by Daniel Callcut
by Louis Édouard Fournier.
Photo courtesy the Walker Art Gallery
- why not how we leave...?
A free society
should allow dying
to be more deliberate
The image on the poster is mysterious but appears to depict a ceremony in a forest.
To the bottom right of
the poster is a company name, Designer Endings, and contact
details. You call the number and confirm that what is being offered
is indeed the chance to die in just the way you would like.
Many people no longer hold the kind of religious views according to which our time of death is not allowed to be of our choosing.
There are an increasing number of countries where physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia is permitted in a medical context.
The word 'euthanasia' comes from the Greek for a 'good death'...
However, this idea of a positively good death can easily be lost in contemporary debates over euthanasia where the emphasis is typically on the rights of a person in very dire health.
I will touch on the familiar questions of medical ethics in what follows. But my larger goal is to liberate discussion of the right to die from the medical settings in which it is now most familiar.
To do so allows us to
think about euthanasia - a good death - in less bleak circumstances.
As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote,
But there's no reason why death couldn't be an event in the sense that a wedding is an event.
No doubt a company such as my fictitious 'Designer Endings' could provide staff for the ceremony you have in mind.
This could cause controversy:
You can imagine the many corny ideas about how to go not with a whimper but with a bang.
People might look for inspiration from pagan festivals such as Burning Man in Nevada. Others would no doubt look to film and literature in designing the stage for their exit.
Tastes, especially once allowed to flourish, would vary:
We are not short of examples of imaginative funerals and creative posthumous plans.
In 2005, the US writer Hunter S. Thompson's ashes were fired from a cannon at an elaborate $3 million event funded by the actor Johnny Depp. Audience members such as fellow actors Bill Murray and Benicio del Toro watched as Thompson's remains were launched in the air to the tune of 'Spirit in the Sky' and 'Mr Tambourine Man'.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the creator of the Italianate village Portmeirion in North Wales, also had his ashes propelled into the air by marine rocket in 1998.
That's just one idea about what to do after you go. Consider all the ways that a person's death has been marked by cultures around the world and throughout history.
There's no reason to think that people's euthanasia plans might not be just as inventive.
Traditional arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia appeal to compassion and individual liberty.
Think, first, of the case for compassion.
If a human being is
helped to die, then there is no reason why the end must always be in
a hospice or hospital even if, for practical reasons, this will be
Doctors who oppose euthanasia, after all, often do so precisely on the basis that the Hippocratic oath requires that they do no harm.
Indeed, some draw an ethical line between the permissibility of assisted suicide and that of euthanasia, for this reason.
When it comes to assisted suicide, even if a person is helped to take his life, the final action (eg, swallowing pills) is his own. Assisted suicide remains, ultimately, suicide.
And Mill's 'harm principle' allows you to harm yourself. But, in euthanasia, the action that takes someone's life (e.g., a lethal injection) is not performed by the patient but for him.
Perhaps to be alive in some situations is a fate worse than death, and death in such circumstances would be a benefit.
Many of us already live in societies that allow consenting adults to harm one another:
If, to adapt Cole Porter, anything (consensually) goes, then it's hard to see why individuals shouldn't have the ability to form agreements with companies such as Designer Endings.
Governments shouldn't, as the US libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick wrote in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974),
The idea of designer euthanasia naturally flows out of what many consider a positive development in the modern world - the enormous value placed upon free choice and the voluntary.
The ideal of individual freedom has already overturned many social and sexual taboos:
And if the worry is that legalizing designer euthanasia would send everyone rushing to arrange their death, then I think we should worry about why we have this worry.
The upshot of anxiety
about the idea of Designer Endings should be to take greater
responsibility for the social world that we have created. It's
undesirable, in a free society, to make people prisoners of
Many of us already live in business-obsessed cultures that threaten to turn life into one long sales pitch. Capitalism, as Marxists have long observed, grows in part by colonizing aspects of life once thought too precious to be framed as a business opportunity.
These business opportunities are often celebrated as new freedoms - as when a religious day of rest is opened up for shopping - but can be met with a sad sense that life has become entirely owned by commercial activity...
Thus, the idea that people should design their death in coordination with euthanasia businesses perhaps sounds like one more dystopian capitalist possibility of the near-future.
The prospect might produce not just
moral outrage but aesthetic horror - akin to hearing of proposals to
beam advertising on to the Moon.
But if the idea of turning euthanasia into a business is what you find most objectionable about designer euthanasia, then think of Designer Endings as a cooperative nonprofit run by a group of friendly anarchists.
The point, ultimately, is to liberate discussion of euthanasia from its standard medical context, and to cultivate our sense of possibilities with regards to death.
We can't, for practical medical reasons, always take euthanasia away from doctors but it's nonetheless worth thinking of how euthanasia might be liberated from medicine in the same way that, say, weddings have been liberated from religion.
There is a wide and wild range of ways that we might want to have the freedom to die.
We can imagine other, more controversial cases.
The poor might continue
to die painful, unchosen deaths while the wealthy have grand
New freedoms and new abilities often generate new inequalities.
Many will think that, if there is a right to die, then it is a negative right:
Designer euthanasia, in such circumstances, could be legal - the question would then be,
Death, as the old saying goes, is the great leveler, and at least one of the insights packed into this expression is the thought that none of us gets to control when or how we die.
But designer euthanasia would change this.
The poor might continue to die painful, natural, unchosen deaths while the wealthy have grand farewell parties.
This is not necessarily an argument against permitting chosen endings:
undoubtedly one of the potential consequences of legally allowing
people to choose and control the time and manner of their death.
What I have argued is that the liberal grounds for permitting medical euthanasia are also grounds for permitting chosen death more broadly - i.e., not just for medical reasons, and not necessarily in a medical setting.
We can think more expansively about what kinds of endings we might choose if given the social and political freedom to do so. There is room to be far more active and imaginative, and less passive and resigned, in relation to death.
We have the ability to transform what might seem like fantasy into a live, practical question:
Imagine a routine scan reveals that you have incurable cancer.
The medical consultant estimates you have three months left to live at most.
You remember the poster from Designer Endings.