Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Why Giles Fraser is wrong about assisted dying

Giles Fraser’s recent argument on Comment is Free against euthanasia and assisted dying was both mistaken and objectionable in its conclusions. In it, Fraser tells us that his problem with euthanasia is not so much that ending life in order to alleviate suffering is wrong, but that it springs from an undesirable political ideology.

The value that Fraser particularly objects to is that of self-determination or autonomy, and he connects this with liberalism. Liberalism, he suggests, places too much value on personal autonomy, and he trots out the tired old idea that the liberal view of the individual is atomistic and selfish:

‘No, we are not brains in vats. We are not solitary self-defining intellectual identities who form temporary alliances with each other for short-term mutual advantage.’

The problem with Fraser’s communitarian-flavoured argument is that it fails on two fronts: it fails because he is wrong in his characterisation of liberalism, and it fails again because the alternative he offers is morally repugnant.

At the core of liberalism is an attempt to reconcile the freedom of individuals with the need to live a communal and cooperative existence. The social nature of human existence is a necessary feature of liberal ideology and the idea of reciprocity is built into it. The liberal does not deny that, as Fraser puts it ‘My existence is fundamentally bound up with yours,’ at all. How could they? However, the liberal believes that the individual should be able to choose who the objects of her affection are and what she wishes to pursue in life. We may be bound together, but not in ways that are fixed and insensitive to the choices we make and the character of our desires.

Fraser writes:

‘Having someone wipe our bums, clean up our mess, put up with our incoherent ramblings and mood swings is a threat to our cherished sense of personal autonomy.

But this is where the liberal model of individual self-determination breaks down. For it is when we are this vulnerable that we have little choice but to allow ourselves to be loved and looked after. Lying in a bed full of our own faeces, unable to do anything about it, is when we break with the idea of René Descartes’ pernicious “I think therefore I am”.

Putting aside his obvious misunderstanding of Descartes, Fraser reveals an ugly paternalism here. To be autonomous is to be a free-willed moral agent capable of reflecting and acting according to reason, to be capable of forming, revising, and pursuing rationally chosen goals. Fraser tells us that when we refuse to allow someone the option to end their life, when we tell then: ‘Shut up about being a burden. I love you,’ that this is what it means to love someone.

To override free choice in order to impose one’s own conception of the good is not an expression of the kind of love that exists between two adults at all. Rather, it is precisely how we treat children when we believe them to be incapable of making fully rational choices. Fraser’s argument boils down to abandoning the principle of equal moral respect between moral agents and replacing it with theologically-inspired paternalism, and that certainly is not how adults should demonstrate their love for one another.

Beneath Fraser’s argument for paternalism there also lies an unpleasant suggestion that suffering, and indignity are things to be cherished. Suffering, according to Fraser, is what allows us to properly appreciate ‘that which is valuable.’ Presumably, the good things we’ve experienced in life will seem even better to us when we’re ‘lying in a bed full of our own faeces, unable to do anything about it.’ Perhaps it’s just me, but I suspect that comparing a miserable pain-filled present existence to the joys that have gone before is cold-comfort to the terminally suffering. A present existence of misery and indignity, coupled with the certainty that the future holds only more of the same, is simply bad. And whilst I can understand Fraser’s perfectly natural desire to make it seem less so, the paternalism he responds with is nothing less than an assault on the dignity and equal moral worth of other persons.

If there are arguments to be made against allowing the suffering to end their own lives, then they will need to be made much better than Fraser has made them.