“Our lives are not actually our own”

Long-term readers of this blog will know that, every now and then, I have a look at the CMF’s blog.  This is largely because of my interest in the ethics of assisted dying, and the blog is actually a pretty good way into developments on the other side of the lines.  There is rarely, if ever, anything new produced that’d move the argument on – but then, those of us who’re sympathetic to legalisation really aren’t doing any better.  It’s become rather a sterile debate.

I do tend to blank out the apologetics; bet every now and again, something catches my eye: a part of this recent post, about the latest attempt to introduce an assisted dying Bill into Parliament, is one such.  There’s a part where Peter Saunders claims that the Sermon on the Mount moved away from a literal take on the prohibition of murder to something more in keeping with the spirit of the law.  This, though, prompts a question for me: why can’t we accommodate a person’s desire to die within the general law against killing?  Might that desire mean that assistance is properly described as something other than murder?  It is tempting to infer from what Saunders says elsewhere that he is at least not too worried about some forms of intentional killing: writing about the Kermit Gosnell story a couple of years ago, his headline noted that Gosnell may face the death penalty – but the body text did not mention that at all, let alone take a position on it.  Yet if all deliberate killing is so straightforwardly wrong, we might expect that killing at least to be noted.  If deliberate killing by means of the death penalty doesn’t raise a peep of objection, then we might wonder why assisting in someone’s death at that person’s behest is more of a worry.

Saunders does have an answer to this query, though:

Our lives are not actually our own. Suicide (and therefore assisted suicide) is therefore equally morally wrong.

This ought to provide him with a reason to oppose the death penalty; but it does provide a reason to object to assisted dying.  On the face of it, it also provides a reason to object to life-saving medicine, too, since that would appear to be just as much a usurpation as ending someone’s life.  (Maybe the response here is that people who save lives are being used by the deity.  But then again, couldn’t the same be said for people who help end them?  Might they not be ministers of grace?)

Forget all that, though.  It’s the statement itself that’s really striking: our lives are not ours.  It could be that they are not anyone’s – but that wouldn’t obviously furnish a prohibition on suicide or assisted death; so the implication must be that our lives belong to someone else.  If that someone else turned out to be another person, we’d repudiate it as tyranny or slavery.  People who belong to other people are un-people: mere things.  (That’s what slavery does: by allowing Smith to belong to Jones, it treats Smith as a thing; and if he’s a thing, it’s absurd that his life could be his, so it might as well be Jones’.)

I don’t think that Saunders thinks that we do belong to another person.  I think he thinks we (or our lives, though I’m not sure that that makes a difference) belong to Yahweh.  But that looks no less like tyranny, and no less contemptible.  Repudiating that divine tyranny seems to be admirable for the same reason as it would be in cases of human tyranny.  It reduces persons to things.  Things have no moral agency.  They’re brute material for an unseen power and unseen purpose.

I don’t like that view of human life.  Were it true, it’d be a life I’d prefer not to live, quite aside from any medical problems I might have.  Telling me it’d be wrong to end it would be rather like telling a slave that it’s wrong to escape because of the property rights of slave-owners.  Nuts to that.

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