The “Right to Die” Doesn’t Exist and You Know It

Brittany Maynard

Turns out, Brittany Maynard isn’t going to kill herself…yet.

In a Youtube video released on October 29th, the young woman announced that “it doesn’t seem like the right time” to go through with her planned assisted suicide, but she assured listeners that “it will come, because I’m feeling myself getting sicker.”

While I certainly applaud Maynard for having the courage to push back the time of her suicide—even with the rest of the world watching, hanging on her every decision, criticizing every move, pressuring her—her pervading tendency to prefer death to live is sickening and saddening beyond words.

Given that Maynard has brought her story to the national stage, I believe it is well within the rights of the world to partake in the conversation she has initiated. This is an opportunity, then, to discuss the very issue the 29-year-old so persistently supports: the concept of the “right to die.”

(Side note: I would like to point out that in the video, she makes it clear that she does not understand the consequences of stepping into the limelight: she says she steps forward to tell her story because she wants all Americans to be able to have access to assisted suicide, but “it hurts” when people criticize and disagree with her or “decide what’s best for me.” Unfortunately, Maynard, when we make our voices heard, we are not in control of the feedback, and we cannot make it strictly positive, no matter how hard we try. Part of stepping forward is bearing the good and the bad, pretty and ugly things that other people—with opinions and beliefs all their own—will voice in return.)

First of all, let’s just be honest: the fact that people are now being encouraged to kill themselves shouldn’t surprise us. This was coming from the start. When we began with hedonism—the prioritizing and even worshiping of all things pleasurable—the logical conclusion was simply that when a situation ceases to bring pleasure, it should end. We haven’t created this result, we’ve simply finally arrived at it and we’ve brought an enthusiastic but lost nation with us.

Perhaps a more pointed and accurate thing to say is that we’ve brought an enthusiastic but lost “Internation” to this point. That is, “the Internet,” as a collective group of people who frequent websites and largely compose what has become unofficially known as “the people of the Internet.” We ourselves—the people of the Internet—are ourselves essentially a nation. We have our own cultures, our own languages, our own leaders, our own celebrities, we are contained within the unconventional boundaries of Wifi, 3G, and monitors—we are, in a very real sense, a nation. We are “The Internation”, then, and with the mob mentality that is so characteristic of us, we are lost.

So on behalf of all of those free-thinkers, bloggers, and everyone else whose innocent thoughts and philosophies captured your imaginations and brought you to this point, I apologize.

I apologize that they—inadvertently—were slowly killing you.

Because nothing is more dark, more messed up, more insulting to our very existence, to our health as a nation, to the health of each of YOU than the idea that you are disposable.

And that’s precisely what they’ve told you.

I won’t take time now to explore how the nature of our platform acted as a catalyst for this, although there is much to be said about that. Instead, I want to stop us in our runaway tracks, exercise the muscles of self-reflection that have long gone limp, and put us back in touch with the only reality that can save us from ourselves: the truth.

Just look at us. Stop and really look at what we’ve done. Stop and really look at what we’ve done not only to ourselves but to others. Look at what we’ve done to poor Brittany Maynard, afraid and suffering.

Are we really going to praise someone’s efforts to kill themselves?

How are we—the massive, powerful Internation with an incredible platform, always calling out things that discourage us (“All faith in humanity lost”) and encourage us (“Faith in humanity restored”)—how are we the same people who praises a woman’s decision to end her life in the face of suffering? And further, how are we, encouraging Maynard to cut off her life, any different from the schoolyard bullies pushing their suicidal classmate to her noose? We may as well stand by her as she steps off the chair, nurturing the viral, suffocating belief that her life just isn’t worth it.

So let’s stop and look honestly at some things. Let’s stop relying simply on our broken selves and realize—for one humble moment—that maybe we don’t have it all right. Let’s look up from the electric-blue glow of our screens for just a second and look for realities in a place beyond the mutually-projected landscape of “everyone else’s” beliefs. Let’s look at what’s real.

Let’s look at some things that are not okay. It’s not okay for people to starve. If a mother exclaimed, “I have the right to starve my children!” Child Protective Services would immediately be on the scene. If anyone told you, “Yeah? Well I have the right to starve!” you’d be well within reason to immediately seek out psychiatric help for them before they do something seriously dangerous. It’s not okay for people to inflict that kind of harm on themselves. When someone attempts to, we seriously reconsider their mental capacities and seek professional assistance.

The same is true for dehydration. And for malnutrition. And for slavery. And for homicide. And even for self-inflicted homicide.

Why?

Because those are deadly terrors, hiding behind the mask of “rights.” They are not “rights” to begin with.

So let’s look at what a right actually is.

The term “right” is defined as “principles of freedom or entitlement,” and natural rights—arguably the best category for the issues we’re discussing here—are further “derived from deontic logic, from human nature, or from the edicts of a god.” I believe in God, as I made clear from my introductory article at the inception of this blog, but acknowledging that many of the readers I’m interested in appealing to probably do not, we’ll have this discussion from a secular standpoint. That is, we’ll focus on the deontic logic and human nature elements of natural rights.

We know that people have the right to live by simply looking around. Humans are, by nature, alive. Anything that comes in the way of that is considered a tragedy, natural or inflicted. Murder, illness, hurricanes, plagues, and such terrors are exactly that—terrors. The natural human reaction to these things tells us that they should not be. We know that we can’t ALWAYS avoid them, but as long as possible, and as much as we possibly can, we do our best to stay alive. Avoidable death is tragic and—if possible—often punished. Logic and human nature tell us that we have an entitlement to life.

We also have an entitlement to less necessarily “essential” things, such as voting. Humans are and always have been relational. In fact, we can’t even reproduce without coming into contact—that is, relating to—other humans. Thus, we know we are inherently part of a community (whether we cooperate is our decision, for better or worse), and as part of that community, we are entitled to shape that community. Thus, we are entitled to vote. However, note that not every human is able to vote—the law itself intentionally excludes individuals from voting based on temporary criteria. It would not be prudent to have 5-year-olds casting their vote at the booths, so we require them to wait for 13 years until they are presumably of sound enough mind to make decisions on more mature bases.

Notice that all authentic rights entitle people TO something—life, liberty, happiness, security, shelter, political gravity—not a lack of something. You simply can’t have a right to something that doesn’t exist. Death is the absence of life, and since it’s impossible to entitle someone to an absence, there is no such thing as a “right to die.” There isn’t. It’s physically, biologically, and philosophically impossible.

Now don’t start protesting that by pointing out that since nobody has a “right to die,” you’re somehow being oppressed. You can’t be oppressed by being given something, and you can’t be robbed of something that didn’t exist in the first place. No one is oppressed by not being robbed of life. People are oppressed by being killed. Being killed—the absence of life—oppresses. Being silenced—the absence of voice—oppresses. Absence oppresses. Presence frees.

So it’s impossible to have a right to something that isn’t. The words “right to die” first struck audiences as odd, and that’s why it was used as a hook. The phrase itself is an oxymoron—the right to have something taken away. It sounds more like the title of a cheesy paperback 90’s thriller novel than an actual concept. And there’s a reason for that: because the “right to die” isn’t an actual right. Because it doesn’t make sense to give a “right” that fundamentally takes away.

Besides, the so-called right to die isn’t really about a right to one’s own death. It really boils down to an imagined right to “do whatever I want.”

Some people would boil that phrase down to “the right to freedom” or “the right to be free,” but that is where the mistake of the century was made. That is the mishap that sent the future flying off its rails. Is doing whatever I want really freedom?

Stop.

Stop and really think about that. Take your eyes from the computer screen for a few moments, lean back in your armed wheelie computer chair, close your eyes, and THINK.

IS it?

It’s at least possible that society got the definition of freedom wrong. So let’s go ahead and look at it.

I think people really do know what freedom is. After all, an unquenchable desire for it is built into the most basic fibers of our being. But what most people don’t know is how to define it, and without a reliable, specific, solid definition to go back to, it’s easy for the connotation of the term to be hijacked under everyone’s noses.

Let’s look at freedom as popular culture proposes it, and take that to its natural conclusion. Culture says that freedom is “doing whatever I want.”

It should be obvious just by looking at that sentence that it automatically chains the adherent directly to his or her own fickle desires, but let’s use an example to illustrate that.

Let’s take Alexa, a young athlete training for the Junior Olympics, for example. Alexa loves swimming and her teammates are her best friends, but she admittedly isn’t a fan of the required conditioning in the gym. She’d rather just swim the laps. She also has a huge sweet tooth. According to culture, to exercise her freedom, Alexa should do what she wants. She doesn’t want to go to conditioning today, she just got a care package of goodies from her aunt that she’s dying to dig into. If to exercise her freedom she must do what she wants, then she must stay home and chow down. If not, she’s letting others push her around and tell her what to do, and in the process she’s giving up her true freedom. So, of course, she willingly indulges in a snack day.

Skipping conditioning and chowing down feels good, so she keeps doing it. Soon, preliminaries arrive. Is Alexa in shape? No. Is she prepared? No. Is she free to partake in the Junior Olympics? No. She became a slave to her impulses and her simple wants. She wasn’t free, she was forced to follow wherever her body’s chemical reactions and hormones led.

This is a depressing story because we know that Alexa is more than that. She is capable of more and she’s more than a bunch of coinciding chemical reactions. So what would have been better for her? It would have been better for her to train for the Junior Olympics so she could better achieve her goal of being such an athlete. In order to do that, she would have to give up doing what her body wants in the moment to instead do what was really best.Then, she would be free to reach incredible heights as an athlete. It seems that freedom, then, is not “doing whatever I want” but instead “doing what’s really best.” Or, in fancier language, “to do what one ought.”

This also makes us more satisfied—to see Alexa achieve these things—because we see her being who she is and using all of her faculties, including reason, instead of just letting her body drive her mindlessly like a runaway train. Alexa is being a full person because she freed herself to be so by setting real, good boundaries.

So I’m going to say this bluntly: the idea that freedom has no boundaries is not true. Shake that idea entirely. Drop it like it’s hot.

Alexa’s example made it clear that by setting boundaries for herself (only one snack a day, and conditioning whenever the team’s together), she could have been free.

Because freedom has boundaries.

Do you know what does not have boundaries? Chaos. Chaos has no boundaries.

Freedom requires order, and that necessary order is lovely and wonderful and positive.

Imagine for a moment that stairs had no physical restrictions and were just free-floating, ambiguous individual particles. No one would be able to get anywhere. But in real life, because those particles are bonded to each other and adhere to set physical laws and structures, people can climb to incredible heights.

So it’s clear that freedom as “doing whatever I want” is perhaps a little attractive, but overall silly and ultimately destructive.

Since the idea of the “right to die” ultimately finds its roots in the “right to do whatever I want,” we can tell that the former has an extremely flimsy foundation and isn’t so reasonable after all.

We must ask ourselves, then, separate of the dismissed idea of “doing whatever I want,” is killing oneself ever really what’s best?

Especially in cases of terminal illness, it’s easy to see how death could be an attractive escape and how a victim might even want death. But, remember, just because someone wants something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for them.

To unpack whether self-inflicted death is good for the terminally ill, we must consider many things: death’s effect on oneself, one’s family, one’s friends, society, and—if you’re a believer—God.

In considering these things, of course, our values come into play. Lately, in our culture, we’ve seen a huge shift in values, which is quite telling of our ultimate motives. Our culture has shifted from valuing things like courage, faithfulness, perseverance, and sacrifice to valuing comfort, pleasure, and satisfaction. In other words, society has moved from valuing things that are fundamentally focused on the other to those that fundamentally focus on the self.

I’m not saying that attention to oneself is bad—it’s not!—but such self-focus must be closely monitored because it easily gets out of hand. In other words, this all boils down to love. (I know that sounds cheesy and doesn’t make sense. I promise this will come together, just keep reading.)

What is love, really? (Aaaaand obligatory timeout: sing the song, bob your head. Good. Back to business.)

At its core, love isn’t some fuzzy, warm feeling. It can involve those feelings, but love itself is not those feelings. Those feelings are attraction, passion, and infatuation. Love itself, though, love is about putting other people first. It’s a decision and a commitment to focus on them before focusing on oneself. Think about any authentically loving relationship: parent-child, husband-wife, friend-friend…they all come back to self-sacrifice and the prioritizing of someone else’s needs above one’s own. In fancy, philosophical language, to love is to will the good of the other—that which is authentically good, not just that which feels good in the moment.

Love, then is fundamentally oriented towards the other. Then what is its opposite?

It’s indifference.

Yes, surprise, love and hate aren’t opposites. Love is a choice to will someone’s good, and hate is just passionate anger. The opposite of willing someone else’s good is to not will their good—at best, to not care. So the opposite of love is indifference, and indifference indefinitely leads to use (putting oneself first, and being okay with walking all over someone else in the process because hey, I’m indifferent towards them).

So we must ask, then, which set of values—the one our culture used to hold, or the one we seem to hold now—is most loving? Clearly the first.

That’s not to say that comfort is bad—not at all—but should our comfort really take front seat to the comfort of others? Is that loving?

Choosing the imaginary “right to die,” then, is fundamentally selfishly oriented and unloving. It may come out of a good place, but even bad actions can have good intentions. And after it’s all said and done—after the medical bills are paid and the headstone put in place—is it really that different than if the victim lived an extra 3 months, suffered to be with family a bit longer, and then died naturally? The end result is the same—the sick must pass—but with natural death comes a story of courageous fighting, selfless suffering to be with family, and much more.

For to continue to live—that is brave. That is courageous. That is inspirational. It means spending every precious second living not for oneself—after all, in the case of terminal illness, death is pressing and inevitable—but living for one’s family and friends. Spending time with them, informing them of your love in an intentional way. It means suffering for them because the love you feel is that deep. And by doing so, by emptying the self, the victims of such terrible situations often find themselves fulfilling things they didn’t even know they were fulfilling—changing the lives of others in a regular and powerful way.

After all, to assume that one has nothing left to offer to the world is rather cocky—as if they somehow know better than He who keeps all things in balance and existence. Even Brittany herself touched on this in her video. She admitted, through tears, “If all my dreams came through, I would somehow…survive this,” and then she continued, “but I most likely won’t.”

How will she ever know if she herself chooses not to survive?

But to live—to live is to give her dreams a chance, to give her life dignity, to give her family the utmost incredible sign of her love she can, and to experience real freedom. To live is to accept challenges in a new way every day and draw on the strength from those around us to better strengthen them. To live is an incredible adventure, and you never know—simply by living—whose lives may be forever changed.

—————————————————–

Sources:

“Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”. Stanford University. July 9, 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-21.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rights#cite_note-tws21decgghg-1 (Wikipedia. I know. Better than nothing, Internation.)

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