The Corner

Health Care

Justifying Life

Injectable drugs inside an injection room at a hospital (Aly Song/Reuters)

Richard Stith, a professor at Valparaiso University Law School, emailed me a comment about Wesley Smith’s recent column on the 25th anniversary of Oregon’s legalization of assisted suicide. I thought it deserved to be read by a larger audience, and sought and received his permission to publish it here. He notes that it draws from a 2011 article he wrote for the International Journal of the Jurisprudence of the Family.

As always, Smith is right on. But he understates the problem. The option of death means that a person’s existence, his very being, he himself, must for the first time be justified. As long as there are any costs to living (and there always are, in terms of personal sufferings and impositions on others), the option to die leads him and those near him to ask whether his remaining alive is worth those costs. We may, in fact, conclude that he should choose (or should have chosen) death. But even if he and we conclude that his existence easily passes the test, that he is a valuable fellow to have around, he has been degraded from a subject to an object, from someone totally accepted to something that can in principle be rejected.

Once the availability of death makes a justification for staying alive necessary, moreover, that justification may be inherently hard to come by. Once told to choose, many dependent persons may (perhaps spurred on by rising resentment in their caregivers) find it hard to deny that the good they are doing for themselves and others is no longer worth the cost and imposition.

Indeed, once the gates have been opened, once the option of death has been introduced, once the necessary taboo against killing is removed, not just a few but most or all of us may sometime be unable to justify our existence in human terms.  Do we really think that no one could find a better use to which the costs of our upkeep could be put? Are we so important as to be provably indispensable? The world will probably get along pretty well without us. That is what happens, after all, when almost anyone dies.

Moreover, we may not even be able to remember or imagine how society could once have thought voluntary suicide to be wrong. That is, once we have decided that only justified lives should be lived, we can search high and low for what people used to think was so valuable about each and every human life and we will not find it (for it was never needed). Our ethicists will explain that “formerly all the world was mad,” and blink.

The reason for our future frustration is simply that principles are beginnings. Ends in themselves function to give meaning and structure to our life together; they cannot be fully reconstituted as mere means. If someone refuses to do kind acts unless they can be shown useful, he will never fully learn kindness. Those who refuse understanding except when it empowers them will know the world only as a resource, not as something with its own character and beauty. Principles and axioms can be neither instrumentalized nor deduced.  (Or, if they can, then they lose their status as principles or axioms.) If every principle must be justified in such a way, reason itself is undone.

Just so: Our judgments of usefulness begin with the givenness of the members of our community. The inherent dignity and inviolability of each human person functions as the principle or starting point in deciding, in solidarity, what is useful (and just) for the human community. If persons are to go on existing only when shown to be useful, we have lost the very measure of usefulness.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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