Egregious Silliness in the Euthanasia Debate…

There’s a report in the Montreal Gazette from last Thursday concerning proposals to legalise euthanasia.  And, assuming that the report is accurate, some of the things being said about those proposals are painfully, painfully, painfully daft.

Margaret Somerville’s objection to euthanasia seems to be that it is killing, and that killing remains morally wrong “even in a secular society”.  Formally, I suppose that this argument works – though, obviously, it commits the ignoratio elenchi fallacy, because those who support euthanasia would deny that all killing is wrong from the off.  Assuming the report in the paper is accurate, I’m actually puzzled about the target of this dazzling insight: does Somerville think that defenders of euthanasia hadn’t noticed that it was killing under discussion?  That they’d have a facepalm moment as it dawned on them?  Surely not.

It gets even more strange: she’s reported as claiming that

([m]orality) is even more important in a secular society because you haven’t got religion as that foundation to fall back on.

Now, it appears that the word “morality” was interpolated here, so the reporter might have got the wrong end of the stick.  But let’s allow that the gist of the report is right: is the implication that you don’t need morality in a non-secular society?  In that case, what sense can we make of the idea that killing is wrong even in a secular society?  The best I can do is that it’s wrong in a religious culture, but that the wrongness there for some reason doesn’t matter.  Odd.

We can follow the rabbit-hole even further.

Somerville noted that our society’s legal and medical values oppose killing.

“What would legalizing euthanasia do to the institutions of law and medicine?” she asked.  “We do not kill each other.”

This commits the naturalistic fallacy – just because a society has one set of beliefs doesn’t indicate that those beliefs tell us anything about what ought to be done.  But it’s also pernicious: after all, if “our” society opposes killing, then anyone who thinks that killing may be permissible is by implication an exile, and so can be safely ignored.  And the rhetorical question provides a wonderful example of the difference between rhetorical questions and argument.  What would legalising euthanasia do to law and medicine?  My guess is that it’d change them a bit.  Which is exactly what proponents of euthanasia would like to see.  As crushing blows go, it’s laughable.  She seems to be saying that we ought not to change things because doing so would change things.  Oh, noes, as they say on the internet.

It might be that Somerville has been misreported – and given where she works, and a list of publications that’s mind-bendingly long, that seems quite possible.  If she has, she probably ought to have words with the editors, because what’s reported here looks very silly indeed.

But even if the reportage is accurate, I think that the subs should not escape criticism.  The clincher for this is in the headline:

Euthanasia is ‘Killing,’ McGill Ethicist Tells Quebec Hearings


Coming soon: revelations that the Pope is Catholic.  Also – read all about it – we’re getting reports that a trio of ursine mammals really did engage in sylvan defecation…

  • Anonymous

    I have to say that I find some parts of your response highly uncharitable. When someone says “We do not do X,” e.g. “We do not kill,” “We do not eat with our elbows on the table,” etc., they are often making a normative claim, not a mere statistical generalization. So a minimally charitable interpretation doesn't render this fallacious.

    It's also minimally charitable to think that when someone says euthanasia is killing, they're not trying to make a knock-down argument against it. They might think that it's an important point to emphasize. Maybe the public debate tends to ignore that point, for example, and they want to shift the focus of the debate.

    It may also be an important point to emphasize in the context of the professional role of doctors. Presumably there's at least a prima facie tension between the Hippocratic oath and doctors participating in euthanasia. Saying 'Doctors don't kill' is one shorthand way of mentioning that concern.

  • Having submitted a 7400 word dissertation proposing the legalisation of euthanasia just earlier today, this made me smile!

  • ADHR

    I haven't read Somerville's published work, so I can't comment on that. But I will say that she often says egregiously stupid things about ethics in the media. Occasionally, papers will give her some column space, and I've used those columns in critical reasoning classes as examples of how not to do it.

    So, this latest nonsense is pretty well par for the course.

  • Your first point is interesting, and – of course – there's something to it. But, all the same, the context in which the comments were made was one in which the wrongness of certain kinds of killing was precisely what was under scrutiny. So even on the charitable interpretation, the response looks inadequate. More seriously, though, the “We do not x” response may work when you're trying to inculcate manners into a child – but I think that, from a pro, we deserve a bit more.

    In respect of your second point… well, I'm not sure I agree: I'm not sure that you can talk about euthanasia without talking about killing. Someone who forgets the link is comparable to someone who talks about rectangles without realising that he's talking about a four-sided plane figure. It's just weird Nor do I think that emphasising the professional role of doctors carries much weight – again, just because that role is at least a part of what's being scrutinised.

  • Hmmm. I never got as far as the bit about terminal sedation, did I?