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The Disraeli Room

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Beyond Rights: A Matter of Life and Death?

14th October 2015

Much of the debate over the recently-defeated assisted suicide bill was couched in terms of one’s rights. While not necessarily intended by the authors of the bill, the media frequently referred to it as the ‘right to die’ bill. Using this terminology is far from helpful in discussing assisted suicide. Human rights are important when talking about people’s right to food, water and education, but the language of rights falls short, indeed can prevent meaningful debate, when used on some ethical issues. For example, something seems to have gone wrong with our ethical language if we need a language of rights to know that torture is wrong. To say that someone who is killed has their rights violated is deeply inadequate. For these ethical questions, such as questions about assisted suicide, the language of rights hinders rather than aids debate. Instead, the debate should be framed in terms like compassion, humility, honesty and kindness.

It is sometimes argued that assisted suicide is permissible because of a right to life. Indeed this seems to be the underlying assumption in a host of media articles. The idea is that each individual has a right to his or her life, and this right to life includes the right to non-interference and to choose one’s own fate. It is argued that the right to life includes the right to decide over one’s death. The argument then goes that a person’s right to life entitles one to help in committing suicide.

However, it is a substantial move from a right to non-interference to a right that obliges individuals to help kill another human being. We must ask what claim such a right would have on another person. Why ought another person to care about your right to a certain kind of death or be required to do anything about it? Hence, framing the debate in terms of rights language enhances the likelihood of people making impractical demands, because it is possible to assert a right without considering the justification of burdening others with the obligations it demands. By framing the debate about assisted suicide in terms of rights, it quickly becomes a simple demand: “This is my right!” But asserting that one has a right to something does not tell us anything about whether that thing is desirable or whether it is  acceptable to make a demand of another person to help me die. Stating that it is my right to die, does not tell us anything about what claim I have on another person to assist me in the process of ending my life.

The problem with stating rights is that it is meant to provide a definitive answer to a complex question. But it seems that all too often, “one plays a right as a trump card when one has run out of arguments.” The language of rights appears to provide a definitive solution, a conclusive answer to what is to be done, rather than allowing for continued debate. I believe that focusing on possessing a right renders the debate individualistic and insular; it moves the debate towards individuals thinking what their own atomistic claims on other people are, and away from considering obligations or contributions they can make.

While rights play an important part in ensuring provision of basic goods and services, such as food and water, there are a host of other issues where they do not and cannot provide an ethical panacea. Issues like assisted suicide are not best thought of in terms of rights, but in terms of compassion, kindness, humility and courage. There could still be a good case to be made for assisted suicide in terms of courage, kindness and compassion. The debate would be far richer- drawing out the deepest convictions of both sides on what the good life consists of and what human flourishing looks like. It will be profitable to move away from a language of rights on issues such as this and speak instead in terms of virtues, which will open new avenues of argumentation, rather than providing premature conclusions based on an assertion of rights.

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