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No Religion Needed: The Moral Horror of Assisted Suicide

In the past few days, there has been a dispute within Roman Catholic circles over comments [1] made by Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia concerning his willingness to accompany a person undergoing assisted suicide. Other leaders [2] of the Church took quite a different view of the matter, condemning not only the practice of assisted suicide but also the idea of a priest appearing to support the act by their presence at the time of death.

On face, this all seems an intra-religious squabble, hardly of interest to a non-Catholic, just another instance of religion making claims on the morality of life (and death) issues. What, after all, could possibly be a non-religious reason to think that assisted suicide is wrong?

It all seems patently obvious. A person’s life is her own, and so long as there is no coercion, deception, or ignorance, and if no one else is harmed or has their rights violated, she should have the prerogative to live and die as she sees fit. Moreover, assisted suicide actually prevents harm by ending physical, emotional, and mental pain, sometimes excruciating pain. Or, if a person has become incapacitated, they are unable to live fully and rationally, with dignity and agency, and assisted suicide is best option for them to live and die as a person. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reason—other than appeals to religion—to think that assisted suicide, freely and knowingly chosen by a responsible person, is wrong.

Or so it would seem. If one takes the point of view of morality (right and wrong), as opposed to a naïve but non-moral perspective of utility (what’s useful), the perspective changes substantially.

From a moral point of view, it is always impermissible to treat a person solely as a means to an end. A person cannot properly be viewed or used as an instrument, and persons must be regarded and treated as ends in themselves, as a good to be revered and not as a means by which to attain some other good (or avoid some other harm). This is the reason why it is wrong to enslave someone, or sexually violate someone, or murder someone. In each of those instances, a person who ought to be treated as an end is treated as a mere instrument of labor, or pleasure, or object of hate.

And it doesn’t matter—at all—if the person used as a tool is another person or myself. The moral principle is not that it is wrong to treat another person as a tool but that it is wrong to treat any and every person as a tool, including oneself.

Simply because I am myself, I am not somehow free from my moral obligations to myself. Even if I were the only person who existed, alone in the universe, moral obligation would still exist, for I would have the duty of properly relating to myself. Too often morality is reduced to social obligations, which turns morality into a code of conventions, or manners, or etiquette, but morality is really about the obligations to pursue the good, or to not harm or inhibit the good. This, however, while it often entails the good of others is not coterminous with the good of others; it is, more properly, about the good of persons, whomever they may be.

So while our sympathy and compassion rightly is given to those who suffer, instrumentalizing a person for the purpose of decreasing suffering—our own or another’s—is morally illicit. And this has nothing to do with religion, it is based not on authority or scripture or revelation but in reason itself.

It may be objected that the idea and value of personhood is religious, even if smuggled in under the guise of reason. Why, after all, should we ascribe such value to persons unless committed to divine command or divine likeness, as in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans created in the image of God. Claiming this to be rational rather than religious would be to deceive, to lie.

That’s a fair and reasonable question. To it I would respond as follows: why would it be wrong to deceive or lie about this? Surely, it is because it is wrong to intend to deceive a person, for intending to deceive a person treats that person not as an end in themselves, an agent who should be viewed and treated as having value as a free and rational being capable of knowing and choosing and who should be able to know and choose without being manipulated by falsehood. To lie in order to bring about some desired outcome is wrong if it makes a person a mere tool of that desired outcome, and persons should be given the truth so they can act freely.

So, the very reason why someone would object to a purely religious claim deceptively being presented as a non-religious claim is the very same reason why assisted suicide is wrong. It is wrong, always and everywhere, to treat persons as mere tools. No matter how we feel about it.