In their argument against assisted suicide (“Western Suttee,” October 17), Diederik Boomsma and Jonathan Price claim that “a state recognizing an inalienable right to die could not be anything approaching a true community defined by mutual rights and duties” because this entails “fully negotiable relations to the political community,” because in such a community “citizenship is increasingly seen as a matter of rights without duties,” and because “the most basic duty to others — to remain alive within reason — is rejected.”
I confess to being unfamiliar with the philosophical arguments they cite — their view might well be Aristotle’s. But regardless of where it comes from, I do not find it convincing, and I wish they would elaborate.
It seems to me that the right to die poses no greater threat to a community than the right to leave the community for another reason does. When one leaves a community, whether by natural death, suicide, or emigration, the “mutual rights and duties” simply evaporate; from the community’s perspective, this means one less contributor, but also one less beneficiary. The community itself continues to function, and the rules — the balance between rights and duties — for those who remain in the community do not become “fully negotiable,” or typically change at all.
St. Louis, Mo.
Diederik Boomsma and Jonathan Price reply: Even the decision to emigrate may not be as morally neutral as suggested by Mr. Guns. What if you leave behind a sick mother? Surely the duties of a husband or father do not simply “evaporate” by the individual’s choosing to leave. Would it be okay to emigrate at any time? After you get a mortgage? While in the army in a battle? In fact, there are laws against such irresponsible behavior. Would it be less irresponsible to leave by committing suicide, claiming a state-guaranteed right to die? In many cases, the decision may not be illegal but, nevertheless, be immoral.
It is true that, after death, the mutual rights and duties of a person de facto disappear. But the consequences of death — and suicide in this case — do not. It is a cliché but still true that no man is an island; he is dependent on countless others, towards whom he inescapably has positive duties. To think of society in terms of “contributors” and “beneficiaries” is to reduce the political community to merely an economic arrangement. There are differences between duties towards the family or community and towards the state, of both degree and kind. But if the state actively defends and champions the rights of individuals to die, that right affects and, in fact, erodes the mutual commitments that bind the community and family.
Private life is a separate sphere but not separable from public life. And to support such a “liberty” to die or be killed is to foster the illusion that society is a sea of free-floating individuals, that the ultimate freedom is freedom from consequences. Freedom, then, is — as Janis Joplin belted out — “just another word for nothing left to lose.”