Euthanasia: Putting Value over Dignity

by Marcus Otte


In last month’s article, I noted what is so uniquely pernicious about arguments for euthanasia: these arguments openly justify the direct, intentional killing of innocent persons. This distinguishes the case for euthanasia from the case for war and for capital punishment, and even from the most influential arguments for abortion. Now I wish to discuss just what is so wrong with the direct killing of innocent persons, even if the killing is done to alleviate pain.

First, we should distinguish between values and things that bear values. In this article, I use the term “values” to mean desirable properties that belong to a thing contingently, which is to say, they could be gained or lost. To give a non-exhaustive list, values can include: pleasure, sensation, intelligence, beauty, usefulness, moral virtue, harmony etc. The opposites of such properties I will call “disvalues.” Things that bear values include: the computer I am writing on, the town I live in, and the person I see walking across the street. The computer might be a bearer of usefulness, for example, or the town of harmony, or the person might have moral virtue, and so on.


In the case of inanimate things—with some exceptions, such as rare pieces of art—we are generally willing to destroy them completely, if doing so will enhance the amount of value in the world or decrease the amount of disvalue. I throw dead sticks onto a fire, just to avoid the pain of cold. A family removes the cabinets in their kitchen and installs new ones, just to increase the beauty of their house. The bearers of value count for very little. Plants, which are also bearers of value, are perhaps given slightly more deference. Non-human animals are given more.


Humans, however, are treated in a manner that is unique, because humans are persons. In the case of persons, we treat the bearer of value with a reverence that is not at all dependent on the values they possess. In the most fundamental respect, my worth is precisely the same as that of a homeless man, or a mentally disabled child, or a terminal cancer patient. This special kind of worth is dignity. In this basic respect, a painful life has as much worth as a pleasant one; and a life that provides no economic value to society is just as important as a “useful” life. It is on the basis of this dignity that, traditionally, the absolute prohibition of intentionally killing the innocent finds its justification. No mere interest, not even a social interest, can deprive a person of their inviolable right to life. Only a person, him or herself, can forfeit this right, whether through very serious crime or by taking up arms in a war of aggression.

Euthanasia is advocated on the basis that it decreases disvalue: it lessens the amount of pain in the world. Proponents of euthanasia also speak of dignity, but of course, they do not mean the inviolability of innocent persons. They seem to mean, rather, freedom from misery and a freedom to leave life, “on one’s own terms.” Now, this idea of dignity is objectionable on multiple counts, not least of which because it proves too much: it not only justifies euthanasia, it also justifies hanging oneself in one’s closet.


Note that both freedom from misery and personal autonomy are values. They are both desirable—I do not consider the freedom to kill oneself to be desirable, but here, for the sake of argument, I grant it is part of autonomy. So, the euthanasia proponent believes that innocent persons can be rightfully killed, so long as the killing is justifiable in terms of values, such as the decrease in suffering or autonomy that may be exercised in consciously willing to kill oneself. Currently, there are two popularly accepted permutations of these grounds for euthanasia. First, an advocate might hold that the exercise of the autonomous will, together with intense and irremediable suffering, are jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for euthanasia to be justified. Only if both conditions obtain, would such an advocate regard euthanasia as permissible. Second, and more liberally—if you will—they might hold that intense suffering, or even the permanent absence of conscious experience, is sufficient grounds for euthanasia, even if consent cannot be verified. In other words, the autonomous exercise of the patient’s will might be unnecessary. But what would civilization be like, if we implemented either of these beliefs consistently? What other actions are rationally justifiable, if euthanasia is justified on such grounds? I will come back to this topic next month, to answer these questions and give my case for dignity in the traditional sense.


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