We will decide which people we will kill, and the circumstances under which we kill them*

by · September 21, 2010

Iraqi child killed by US bombing campaign

Iraqi child killed by US bombing campaign

While John Paul Young’s euphoric pop-disco classic “Love Is In The Air” could’ve been the theme song for the Greens’ election night success, it seems that the Liberals and the right-wing media have latched onto Bob Brown’s push to allow the territories to legalise euthanasia as a reason to suggest the party would prefer the air to be filled with the stench of death.

Much of the euthanasia debate is driven by statements about abstract absolutes like “the sanctity of life” and “the right to die (with dignity)” which may help guide personal choices but have little purchase in the field of social decision-making. Clearly in our society there is no absolute commitment to the sanctity of life as Christopher Pyne unwittingly demonstrated last night on the ABC’s Q & A when he followed anti-euthanasia statements with strong support for the bloody invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (where estimates of lives lost in the two wars together come scarily close to one million).

Behind such hypocrisy lies a common belief, rarely said aloud, that the state should be the only arbiter of life and death, or of who can suffer and who can’t, except when “natural causes” make that impossible. In an op-ed today, law professor Mirko Bagaric turns the issue into something of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis of positives versus potential harms to come out against legalising euthanasia. A similar approach left him favouring torture of suspected terrorists, not to mention arguing in the context of the destruction of Gaza that, “For all the condemnation that the Israeli bombings are receiving, they will be justified if they lead to a net reduction in the loss of human life in the foreseeable future.” In all three cases the relation of the state to human beings is left unspoken, but the conclusion is inescapable: “States rule, OK.”

Egotistical calculations?

Conversely, however, it is not clear that there is or should be an absolute “right to die”. For example, some psychiatric patients are so distressed that suicide seems like the best option but because this is clearly due to a medically treatable disorder few would argue we should assist them in suicide while they are ill. Of course in other cases the situation is more complex and it is not clear that treatment will make a difference (or that if it will, say with psychotherapy, the distress may take years to improve). Finally, consideration of such individual cases rarely includes the social determinants of suicide. So for young gay males in rural areas there is no “prescription” that will change the real isolation, repression and bigotry they face that can drive them to killing themselves. Should we simply give up on them because social change is not quick enough in coming? Perhaps psychiatrists ought to be assisting in euthanasia of individuals to relieve them of the pain of a failed society?

A big problem with a pure individual rights approach is that it assumes the choices people make are fully theirs — meant here in a social rather than an individual sense. In our dog-eat-dog neoliberal world, the market and its ideological complements intrude on every aspect of life, distorting every aspect of human decision-making. As Marx and Engels aptly wrote:

[Capital] has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade.

Bagaric is not wrong to point to abuses — cases of involuntary euthanasia, the brutal calculus that values some lives over others, etc. But he is wrong to implicitly define these problems as ethical in nature, with a state ban the only sure safeguard. The worst cases of forcible euthanasia and unjust decisions about who should live and die have always been the work of states with policies, reaching a grotesque apogee under Hitler. That is, they have been the result of politics in a way that is not reducible to ethics.

Politics versus ethics

So is there a “happy medium” in state-regulated voluntary euthanasia, as advocated by The Greens? At a practical level, the building of “safeguards” into such laws can be fraught with the tendency to produce a shopping list of “dos and don’ts”, which is kind of how the valiant NSW Greens attempt at a policy reads.

But at a more fundamental level, such an approach starts with the “commonsense” view that the state (a) is a neutral arbiter among competing social interests and (b) that such interests can, in the end, be reconciled. Rather than tackling these questions and producing an analysis of the state, the Greens have instead advanced an ethical conception of politics that is universalist and class-blind in its operation. Such a view essentially posits that with the right people running it the state can be bent to the popular will. The ethical dimension also explains why they are happy to see euthanasia legislated on a “conscience” vote. Yet while this may expose cross-party support for the reform among MPs it will also diminish its inherently political character. There will be lots of nice speeches about values but little about whose interests are served by a ban.

An overturning of the ban on voluntary euthanasia will be a welcome reversal of the pattern of state interference in ordinary people’s lives at the most intimate level. But any regulated regime will also need to be treated with great concern and suspicion, and not just because the very same state will be running the new legal framework. It will also be because we will still live within a social system that values the things people produce but cheapens the people producing them.

*Thanks to David Paris for tweeting it so succinctly