The Moral Cognitive Dissonance of Right-To-Die

This is another article that seeks less to argue a normative position on the issue at hand – euthanasia – than to point out a lack of clarity that clouds the central debate. Suicide and euthanasia are objectively the same thing. The moral equivalence is another matter. Yet many people, right-to-die advocates especially, refuse to concede even their objective equivalence. Such a lack of clarity makes informed judgement on this critically important issue impossible.

First published on Whale Oil

When an Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist died recently, there was something surreal about the coverage. It is obviously amiss when a fit, young man dies suddenly, yet none of the news reports mentioned any cause of death. Some made elliptical references to mental illness, another ended with non sequitur links to suicide prevention hotlines.

This bizarre whisper-coverage is typical of the pall of horrified secrecy that media draws across the subject of suicide. Suicide is regarded with such horror that its very name cannot be mentioned, lest it crawl forth like some kind of ancient plague demon.

Journalists are stringently regulated as to how they are allowed to report suicide. Above all, media are absolutely prohibited from reporting the means by which people commit suicide. When suicide is discussed openly, it is universally done so by pejorative. Suicide is described as a tragedy, an epidemic, a crisis. Enormous public resources are poured into prevention.

In short, suicide is seen as an overwhelming moral harm.

On the other hand, euthanasia is widely regarded as a moral good. Euthanasia literally means “good death”. Advocates promote it as not just ethically permissible, but desirable. Unlike suicide, euthanasia is discussed openly, indeed widely. The cloak of secrecy, draped over suicide, is entirely absent.

Campaigns for euthanasia have gained force in recent decades. Public support is growing, reaching as high as 75% – although, as we shall see, there are important qualifiers.

But there is a problem with the way the media, and society in general, treat suicide and euthanasia respectively. This reflects an ethical confusion so pronounced as to amount to a moral cognitive dissonance.

When New Zealand MP Simon O’Connor recently compared suicide and euthanasia, he was reprimanded by both sides of politics. Jacinda Ardern scolded that “these are two very different issues”. Yet, he was essentially correct: suicide and euthanasia objectively equivalent. Both encompass a person deliberately choosing to end their life.

Of course, it’s objected that euthanasia is only resorted to in the case of terminal illness, and in order to end great pain and suffering. But, even so, that doesn’t change the fact that both are about a person choosing to end their life.

It also isn’t true. Advocates openly call for euthanasia to be made available for “mental anguish”, or even just on request, for any person who just feels like ending their life for any reason at all. In some jurisdictions where euthanasia laws have been passed, they have been expanded to accommodate these demands, while other restrictions, such as age limits, have been progressively loosened.

Dying on demand” euthanasia strips away any pretence that there is a moral or practical difference between euthanasia and suicide. But why does it matter? Isn’t this just abstract philosophical quibbling?

Both euthanasia and suicide concern people choosing to end their lives, yet the way we choose to think about each has profound practical outcomes. As mentioned earlier, public support for euthanasia in both the U.S. and Australia seems very high, about 75%, even among Catholics and Anglicans. But, this level of support is highly contingent on how the proposal is framed.

Polling in Australia shows that, for instance, when the question is framed as, “voluntary euthanasia for people experiencing unrelievable and incurable physical and/or mental suffering,” support can be as high as 71%. But when the question is reframed, such as, “a doctor to assist[ing] a patient in ending their life, if they are not terminally ill, but are mentally or emotionally suffering in a way that they find unbearable,” support can drop as low as 36%.

Similarly, a Gallop poll in the US found that, when asked if doctors should be allowed to “end the patient’s life by some painless means,” 70% agreed. But when the wording was changed to “assist the patient to commit suicide,” only 51% agreed.

None of this is to say whether or not euthanasia is desirable. However, it does show that many peoples’ thinking on this critical issue is a lot less clear than it perhaps should be. The leaders of both of New Zealand’s major parties insist that the two issues should not be conflated, yet, as we see, this is completely false. When two issues that people have such strong, and generally opposing, views about are falsely separated, this makes it impossible for the public to pass informed judgment on what is one of the most important policy decisions possible: whether the state should legalise the taking of human life.

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