Sunday, August 21, 2011

Death as a Release

Andrew Stuttaford comments on a man with locked-in syndrome over on the Secular Right blog here. The syndrome is a horrifying state described in a quote from Stuttaford like this:

The man, known for legal reasons only as Martin, suffered a severe stroke three years ago, which left him unable to move. His only method of communication is by using his eyes.

Stuttaford is outraged that the British state does not allow Martin to commit suicide, and it is impossible not to sympathize with Martin's wish to end it all. But my purpose here is not to argue whether Martin should be assisted to commit suicide, or what the involvement of the state should be.

My point here is to remark that Stuttaford's post sets off my philosophical alarm bells. He is not arguing formally, of course, so it isn't fair to hold him to strict definitions, but there is nonetheless significance in the way we frame a discussion. The title of the post is "Shut in by the State", and Stuttaford repeats several times the notion of the "release" of Martin from his dismal condition. But Martin is not "shut in by the state"; he is shut in by an unfortunate act of nature. The state can't do anything about "releasing" him one way or the other. Surely a prisoner recognizes a distinction between being released from prison to go on with his life, and being "released" from prison in the sense of being put up against a wall and shot. Either way he is no longer in prison, but it is at best a euphemism to call the latter case a "release." Now it may be that a person prefers to be executed rather than remain in prison; but that is not a choice for "release."

No one can release Martin from his condition. But it is possible to do away with Martin altogether. Again it is not my purpose here to argue whether this is morally justifiable in this case. But, if the case is as morally self-evident as Stuttaford supposes, why must he resort to euphemism? Why not state plainly that for which he advocates - the death of Martin?

Euphemism is a misdirection used when we do not wish to state directly what we mean. It is sometimes justifiable, e.g. when sexual matters must be discussed in the presence of the young. Otherwise, and generally, it is simply a way to misdirect a reader away from the consequences of one's position, and is a philosophical "red flag." I see no legitimate reason for euphemism in the discussion of assisted suicide; in fact, the use of euphemism seems to me to be an indication that even assisted suicide advocates cannot face directly what they advocate.

The state is not "shutting Martin in." At most it is "forcing Martin to live," a proposition that more transparently carries the moral weight of the issues involved.

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