Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation Contributor

Liberal democracies are built around individual freedom. That is, the freedom of the individual to act more or less as she wishes so long as she doesn’t harm others. We take this freedom for granted today, but it is historically novel.

In most societies across history, how consenting adults acted in the privacy of their own homes was seen as their neighbors’ or the state’s business, as much as their own.

The recognition of individual autonomy was a gradual achievement that occurred in some spheres earlier than others (as recently as 1997, homosexual sex was a criminal offence in Tasmania).

Many people see voluntary euthanasia as the last frontier in the gradual extension of autonomy. We have the right to dispose of our bodies however we like in matters of sexuality, so long as we don’t harm anyone else.

So we should also have the right to dispose of our lives as we choose. More narrowly, when we are suffering and have no reasonable prospect of recovery from a terminal illness, many people think we ought to be able to choose to end the suffering.

They are advocates for physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which usually involves doctors prescribing lethal drugs to competent patients who want to end their lives.

In the well-worn debate over PAS, one consideration hasn’t got the attention I think it deserves. Intuitively, we believe offering someone options automatically expands their freedom. But that isn’t always true. Sometimes more options can lead to less freedom.

The paradox of choice

There is much psychological literature on the paradox of choice. It shows that more choices between good options can lead to anxiety. Sometimes having too many options leads to paralysis. People are less likely to buy jam at all when confronted with 24 flavors than with six, for instance.

Making choices is demanding. It requires mental effort. Too many options and the effort just may be too hard. And when we’re facing end of life decisions, the effort may well be overwhelming.

image More choices between good options can lead to anxiety. Matt Olsen/Flickr, CC BY

In this kind of situation, the stakes are high. The options may be hard to understand. And the person who must choose may be confused, stressed, exhausted or in pain. All these are conditions that make choice even harder.

In this kind of situation, we may want fewer options rather than more. And the option of ending our own life may be a burden.

The burden may be great for another reason. When we are presented with the option of ending our lives, whether we go on living is now up to us. And when something is up to us, we may have to justify it to ourselves and to others.

If I don’t have the option of ending my life, then I don’t need to justify going on living; I just do. But if it is now within the scope of my choice, I can appropriately be asked my reasons for continuing to live, as much as for ending my life.

For this reason, my having the option of ending my life may be experienced by me as a burden. Now I have to ask myself: “what right do I have to impose weeks or months of extra stress on my family? What right do I have to these scarce medical resources?”

As philosophy professor David Velleman (whose argument I have just summarised) has suggested, having another option may in this case make me worse off, and less free to do what I really value, than not having it.

Not the same for all

Of course, the same might be said for all of us all the time. Suicide has long been decrimininalised, for instance. So you might think that we now all carry the burden of justifying our existence from moment to moment (some existentialists argue this was always the case).

But the terminally ill are especially vulnerable because they may be seen as burdens on others. In a society that values people in accordance with their economic contributions, they may (perhaps rightly) feel their existence is unjustifiable.

image Being faced with the choice of ending our life can be an overwhelming burden. Javier Sánchez Salcedo/Flickr, CC BY

While I think this is a consideration worth taking seriously, I don’t think it’s sufficient to establish that PAS is wrong. We need to look to real world experience in places where euthanasia has been legalised. The data from Belgium, the Netherlands and Oregon doesn’t suggest that this consideration has played a detectable role in people’s decisions to end their lives.

There are also questions to be asked about what kind of evidence is sufficient to show that the law is unethical. Many people in bioethics seem to implicitly assume that if there has ever been a single case of someone ending a life that was worth living by this means, then PAS is unethical.

But that’s an assumption that should be questioned. Because if the majority of people are better off for having an option, then the fact that a few are worse off doesn’t indicate we ought to remove it for all. We don’t ban medicine because there are iatrogenic illnesses that come about as a result of treatment for some.

As David Velleman reminds us, though, the social context in which an option is offered makes a difference to how valuable it is. Oregon is in some ways atypical of the United States, while Belgium and the Netherlands are very different from the United Kingdom or Australia.

If it is true that PAS is permissible there, it doesn’t follow that it will be permissible everywhere and at all times. We need to closely monitor the data they provide us with to get a better sense of what makes PAS an option worth having and what might make it a limitation on our freedom.

Authors: The Conversation Contributor

Read more http://theconversation.com/euthanasia-more-options-doesnt-always-expand-our-freedoms-sometimes-it-limits-them-54327

Writers Wanted

Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released. But will a prisoner swap with Australia encourage more hostage-taking by Iran?


Ancient Earth had a thick, toxic atmosphere like Venus – until it cooled off and became liveable


Not just hot air: turning Sydney's wastewater into green gas could be a climate boon


The Conversation


Prime Minister Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

BEN FORDHAM: Scott Morrison, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ben. How are you?    FORDHAM: Good. How many days have you got to go?   PRIME MINISTER: I've got another we...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Business News

Nisbets’ Collab with The Lobby is Showing the Sexy Side of Hospitality Supply

Hospitality supply services might not immediately make you think ‘sexy’. But when a barkeep in a moodily lit bar holds up the perfectly formed juniper gin balloon or catches the light in the edg...

The Atticism - avatar The Atticism

Buy Instagram Followers And Likes Now

Do you like to buy followers on Instagram? Just give a simple Google search on the internet, and there will be an abounding of seeking outcomes full of businesses offering such services. But, th...

News Co - avatar News Co

Cybersecurity data means nothing to business leaders without context

Top business leaders are starting to realise the widespread impact a cyberattack can have on a business. Unfortunately, according to a study by Forrester Consulting commissioned by Tenable, some...

Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable - avatar Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable

News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion