FYI, Nancy Gibbs, society doesn't own me

I subscribe to Time magazine because two years ago they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. However, at this point, I don’t think I would renew even if they paid me to do so. Their recession coverage has been laughable, and the opinion pieces seem ever more ridiculous.

One of the latest in a long line of lackluster essays is “Dying Together: An elderly British couple’s suicide pact is a beautifully romantic act – and a troubling one,” by Nancy Gibbs (Time, 3 Aug 2009).

The premise of this article is not bad. Basically, Gibbs is trying to bring into contrast our moral intuitions about euthanasia and the practical realities of universal health care. The title makes reference to distraught but not dying former British opera conductor Sir Edward Downes, who recently traveled to Switzerland with his terminally ill wife where both contracted with an active euthanasia organization to (ultimately successfully) bring about the ends of their lives. Gibbs is disturbed by the fact that he would choose to end his life, which was suboptimal but not, in her opinion, so bad as to be not worth living. However, as Gibbs rightly notices, in a day in age when universal health care is on the table, it’s important to realize that quicker deaths for the old and sick can mean a lower tab for taxpayers. She seems to reject that financial concerns should ever be a factor in whether people decide to continue treatment for themselves or others. This is, of course, unrealistic, as we live in a world of scare resources and huge demand for increasingly high-tech and costly medical care.

Though the beginning of the article was promising enough, ultimately its conclusions are seriously confused. Gibbs doesn’t think people should be let go on account of costs, but endorses palliative care in part because it is cost effective. Then, she says she respects Sir Edward’s right to die, after having claimed that society has a moral right to override even your decision of whether to live or die.

Wait, wha???

This appalling little tidbit is tucked into the middle of the essay, where it is likely to go unnoticed:

“Some euthanasia activists… believe in death on demand… Autonomy and dignity are precious values; the phrase sanctity of life can sound sterile and pious in the face of profound pain and suffering. But [they are] arguing for much more: that autonomy is an overriding right. This view rejects the idea that society might ever value my life more than I do or derive a larger benefit from treating every life as precious, to the point of protecting me from myself.”

There are really two objectionable claims in here. First, consider the latter: that society can value your life in such a way that warrants protecting you from yourself. The language of protection indicates that this is a claim about paternalism. We can infer from this that Gibbs probably thinks that some or most of the non-terminally-ill people who wish for death on demand are not acting rationally. As such, to protect them from themselves is actually to try to promote their own best interests. Whether or not there are good ways of figuring out if people are acting rationally and what exactly is in their own best interests is a separate matter.

Yet, as objectionable as paternalism may be, the truly odious claim is this: that since “society might… value my life more than I do,” I ought not to be allowed to request death on demand. It goes even further than paternalism, because it reflects the position that it is in society’s interest to keep you alive, not in your own best interest. This is a great example of the kind of time when it is necessary to stop and think about what “society” even means. A society is just a collection of people; in this case, the citizenry of the US. So let’s rephrase:

“the citizenry of the US might value my life more than I do.”

Well, that’s probably not universally true, as at least some people do support death on demand-style active euthanasia. Rephrase again:

“most of the citizens of the US value my life more than I do.”

Now things are getting sketchy. There’s you, who wants to die, a small group of people who support you in that desire, and a larger group of people who “value” your life so much as to wish to keep you from freely contracting to be euthanized.

This is where the meaning of valuing a life becomes really important. What could it even mean to say that “I value your life more than you do”? Some people you know are valuable in the sense that they are productive workers, or they are innovators in some critical field. So we might use this logic to justify keeping alive a doctor who might be able to cure cancer. But that is simply to enslave him, which is obviously morally unacceptable. Or a person might value some stranger’s staying alive on account of her religious commitments. But those do not provide a legitimate basis for the state taking an interest in how long a person lives and whether or not she brings about her own death.

I think the way value is being used here has something to do with psychological harm. Many people are morally unnerved or even disgusted by active euthanasia, particularly that of young-ish or healthy-ish persons. In that sense, they personally value – or prefer – the state of affairs in which you are not euthanized. And that is fine. Those people should do what they can to non-coercively reduce the amount of people seeking such services. But truly liberal societies are marked by the feature that, while it remains incumbent upon you to respect my rights, it is not incumbent upon you to honor my preferences – whether it is my preference that you attend church, my preference that you not engage in homosexual behavior, my preference that you not use particular substances in the privacy of your own home, or my preference that you not contract to die before nature would have it.

It is misleading to couch claims about forcing one group of people’s preferences upon another group in the language of what “society values.” Let’s just charitably hope that Nancy Gibbs was under a tight deadline, or had too much to discuss in too little of a space, and that she doesn’t actually hold the reprehensible position that society owns such a stake in my very person that it can and should keep me alive even when I clear-headedly wish to die.


  • I agree with you 100%, but arguendo

    What do you mean by “What could it even mean to say that ‘I value your life more than you do’?”? We know what it means: that I am willing to pay more for you to live than you are willing to pay to die. In principle we could trade—I would pay you enough money to make your life worth living again. However, there are serious transaction costs which prevent the exchange from happening. The market breaks down due to moral hazard (say, attempts at parental extortion), among other things. The state’s interest in prohibiting euthanasia is merely to restore the outcome which would have occurred if the market functioned properly. Yes, it is coercive in a narrow sense, but only in the same way that laws against littering in a commons are coercive.

    You’re not a litterer, are you?

  • Ah, good.

    The short answer: Your royal We (“We know what it means”) refers to economists. I am doing moral philosophy. The end!

    The longer and related answer: Here’s where I think moral philosophy has some different work to do than economics. Interestingly, in the health care arena, people often use the language of pricelessness. For example, when confronted with the fact that universal health care might reduce access to wildly expensive but marginally efficacious treatments, some say: “but you can’t put a price on life.” Or, I’m sure that some people would have the following reaction to the analysis of euthanasia under which valuing your life means that “I am willing to pay more for you to live than you are willing to pay to die”: “but no amount of money could ever make my life worth living!” I think this language is very curious indeed, and I don’t quite know how to make sense of it. Yet, on the other hand, I am uncomfortable with explanations of moral phenomena that explain away what appear to be prominent features of moral thought, behavior, or speech. The economic analysis possibly does so.

    The way to avoid all of this is to press on the fact that valuing someone else’s life is really just a way of talking about your preferences regarding what they do, willingness to pay to secure them notwithstanding. Liberal political philosophy can deal easily with such preferences – they are generally not state enforceable. This move is available from the philosophical perspective, if not the purely economic one.

  • If you believe that the state should not correct market failures (a position I agree with), then you should bite the bullet and embrace some sort of anarchism. I see, however, that you have left yourself an out by using the word “generally.”

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