The Goodness of Human Life, Part I: Reflections on Brittany Maynard’s Suicide

Sorry not to have posted anything in such a long time–I had to make a hard final push to finish up my dissertation. But since I have now officially survived graduate school, I hope to be around a bit more from here on out. Specifically, I have plans for a philosophical review of Cinderella quite soon.

But first, something a bit more dour…

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The Goodness of Human Life, Part I: Reflections on Brittany Maynard’s Suicide

It seems to me there are three philosophical errors we ought to avoid when thinking about the “value” or goodness of human life. The first is to imagine that life is the highest good possible. The second is to imagine that the goodness of human life is essentially relative to one’s perception of that goodness. The third is to imagine that freedom is a greater good than life. In this post I will address the first error. I will then address the second and third errors in a subsequent post. I point out these errors with a practical goal in mind: I hope to assist others in thinking more clearly about the tragic suicide of Brittany Maynard–and the actions of others who will surely seek to emulate her.

Human Life as the Highest Good

As living organisms, we are perhaps prone to imagine that life the best thing there is (the “supreme good” as we philosophy nerdlings are wont to say). And in a way, that thought only just misses the mark. For life is assuredly one of the most important goods. Life is the only context we have ever known, and could ever know. It would seem to be the gateway good to all other goods. If you are not alive, if you do not exist, how could anything be good for you? Without life, you wouldn’t be around to enjoy other good things.

Perhaps it is this sense that life is such a great good that gives force to many proverbs: “Where there’s life, there’s hope” or “Live to fight another day.” As long as one has life, one has the basis for all the other goods. It is significant, in that sense, that in the Book of Job God allowed Satan to take all the goods of Job except his life. From the natural perspective (i.e. leaving aside the question of the afterlife), if Job had not lived through his hardships, God could not have “blessed the latter days of Job more than his earlier ones.”

Yet we ought not make the leap from thinking of life as a very great good to think that life is the greatest good, a good we must to do anything to preserve. Western philosophy has been aware of this truth from its very beginnings. At the end of the Crito, Plato’s dialogue in which Socrates discusses whether he should seek to evade his unjust sentence of death, Socrates remarks that it would be “shameful” to violate the laws “from a miserable desire of a little more life.” Life is not such a great good that we are justified in doing anything at all to preserve it.  Socrates suggests a different understanding of the ranking of the goods: “Think not of life and children first, and justice afterwards, but of justice first.”

MaynardWhile I will ultimately argue that the suicide of Brittany Maynard was an objective moral wrong, I think there is no harm in recognizing that she was not wrong in every way. Specifically, she seems to give evidence of an intuitive grasp of this basic moral truth that life is not the greatest good, and so we need not do everything possible in order to stay alive. In her apologia, “My right to death with dignity at 29,” Maynard writes about how her life “devolved into hospital stays” almost immediately upon her diagnosis with brain cancer. After her initial treatment, her brain tumor came back in a more aggressive form. Further treatments would have been extremely painful, costly, and ultimately futile–they might have bought her six more months of life at best. Dying in hospice care would probably have involved “verbal, cognitive, and motor loss.” Given that prognosis, it is hard to fault her for saying “I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family.”

It is at this point, however, that Maynard commits the error that philosophy calls the “non-sequitur,” the error of advancing a conclusion not supported by its premises. She has a correct premise: we need not do everything possible to stay alive. We need not undergo destructive radiation. We need not impoverish our families. Yet she leaps to a conclusion: “I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family . . . so I started researching death with dignity.” Death with dignity is, of course, the preferred euphemism for suicide–and as her letter makes clear, Maynard is not “researching” its moral rightness or wrongness, but rather the best places and ways in which to carry it out. However, her moral conclusion has no basis in its premise. You can’t jump from a true statement about things you don’t have to do (radiation, additional surgeries, etc.) to a conclusion about something else you are allowed to do (kill oneself).

Let me give an example from home economics to illustrate the error. I don’t have to sell my van. That does not mean I am therefore allowed to go out and buy a Vespa. That conclusion–however stylish and Italian it may be–is not supported by the premise about my van. My attachment to my van offers no evidence for the correctness of my decision to buy a Vespa.

In a similar way, Maynard’s decision to intentionally end her life cannot be supported by a description of the ways modern medicine cannot aid her in her plight or the suffering she would likely have endured. Rather, for her suicide to be morally right, she would have to look for support elsewhere, perhaps in the ideas that life has whatever value we choose to give it, or that freedom is a greater good than life. It is to those ideas that I will turn in Part II of this post.

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One Response to The Goodness of Human Life, Part I: Reflections on Brittany Maynard’s Suicide

  1. Pingback: The Goodness of Human Life, Part II: Reflections on the Suicide of Brittany Maynard | Retrievals

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