Thursday 25 January 2024

Are painless and comfortable deaths possible?

 I can't help noticing that in the media, two separate but linked debates go on in parallel:

  • Capital punishment: the trend of opinion in our Western culture is that this is always inhumane, and that no effective means exist for putting someone to death that are not degrading and unconscionably painful.
  • Euthanasia: here, we are told that a painless and dignified death is medically and scientifically possible for everyone, and that the only reason why euthanasia isn't generally available is because of cruel and arbitrary legal hurdles, which should be removed.

I'm not, here, going to rehearse the arguments in favour of either one or the other (though, for the record, I believe that capital punishment can be justified and is the proper judicial response to certain crimes such as murder or rape; and that euthanasia defined as the deliberate application of procedures or substances (as distinguished from the contrary declining to apply them) to cause death is morally wrong).

Rather, I'd just like to point out what you've probably already spotted: the things said about the possibility of a painless and dignified death in the case of the two debates are mutually contradictory. If such a death is possible in the case of euthanasia, then it is also possible in the case of capital punishment. Conversely, if such a death is impossible in the case of judicial punishment, then it is also impossible in the case of someone's elective decision to end their own life. Or in other words, in at least one of these two debates on this particular point, the proponents of the arguments for the popular position (against capital punishment, for euthanasia), are lying. They say that a thing is both impossible in one case, and possible in the other, in a direct formal contradiction. A painless and dignified death is either available or non-existent depending on what is being argued for and nothing else. This is deception. People making either argument should have this contradiction pointed out to them, and be challenged as to which of the two they believe to be true: pick one side and then accept the implications, not both or neither depending upon your goal.

Note that here I'm not claiming that you have to either favour both capital punishment and euthanasia, or vice-versa be against both. Either, neither or both could be argued for despite conceding that death either can or cannot be dignified and painless. My point is that if the argument is being made based upon this supposed possibility or impossibility, then the argument has to be consistent; and currently, the arguments are being made based upon the possibility or impossibility of dignity as a central plank of the argument.

The question in general of whether death can or should be made dignified or not, and to what extent (and whether the answer to that depends upon whether the death is a penal infliction or not), is worth exploring. So are the ideas of personal choice and freedom and control in Western culture and how they relate to death. But that will all have to wait for another day.

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