Can You Consent to Your Own Murder?

by Jason Stotts

Now that we’ve had time for people to think about our last Aporia, let me give my own opinion on the matter.

I think that Cogito is fundamentally correct to say that: “you can’t consent to your own murder, just like you can’t consent to your own rape.”  This distinction is important, as rape is definitionally something that one cannot consent to; so, too, with murder.  Were a person to consent to such an act, it would be “assisted suicide.”  This is a euphemism for asking another (assisted) to kill you (“suicide”).  Of course, the name is self-contradictory, since suicide is definitionally something that one can only do to oneself, but the idea is that you are consenting to another ending your life.

The more fundamental question then becomes “can you consent to being killed (by another)?”  This is the basic issue that is at the heart of the assisted suicide debate.  The problems are manifold, but I want to focus on these:

1. Does a person have a right to consent to another killing him?

2. Under what conditions would a person be considered to be justified in taking his own life?

3. Should a legal system allow assisted suicide (since it would be hard to ascertain the truth of whether the person, in fact, voluntarily wanted to be killed)?

In terms of the first question, it seems as though if a person has a right to take his own life, then he should have a right to delegate this task to another.  This is where considerations from question two come into play.  If a person can be considered to be justified to take his own life under no conditions, then he certainly cannot pass off this unjustified act to another.  However, this sense of justification is clearly a moral sense of the word and not a legal one.  There is a difference whether an act is moral and whether it is legal and there is no necessary connection between these.  For example, I there may be acts which are legal in some places, like prostitution in Nevada, that might not be moral; while there might be some acts which are moral, like killing in self defense, which might not be legal (perhaps the use of force was unjustified, if you had a gun and the person intending to harm you had a knife).

In terms of a legal discussion, then, we must not allow any curtailment of a person’s right to take his own life (although there is still the separate moral question).  The one notable exception is that class of humans that are considered to be not full persons: those that have psychological problems, mental retardation, children, etc.  This class of humans is considered, for one reason or another, to lack their full reasoning ability and are, therefore, unfit to make certain kinds of judgments about themselves.  The legal reason that we cannot curtail the right of a person to take their own life is that to deny them this is to force them to live.  It is, fundamentally, to deny them control of their very life.  If a person has a right to his own life, then he has a right to choose to end it.

In terms of the moral considerations, for when one is justified ending his own life, this should only be done when a person has lost their highest value and cannot reasonably foresee a way to regain it, gain a substitute, or attempt to achieve other values that might still give his life meaning.  For example, in the case of a married couple that has been together ten years and is deeply committed to each other, and do not have children, and one of the spouses dies, the other spouse might literally have no reason to continue living.  Sometimes your world is so wrapped up in another person, that existence itself would be intolerable without her.  Problems arise, however, when you consider the fact that it is rarely so simple.  What if the couple did have children?  What if they were supporting an ailing parent who would not survive without them?  These are questions that only the person in question can answer.  In terms of the philosophic principle, it is whether one thinks that one can still achieve values.

Since we have seen that it can be ethical to take your own life, and it should be legal to do so, let us return to our question of whether a state should allow you to delegate this right to another; that is, whether assisted suicide should be legal.

The issue of delegation of rights is not a simple matter.  For example, I can delegate the right to represent myself to another, usually an attorney, and have this person legally act as me.  Not make promises for me, but make promises as me.  So delegated, an attorney, or another person, can legally sign my name, enter into contracts, etc., in the exact same way as can I and it is the same, legally, as though I had done so myself.  But, in terms of assisted suicide, there is a fundamental difference: one fait accompli, there is no way to ascertain whether I truly wanted to be killed.  This is the legal problem.  How can the state guarantee that my death was voluntary?

I would imagine that the state would need to have a person verify, before the act, with the person who wishes to die that: 1. they are mentally capable of judging that they should die, 2. that they are voluntarily desiring to die, and 3. That there is no one who is in any way compelling them to want to die.  Given that these conditions are met, it would seem to be permissible, from a legal standpoint, to allow assisted suicide.  (The practical implementation of this is trickier: should the person be a psychologist, a representative of the court, etc?).  Fortunately, we can see that a solution is possible, and therefore it should be legal.

Now, returning to the case that prompted this discussion, I think Brandes was mentally unfit to consent to being killed and cannibalized.  There is no reasonable way that a sane person could desire this.  He was clearly suffering from some sort of insanity and should have been treated by a psychologist.

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