Assisted Suicide, Round 3

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Ross Douthat replied yesterday to my post earlier this week on assisted suicide. Among other things, I argued that allowing assisted suicide was unlikely to lead us down a slippery slope in which suicide becomes far more widespread than it is now. Here’s Douthat:

Well, yes: The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives….I was making an argument premised on the idea that suicide is generally wrong and helping someone kill themselves is generally a form of murder, and addressing myself primarily to readers who share that premise.

But here’s the thing: nowhere in Douthat’s original column did he make the case that we should disapprove of suicide per se. I knew perfectly well that he did, of course, because I knew that he’s a committed Catholic and Catholic doctrine holds that suicide is a sin (in Dante’s telling, it gets you into the 7th circle of hell). But again: this is the problem with trying to make an essentially religious argument in secular form. If you accept a priori that suicide is sinful, then of course assisted suicide is also sinful and anything that potentially encourages even a little bit more of it is sinful too. But if you decide to forego the religious argument, then you need to make a secular case for suicide being unacceptable before you can make a case for assisted suicide being unacceptable. Douthat never did this.

At the end, he tosses things back to me:

For Drum, though, a question: Assuming that the would-be suicide is of sound-enough mind and uncoerced, are there really no secular, non-Judeo-Christian reasons to think that assisting in self-slaughter might be morally problematic? And a follow-up, in the spirit of the daughter test: If Drum had, let’s say, a middle-aged friend confined to a wheelchair by an accident who had spent a few years battling waves of entirely-understandable despair over his condition, and a “merciful” Swiss clinician then prescribed that friend a fatal dose of sodium pentobarbital (after subjecting him to a battery of “common sense” psychological evaluations, of course), would he see no non-religious grounds on which to describe that doctor as a murderer?

For what it’s worth, I don’t really see suicide as morally problematic. It’s obviously tragic, and no one ever wants to see a friend (or anyone else, really) descend to a state in which suicide seems preferable to life. But that’s a pragmatic concern, not a moral one. I’d want them to get all the help and support we could offer, but in the end I accept that it might not be enough. So while I’d be heartbroken if a close friend ended up asking for that dose of sodium pentobarbital, I wouldn’t have any moral qualms about their decision. Nor about the doctor who prescribed it.1

But that’s a personal view. And I’m going to take a guess here: aside from our religious differences, I suspect that one big difference between Douthat and me is that I’ve suffered from chronic depression nearly my entire life and he hasn’t. Luckily, my case is moderate, and I’ve never felt like drowning myself in a bathtub. Still, I understand keenly what it feels like, which makes it easy for me to have a pretty good sense of what it would feel like if it were more serious. And that deep-seated understanding of what serious, long-lasting, incurable depression probably feels like is part of what drives my policy preferences here. I can actually imagine myself being in a situation where I’d want that prescription available to me, so reasons of self-interest dictate that I’d prefer it to be legally available. If you can’t even conceive of such a situation in your own life, you’ll probably feel differently.

1With the usual caveats that I assume I don’t have to repeat here.


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