a rather frightful symmetry

It’s often remarked that to be “pro-life” in the US context correlates quite strongly, among voters, with support for the death penalty. LIfe, it would appear, is sacred from conception until birth.

But there is also a curious symmetry between opponents of the death penalty, and opponents of euthanasia and living wills. For opponents of the death penalty, the danger that an innocent person might be killed far outweighs the benefits of killing the guilty — some of whom even the most determined opponent would agree are no great loss to the world. For opponents of euthanasia, the idea that one innocent granny might get bumped off by her greedy children far outweighs the suffering of all the grannies who might want to die, and whose children also — genuinely — wish them free of suffering.

What’s interesting is how natural it seems to apply consequentialist reasoning to the one case and not the other. Of course different people find different applications more natural. Myself, I am anti-death penalty and pro euthanasia — at least some sorts of euthanasia. Iain Duncan Smith is pro-death penalty, but implacably opposed to the idea of people dying when they want to. I expect the gene for this distinction will be along any moment.

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4 Responses to a rather frightful symmetry

  1. Andrew Conway says:

    “For opponents of euthanasia, the idea that one innocent granny might get bumped off by her greedy children far outweighs the suffering of all the grannies who might want to die.”

    This is classic utilitarian reasoning: weighing the happiness of certain individuals against the unhappiness of other individuals. If opponents of euthanasia use this reasoning, then they have already lost the argument. But they don’t — not all of them, anyway — and it’s a sign of the pervasive influence of the utilitarian mindset that you should assume so readily that everybody shares it.

    My thinking on this point has been greatly influenced by Michael Banner’s book, “Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems”, and while I don’t agree with every aspect of Banner’s conservative Christian ethics, I do think he makes a very powerful case against utilitarianism: namely, that utilitarianism tends to rest on a priori assumptions about what things are valuable and what things are not. A cost-benefit analysis would suggest that the care of the elderly and terminally ill is hardly worthwhile, because it produces a very poor return; but Banner’s point is that the value of palliative care cannot simply be measured in terms of a ‘return’. Ultimately, it arises from a moral obligation — the obligation, in Banner’s words, to do what we can in circumstances where we can do so little — not merely from a utilitarian calculation.

    And even if one doesn’t go all the way with Banner, one may still feel uncomfortable about the very individualistic nature of the moral equation you describe: the idea that what is at stake is the welfare of some grannies vs the welfare of other grannies. I think it is reasonable to ask questions about the effects of euthanasia on the medical professionals who carry it out, on the relatives who approve or condone it, and on the society that tolerates it. One might ask similar questions about the effects of capital punishment as practised in the US.

    The real paradox, it seems to me, is that many people who are perfectly happy to apply utilitarian reasoning to issues such as abortion and euthanasia are strangely reluctant to apply it to (say) fox-hunting. It would be hard to object to fox-hunting on utilitarian grounds: the pain given to the fox is surely negligible compared to the pleasure given to the participants. That is why opponents of fox-hunting tend to fall back on the argument: “but what does it say about you, that you like to spend your afternoons watching a defenceless furry creature being torn to death?” Yet you don’t find them making the same argument with regard to abortion: “but what does it say about you, that you’re prepared to tolerate a society where thousands of innocent children are put to death?”

    I don’t offer this as an argument against abortion, merely as an observation that we are, all of us (with the possible exception of Peter Singer), hopelessly inconsistent in the way we apply our moral principles.

  2. Rupert says:

    With the anti-abortionists, it’s not the life of the foetus that’s important, it’s the sin of killing it. (the very high natural level of early miscarriages would be a much greater area of concern otherwise). Likewise, it’s not the life of the falsely accused that matters when a judicial execution gets the wrong guy, it’s the principle of the guilty being punished. We’re back to the strong society/weak individual pattern – and the reverse works too for the choice/no capital punishment position. I’m not sure that this is a hopelessly inconsistent application of moral principles, although the stated reasoning may not be consistent. It certainly make sense if morals are filtered through genetic predispositions…

    The same pattern fits the no euthanasia/pro death penalty set of positions. The concept of Life – which is greater when applied to all than to one — is more important than any one individual person, and the judicial/moral upholding of Life shall be done even where it means people lose the right to decide on their own life. I think the conjuring of utilitarian or religious arguments (although I don’t see why the latter are not a priori) on either side may not be much more than the selection of whatever falls to hand to fit a particular occasion. We can all find logical reasons for a particular feeling: I think it’s a good thing that we do, even when the reasons are inconsistent, because it means we’re admitting that we do give some credence to reasoning, and law, and consensus, even if we feel that goddamit, it would be a better world if everyone just did the right thing and stopped yammering on about their patently dangerous nonsense.

  3. acb says:

    Andrew Conway: welcome. Thanks for a thoughtful post. I entirely agree with you that the real cost of euthanasia is the effect on the people who must carry it out; and this is why I prefer the subject to be shrouded in decent hypocrisy. I have no doubt that it is sometimes the duty of doctors deliberately to hasten death but this, like the details of the sort of deformations some babies can be born with, is not something that does us good to think about.

    One bad consequence of this preference for morality through obscurity is that there remains considerable confusion about the meaning of the term “euthanasia”. A lot of Catholic conservatives are comfortable with the idea of pneumonia as “the old people’s friend” and other traditional forms of death which modern medecine can and probably shouldn’t avert. Of course, they say, one should not strive officiously to keep alive; massive doeses of morphine, which will shorten a patient’s life, are quite permissable if they will diminish suffering. I don’t diagree with them about the facts of the matter at all, nor that this is the right thing to do. But I want to be treated by a doctor competent enough know that these correct decisions will probably kill me, and who will take them none the less. That looks, morally, like euthanasia. But if he can’t tell which of his decisions are going to kill me, I don’t want him treating me.

    I don’t think that what is actually at stake in these arguments is the welfare of some grannies vs other grannies. I think that is, though, the emotionally inflammatory part of the argument. It does seem to be part of the process of moral reasoning to ask oneself, at some stage, “how would it feel to be a victim?” and a great deal of the subsequent resoning depnds on whom you imagine to be the victim. That’s where the different grannies come in.

  4. acb says:

    Rupert: strong society is interesting. It struck me in the bath this morning that one of the things _no one_ has said about Mary Warnock is that it is society’s job to give her reasons for living. That kind of reasoning has been ridiculed to death. But it’s not inherently ridiculous. If an old person feels lonely and worthless and marginalised, whose problem is it? Obviously, MW has in fact got a large and loving brood of children, as well as many friends. But there are plenty of old people for whom this is not true. 100 years ago it would have been — self-evidently — up to the church to look after them. 50 years ago — self-evidently — it would have been the welfare state. Now — self-evidently — the whole problem is unthinkable.

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