Right to die

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I don’t believe that anyone ever threw away his life while it was worth keeping. Our natural horror of death is too great to be overcome by small motives. ~ David Hume

The right to die is a concept based on the opinion that human beings are entitled to end their life or undergo voluntary euthanasia. Possession of this right is often understood that a person with a terminal illness, incurable pain, or without the will to continue living, should be allowed to end their own life, use assisted suicide, or to decline life-prolonging treatment.

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  • I shall argue that although suicide is always tragic (because it always involves serious costs), we ought to be less judgmental about it, whether psychiatrically or morally, than people usually are. Suicide is sometimes a reasonable—even the most reasonable— response to a particular human’s predicament (rather than to the human predicament in general).
  • Although analytic philosophers have said much about suicide, their focus has been almost exclusively on the question whether suicide is ever morally permissible, as distinct from whether there is ever something stronger to be said in its favor. Moreover, most (but not all) such philosophical writing considers this question within the context of terminal disease or unbearable and intractable (usually physical) suffering. For some, these are the only bases for suicide that are even worthy of discussion. Others are prepared to extend the discussion to a limited range of other cases, such as those involving irreversible loss of dignity. Suicide on any other grounds, according to this view, must surely be wrong. I take this view to be mistaken. We cannot preclude the possibility that somebody’s life may become unacceptably burdensome to him even though his death is not already imminent and he is not suffering the most extreme and intractable physical pain or irreversible loss of dignity.
  • Suicide is sometimes morally wrong, and it is sometimes the consequence of psychological problems. However, it is not always susceptible to such criticism. If we step back from our powerful survival instinct and our optimism bias, ending one’s life may seem much wiser than continuing to live, particularly when the burdens of life are considerable. Moreover, it would be indecent to condemn those who, having deliberated carefully about the matter, decide that they no longer wish to endure the burdens of a life to which they never consented. They ought to take the interests of others, especially family and friends, into account. This is particularly true of those (such as spouses and children) to whom obligations have been voluntarily undertaken. The presence of such connections and obligations will trump lesser burdens, morally speaking. However, once the burdens of life reach a certain level of severity (determined, in part, by the relevant person’s own assessment of his life’s value and quality), it becomes indecent to expect him to remain alive for the benefit of others.


  • If your pet is dying in pain, you will be condemned for cruelty if you do not summon the vet to give him a general anaesthetic from which he will not come round. But if your doctor performs exactly the same merciful service for you when you are dying in pain, he runs the risk of being prosecuted for murder. When I am dying, I should like my life to be taken out under a general anaesthetic, exactly as if it were a diseased appendix. But I shall not be allowed that privilege, because I have the ill-luck to be born a member of Homo sapiens rather than, for example, Canis familiaris or Felis catus. At least, that will be the case unless I move to a more enlightened place like Switzerland, the Netherlands or Oregon. Why are such enlightened places so rare? Mostly because of the influence of religion.


  • All our obligations to do good to society seem to involve doing something in return: I get the benefits of society, so I ought to promote its interests. But when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I still be obliged to serve it? And even if our obligations to do good did last for ever, they certainly have some limits; I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself; so why should I prolong a miserable existence because of some trivial advantage that the public may perhaps receive from me? Suppose I am old and unwell: can’t I lawfully resign from whatever jobs I have, and spend all my time coping with these calamities and doing what I can to reduce the miseries of my remaining years? If so, why isn’t it lawful for me to cut short these miseries at once by suicide, an action that does no more harm to society? Now try three other suppositions. Suppose that I am no longer able to do any good for society, or that I am a burden to society, or that my life is getting in the way of some other person’s being much more useful to society. In such cases it must be not only lawful but praiseworthy for me to take my own life. And most people who are at all tempted to commit suicide are in some such situation; those who have health, or power, or authority, usually have better reason to be on good terms with the world.
  • Suicide can often be consistent with self-interest and with one’s duty to oneself; this can’t be questioned by anyone who accepts that age, sickness, or misfortune may make life a burden that is even worse than annihilation. I don’t believe that anyone ever threw away his life while it was worth keeping. Our natural horror of death is too great to be overcome by small motives. It may happen that a man takes his own life although his state of health or fortune didn’t seem to require this remedy, but we can be sure that he was cursed with such an incurable depravity or depression as must poison all enjoyment and make him as miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes.
  • If suicide is a crime, only cowardice can drive us to it. If it is not a crime, both prudence and courage should lead us to rid ourselves of existence when it becomes a burden. If that time comes, suicide is our only way to be useful to society—setting an example which, if imitated, would preserve to everyone his chance for happiness in life, and effectively free him from all risk of misery.
  • All I ask of persons to whom any form of euthanasia is morally repugnant is tolerance and understanding of the feelings of others who want the right to choose what happens to their bodies in a free society. To every person their own way of death.


  • In quixotically trying to conquer death doctors all too frequently do no good for their patients’ “ease” but at the same time they do harm instead by prolonguing and even magnifying patients’ dis-ease.
  • Dogs do not have many advantages over people, but one of them is extremely important: euthanasia is not forbidden by law in their case; animals have the right to a merciful death.


  • There exists a right by which we take a man's life but none by which we take from him his death: this is mere cruelty.
  • Over the years, the way in which society views the taking of one’s own life has varied enormously. Suicide has not always been seen as the act of a sick and depressed person. In ancient Greece, Athenian magistrates kept a supply of poison for anyone who wanted to die. You just needed official permission. For the Stoics of ancient times, suicide was considered an appropriate response, if the problems of pain, grave illness or physical abnormalities became too great. With the rise of Christianity, however, suicide came to be viewed as a sin (a violation of the sixth commandment). As Lisa Lieberman writes in her book Leaving You, all of a sudden ‘the Roman ideal of heroic individualism’ was replaced ‘with a platonic concept of submission to divine authority’.


  • The most commonly cited harm inflicted by suicide is the harm to the surviving friends and relatives. What, exactly, does that harm consist of? Certainly, it is not merely the fact that the person has died. Everyone dies eventually; suicides are not unique in this. Our surviving family and friends must eventually come to terms with all of our deaths. The only special harm attributable to the suicide is that he has died early, depriving the survivors of an expected period of his company and support—specifically, that period between the time of suicide and the time he would have otherwise died. During that time, the lover or spouse no longer enjoys the affection of the suicide; the relative no longer enjoys his visits and presents and sidewalk-shoveling; the friend no longer enjoys his opinions and companionship; the parent may no longer hope for grandchildren. The problem is that little of this “company and support” (and reproductive capacity) is morally obligatory. A person may, without committing a moral wrong by modern standards, leave his spouse due to irreconcilable differences or move away from his friends and relatives to pursue a career or refuse to have children. Providing our company is a voluntary act, and we are under no moral obligation to do so. The company and support of a person is best viewed as a privilege, not a right.
    • Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) ISBN 9780989697293
  • The harm inflicted by the suicide upon himself must be the deprivation of possible future experiences (keep in mind that sacred harms, such as religious harm, belong under different moral foundations). However, by committing suicide, a person affirms that, in his evaluation, the expected future gains from living are not worth the expected costs. Many people intuitively support this line of thinking when it comes to people dying of a terminal illness. But why would people dying of a terminal illness be the only people miserable enough to rationally want to die? Hope is not necessarily rational. Prohibiting suicide amounts to substituting one’s own (poorly informed) judgment for the suicide’s own (immeasurably better informed) judgment of the degree to which his life is worth living.
    • Sarah Perry, Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide (2014) ISBN 9780989697293


  • They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it; and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

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