Euthanasia and a life not worth living
In his lecture ‘Death in Our Life’, Joseph Raz argues against how a moral right to euthanasia is often justified.
Advocates of the right often think that euthanasia is appropriate only if a person’s life falls into one of the following categories:
(a) A life without consciousness, known as a vegetative life.
(b) A life of unremitting great pain.
(c) A life of total dependence on others.
(d) A life of greatly diminished mental capacities (severe loss of memory, absence of linguistic capacity, etc.)
The right to euthanasia is often justified by appealing to the view that in any of these circumstances, one’s life is not worth living.
Raz disputes this justification in two ways, the first way involving a focus on (b).
Raz considers a person who lives a life of unremitting great pain and chooses to die. He does not know what mistake they are making. He also considers a person who lives a life of unremitting great pain and chooses to live. He also does not know what mistake they are making. So he assumes that neither is making a mistake.
If there is a kind of life that is not worth living, and a life of unremitting great pain is one such kind of life, then the person who chooses to live is making a mistake, since their life is not worth living. So because of Raz’s assumption that neither is making a mistake, he denies that a life of unremitting great pain is not worth living. But in that case must he not say that the person who chooses to die is making a mistake?
There is a difference between the two people he considers: one person chooses to live and the other chooses not to. Raz suggests that this difference determines whether a life of unremitting great pain is worth continuing with or not. A life of unremitting great pain combined with a choice to live is worth living, whereas a life of unremitting great pain combined with a choice to die is not.
This suggestion provides a way of rejecting a justification for the right to euthanasia according to which a life of unremitting great pain is simply not worth living, without insisting that any person with such a life must have a life worth living.
Raz thinks that in justifying a right to do X, one must not just consider the value of doing X but also the value of having the right to do X, which may go beyond or be other than the value of doing X. Consider voting. The value of voting is that I may have some influence on a decision. But even if I am not interested in this, if I do not have the right to vote and others in a comparable position do, I may feel excluded from a community which I regard myself as belonging to. The value of having the right to vote may therefore go beyond the value of voting itself, as having this right formally includes one as a member of a community.
The justification for the right to euthanasia which Raz is objecting to focuses entirely on the value of euthanasia. This right is only accorded to people who, according to the justification, have a life that is such that euthanasia is appropriate. But Raz thinks that people in general have a moral right to euthanasia because the ability to choose how and when one’s life will end is valuable in itself. This alternative justification focuses on the value of having the right to euthanasia, not just the value of euthanasia.
The capacity for rational agency, I will join many in assuming, is the basis of a duty to respect those who have it, a respect that extends, within certain bounds, to the exercise of that capacity, namely to the way people lead their lives. And that includes its exercise to determine when and how to end one’s life. Having that option is valuable, and therefore it is protected by the right to euthanasia. (2012: 16)
Raz, J. 2012. Death in Our Life. Text of the Annual Lecture for the Society for Applied Philosophy. Link.