal and indivisible. That’s their very point. They are not amenable to individual exceptions. And so, the focus on Mr Nicklinson’s plight is entirely misleading, because the decision was not about him. The decision was about *all* human life, and Mr Nicklinson is a drop in that ocean. The decision was about a watershed in our view of human existence. It was as much about the elderly lady with dementia, the seriously ill newborn and the unborn child who was just diagnosed in utero with a predisposition to mental illness.
And it was, I guess, about myself to a point. I am, by training, a lawyer and by education a legal theorist and historian. I have been taught, and have taught my students, to develop a degree of detachment. But human experiences are not n = 1 trials or distractions from the actual debate. They can inform and enlighten us, too, of the realities of a situation we sit in judgment over. Our commitment to good and honest philosophical discourse instead of appealing to emotions is a cornerstone of academic integrity. It is the very thing that makes discussing these things possible for people with opposing viewpoints. But it risks us seeing the entire issue as a detached, academic pursuit, as a neat question to be discussed in some Oxford Senior Common Room in tweed and bow ties.
It is not. It is about human lives. Real, flesh and blood human lives. And perhaps my experience with serious illness has made me more sensitive to that — and if that was the case, for that alone, it was a blessing in disguise. For I have been ‘there‘. A few months ago, curled up around the toilet bowl, chest sore from dry heaving for days on end and every single fibre in my muscle aching from low potassium levels, those words have left my lips. “I wish someone would put me out of my misery,” I moaned. As my intestines failed, so did my strength to bear the pain and indignity of nausea, constant vomiting, pain and the side effects of heavy medication to control my symptoms (and cause new ones). It is difficult for me to live with those words in retrospect, but they made sense at that very point. I understand, perhaps not the depth, but the kind of emotion that can lead us to wish for death.
And I’m not going to say it’s wrong — merely that it cannot be paid heed lest it corrupt everyone. Let me reverse here Plato’s argument in the Crito.
The Crito is the penultimate of the Socratic dialogues, and takes place after Socrates had been sentenced to death, but is granted a temporary reprieve. His friend Crito visits, who tries to convince Socrates to escape, telling him of powerful friends of his willing to secure his escape from injustice — from death as a punishment for sins he has not, and knows he has not, committed. Yet Socrates declines. What, he tells Crito, would he say if the spirits of the Laws would came to visit him and call him to account? He has subscribed to those laws, and the laws have protected and fostered him. He may have been the subject of an unjust trial, but he has no more right to strike a blow against the law than he has to do so against his father. And so, Crito leaves — and Socrates goes on to die.
Like Socrates, Mr Nicklinson is the victim of injustice. It is in no way just or righteous that one has to live in the indignity of his situation. What that does not necessarily mean, however, is that we have a right to strike against a human good. For there can be no exceptions of a human good without implying that the good is not universal but particular. Had the law been changed for Mr Nicklinson’s sake, it would have deprived thousands, yea millions, of protection. The old lady with dementia, who is convinced by her uncaring offspring that she is a burden (a feeling reinforced by the rhetoric of strict societal utilitarians, such as Baroness Warnock), the baby born with serious health conditions who will not even have a fighting chance because his life will be deemed incapable of consisting of anything but pain (a description frequently given of persons with no higher brain activity or severe brain damage, but one that so far lacks serious proof in neuroscience) or the severely brain damaged accident victim, whose family will decide he would not have wanted to live in this state — Their Honours were sitting in judgment over their lives, too. Nicklinson was about opening the floodgates to a new kind of world, one in which we have given up reverence for life. There is no backtracking from the society we would have become. Once we start justifying deaths, all bets are off — and it is not long until we start killing those we deem not to have a sufficient quality of life for some other greater good, such as their organs.
Like Socrates had no right to demand society’s principles to be set aside for him, even in face of injustice, I felt I had no right to keep demanding so in my time of anguish and sickness: and I wish Mr Nicklinson had, too. There is more to law than individually right decisions. Law operates well when it is a seamless and internally coherent whole. The idea of ‘law as integrity’, as legal theorist Joseph Raz called it, demanded a coherent answer, and did not allow for a ‘good death’ for Mr Nicklinson. The price we pay for protecting some of the most vulnerable in society is that others may have to go without day. When what is at stake has such a profound systemic effect on who we are as a society and what law achieves within it, decisions will not always be perfect. When an individual tragedy spurs us to examine one of the very fundamental precepts of our civilisation, the unlimited and unbounded appreciation for human life, the issue is bigger than the individual. Mr Nicklinson was caught up in this storm, and he is a sacrificial victim of justice for all that sometimes comes at the price of injustice for a few.
This society is at a watershed. It is constantly taught by advertising and mass media to chase pleasure — and it is on the verge of losing the understanding of the profundity of human life that goes beyond mere empty pleasure. We are being fed a diet of ‘if it feels good, it *is* good’, a cult of one’s own personality. The individual is infinitely valuable, but the individual is not the same as his current, fleeting pleasure. Just like we as individuals are called to do the right thing, and not necessarily the pleasurable one, courts will face issues like Mr Nicklinson’s, having to do right in face of, and against, the ‘good’. At the dawn of the Atomic Age, Bernard Baruch warned of us becoming ‘nuclear giants but moral dwarfs’. The same risk now looms over us with our unprecedented abilities to sustain life, to diagnose conditions in utero and other bones of contention in the biomedical arena. Unless and until we develop a respect for life that profoundly takes account of what life itself is, and goes beyond simplistic notions of equating it with empty pleasure, we remain moral toddlers in a very, very grown-up world.