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Self-Ownership

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, of assisted suicide fame, is going to be released from prison in a few days. I'm glad that he's being released.

The controversy around Dr. Kevorkian is an example of one of the fundamental divides between ethical systems (and therefore also of political ideas). At issue is the basic relationship between individuals and the rest of society. Assisted suicide brings this sharply into focus — much more sharply than ordinary suicide, because assisted suicide can be (and in the case of Dr. Kevorkian, has been) prevented.

The question is: Do you have the right to exist for your own sake, or must you exist for others? Do you create your own responsibilities or are they imposed on you?

The overwhelming majority of people are conflicted by these questions and reach a muddled middle ground, allowing some amount of freedom mixed with an amount of unchosen obligation. Observe a few examples:

A stereotypical conservative thinks that people should be responsible for their own financial lives and free to take risks and to enjoy the fruits of their success. They also think that many "vices" such as gambling or pornography or recreational drug use should be prevented by the government.

A stereotypical liberal thinks that people should have greater freedom of action and is accepting of their choices to have "nontraditional" families or to engage in risky (and possibly addicting) behaviors or to otherwise break with social norms. They also think that the government should try to insulate people from the effects of their bad decisions, and from the effects of others' decisions.

If you take seriously the idea of self-ownership, the typical political spectrum looks like an unprincipled jumble. Why do liberals acknowledge the fairness of voluntary trade in prostitution but deny the fairness of voluntary trade in factory work? And why the opposite attitude from conservatives? The religious origin of much of conservative thought makes it generally more cohesive than liberal thought, but at root it is even more conflicted: If your life belongs to God and should be spent in service to Him, why should you have any freedoms at all? (Islamic fundamentalists are at least consistent here.)

The controversy around assisted suicide should be divided into two portions. First, is it acceptable even in principle? Second (and presupposing an affirmative answer to the first), what methods and safeguards should be used?

If you believe that individuals own their own lives, the answer to the first question can only be "yes" — if my life is my own, I have the right to decide how I will live it and when to stop living. If you believe that individuals have unchosen obligations to others, the answer may be "no" — you would want to preserve their lives at least until they could no longer fulfill those obligations. (Examples of this may be rare in reality, but imagine the plight of a uniquely skilled surgeon who is in severe pain. Should he be allowed even to retire, much less to be helped to die, when his work could save others?) If you believe that individuals owe their lives to God, and that He does not give consent to euthanasia, the answer is clearly and always "no".

The second question is frankly less interesting to me than the first. :)


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