Archive for August, 2011

Machan’s Archives: In Defense of the Right to Assisted Suicide

Machan’s Archives: In Defense of the Right to Assisted Suicide

Tibor R. Machan

[From Criminal Justice Ethics, Summer/Fall 1985]

Should aiding suicide be illegal? That is the question which faces legislators who are being urged to repeal statutes which state, basically, “Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony.” I will argue, ever so briefly, that not all cases should aiding suicide be illegal, although the severest onus of proof of justification would be required in such cases.

The issue here is fairly clear, despite many complexities which surround it. Ordinarily it is wrong and should also be illegal to deliberately take another person’s life without a just cause such as self-defense or the defense of one’s community. Even in cases in which ultimately the taking of human life is deemed legally justified, the agent of such action is responsible to show that he or she was justified by standards which a just legal system must respect.

But what about aiding suicide? As Joseph Piccione puts it,

“[Human] Life, as seen in the context of the documents of the nation’s founders, must be affirmed as a bedrock value, and even a foundational right upon which other fundamental rights are based. From the initial words of the Declaration of Independence, the value placed on life is unsurpassed….”

It is undoubtedly true that the American political tradition more than any other places paramount value upon each individual human being’s right to life. The Declaration of Independence does and the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution unambiguously affirm this right and, in the words of the fifth, no person may be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process law.”

Yet there is a clear distinction between affirming the right to life and life itself. The American political and legal tradition does not so much affirm life as the right to life “as a bedrock value.” (In this respect Mr. Piccione overstates his otherwise sound point!) It may be true that the ultimately ethical basis for such a right must be the imperative to live one’s life for every individual. But the law does not have as its central goal to secure such moral conduct, only the conditions for choosing to pursue a flourishing life, that is, the official securing of the right to life. But that right does not itself obligate everyone to respect life or preserve it only not to deprive others of it. For example, within the framework of a legal system based on the (natural) human right to life, all the individuals must also be protected in their freedom either to enhance or to waste their lives. In other words, to value life is an ethical imperative, something one ought to do as a matter of one’s moral responsibility but the law, which should and in the American tradition does recognize the corollary value of (negative) liberty, cannot do for individuals what individuals ought to do for themselves. (The well known Kantian philosophical slogan “ought implies can” also tells us this: If we ought to value and enhance life, we must be free to either do so or not do so. If the law forced us to value life, then it would no longer be possible to gain moral credit for doing so and moral demerit for failing to do so.)

Now the question is, given that everyone has an inalienable right to life, may the legal system permit suicide? The answer is that it may, indeed must. In other words, the legal protection of the right to life implies the protection of the exercise of this right, which may be manifest in suicide. The right to life means that the possessor of life may not be interfered with in his or her choice and action to squander his or her life. (Of course suicide may be made illegal by means of the prospective suicide’s prior willing commitment to perform certain actions, to fulfill certain obligations–for instance, to support a family, to repay a debt, to perform any other contractual obligation.)

But what about aiding and abetting suicide? This is a more difficult matter. If there is one thing the right to life means, it is that no person is morally justified in, and any person may be prevented from, intentionally initiating the killing of another person (which, of course, does not mean that one may not intentionally react in a way that leads to another’s death, as when one reacts to violent aggression from another person.) If this is so, how could one ever consider aiding and abetting a suicide anything but a kind of wrongful killing or murder?

The answer to this is that under certain extraordinary circumstances a person may obtain permission to kill another, which the law should honor and protect against interference. The right to life means not initiating the killing of another, but this could be adequately qualified by being asked to kill another by that other, when that other demonstrably wants to kill himself or herself but is incapable of doing so or could not do so without incurring intolerable hardship and pain.

This point may be made morally plausible by nothing that one may obtain permission from another to act in ways that place that other’s life in great jeopardy, as when one enters the boxing rink and is permitted to physically assault another in a way that would without such permission be a clear case of assault and battery. Knife throwers, acrobats, mountain climbers, surgeons, and many other persons place willing other persons at grave risk of or injury or even losing their lives. When these willing others do lose their lives or suffer injury in part due to the actions of another, the main question that faces us is whether consent was involved, and if the answer is in the affirmative, the person partly instrumental is not held liable or responsible for the death or injury (unless negligence or some ulterior motive can be proven).

It seems to me then that, under certain rare circumstances, aiding and abetting suicide can be legally justified. I base this view on the existence of a right of every person to use or dispose of his or her life and to consent to another person’s acting in a way that will give the choice to end life practical significance. (Under very rare circumstances, once one’s life by all reasonable estimate can no longer contain any but the most negative meaning–such as relentless pain and agony–the basic moral imperative to maintain and enhance life could only be translated to mean to end it.)

None of this means that involuntary euthanasia should be legal or that someone should be given legal protection when hired simply to kill another who has consented and indeed sought the “service.” The law must protect individual human rights, including the right to life. It must not weaken this protection. Only when it is as clear as possible that under the circumstances an individual’s choice not to live could only be carried out through another person’s solicited aid or support, would it be justified for the law to protect such homicide.

Column on Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

Another Criticism of “Animal Rights”

Tibor R. Machan

Though this is a topic that I have visited on several occasions, having recently become an avid fan of the Discovery Channel’s series on life in the deep oceans and other seas, I am motivated to observe just how absurd the notion of animal rights really is.

Here we have the oceans of the globe teeming with billions of critters of immense variety. Looked at close up these are often very beautiful animals, indeed, and their agility is fantastic, to say the least. Not that people cannot match what these animals can do, although some of their feats are not within human reach except with extensive technological assistance. But it is undeniable that the wales, octopuses, herrings, crabs, seals, sharks; they do have amazing lives and incidentally put on a great show. At times what they do takes one’s breath away!

But there is an element to the lives of all these animals that makes it very clear that although there is much that we humans share with them–as with other animals across the earth–there is one area where humans really are distinctive, namely, in having a moral dimension in their lives. The widespread and unrestrained carnage that is routine in the seas is something that is mostly found seriously objectionable when evident among people, at least for the last several thousand years. Not that human beings always conduct themselves peacefully, properly and in a civilized fashion. But that when they do not, it is properly found to be wrong, morally objectionable. It is no excuse to say, well that’s just how we are–carnivorous beasts, through and through. Animals, however, are mostly just that. And their fans among us testify to this when they direct their moral ire at us, not the killers among them.

Here what comes to my mind is the moral high ground claimed by those who object to eating meat, by vegans, for example, who choose to consume only vegetables not for reasons of nutrition but for supposedly moral ones. In short, the claim is that vegans act as we all should, refraining from killing and otherwise using animals. (Exactly why it’s OK to kill fruits and vegetables is a complicated story told by them.) Clearly, however, all those murderous animals of the seas, planes and forests are acting just as they must–there is nothing of “should or should not” about any of it. Right and wrong do not pertain to how nonhuman animals carry on, mainly because they have no choice about it, at least none that is evident. In contrast, people have identifiable standards that guide them to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. And when these are violated, they can be chided, even condemned. In short, people have a moral nature which other animals do not.

It can be wished for, of course, that the carnage in the wilds diminish, that wild animals behaved nicer toward one another but that is all it is, a wish. That’s the Bamby syndrome, as some call it, extrapolating from the human animal to the rest, a bit in the fashion of Disney animations.

But there is no justification for this, seriously! Any careful observation of the rest of nature will make it evident that applying moral criteria to how animals live is in error–what philosophers have called a “category mistake.” And at the same time and for similar reasons, ascribing rights to animals is also misguided, just as would be to ascribe guilt to them when they carry out their killings and maiming in the wilds.

I am not about to speculate on the motivation behind the way some animal lovers want us to relate to animals and why they insist on confusing them with us in certain important respects. These may vary a great deal. Certainly empathy plays a role–we do share a great deal with the rest of the animals, including the capacity for feeling pain and even loss. But none of these translate well into the moral point of view and making the attempt can lead to unnecessary hostilities among human beings and even worse, to public policies that are very intrusive.

Machan’s Archives: The Deficit and the Tragedy of the Commons

From Machan’s Archives: The Deficit and the Tragedy of the Commons

(December 2004)

In the 4th century B. C. Aristotle identified a very important principle of community life. He demonstrated the social value of the right to private property. He said,

“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics, 1262a30-37)

This same idea was more recently clarified by Professor Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in the prestigious magazine Science. Hardin gave the example of common grazing area used by several owners of cattle to feed their livestock. Because there are no borders identifying what area belongs to which cattle owner, the commons tend to be overused, not because of any greed but because each cattle owners wants to achieve the best possible results, namely, feed the cattle adequately.

The principle at issue has been very fruitfully applied to environmental problems and the conclusion has been drawn by many scholars that without extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties – lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass – environmental problems will remain unsolved. Everyone knows that a problem exists with common ownership but no one can do anything about it without changing what is commonly owned to private property. The political will and savvy to achieve the solution is, of course, lagging far behind the analysis that identified the solution. Still, in this area, at least, such identification has occurred.

What has not been widely noticed is that a tragedy of the commons exists, as well, in our national treasury. We have here what by law amounts to a common pool of resources from which members of the political community will try to extract as much as will best serve their purposes. Be it for purposes of artistic, educational, scientific, agricultural, athletic, medical, or general moral and social progress, the treasury stands to be dipped into by all citizens in a democratic society. And everyone has very sound reasons to try to dip into it – their goals are usually well enough thought out so they have confidence in their plans. They know that if they receive support from the treasury, they can further their goals. So they will do whatever they can to do just that, namely, extract from the commons as much for their purposes as is feasible.

But, as both Aristotle and Professor Hardin knew, the commons are going to be exploited without regard to standards or limits – “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Which explains, at least in part, why the treasuries of most Western democracies are being slowly depleted and deficits are growing without any sign of restraint. Japan, Germany, Great Britain and, of course, the United States of America are all experiencing this, as are numerous other societies that make their treasuries available to the public to use for sheer private purposes. For how else can we construe education, scientific research, the building of athletic parks, the upkeep of beaches and forests and so forth than the pursuit of special private goals by way of a common treasury?

Some might try to obscure this by claiming that all these goals involve a public dimension. Of course. So does nearly every private purpose – including the widely decried phenomenon of industrial activity that produces the negative public side effect of pollution and contributes to the depletion of a quality environment. Private goals can have public benefits. But their goal is to serve the specific objectives of some individuals. When AIDs research is supported from the public treasury, the first beneficiaries of success would be those with AIDs, not those who haven’t contracted the disease. When theater groups gain support from the National Endowment for the Arts, there may be beneficiaries beyond those obtaining funding but they are still the ones who benefit directly, immediately. When milk producers gain a federal subsidy by having the price of milk fixed or their withholding of production compensated, they are the first to gain from this, not some wider public.

And so on with thousands of other “public” projects – they are, actually, supporting private goals, first and foremost. One need only observe who lobbies for them. But because the treasure is public property, there is no way to allocate what is in there rationally, with proper budgetary constraints. Instead politicians embark on deficit spending – taking non-existing funds, ones not yet collected but only rather uncertainly anticipated, and funding the requests without restraint.

And there is no end in sight. Only when the country no longer has the credit worthiness in the world community, so that its bonds will no longer be backed by hopeful lenders, will the Ponzy scheme be called to a screeching halt. We will have to declare bankruptcy and those of our citizens who had nothing at all to do with the enterprise will be left to hold the empty bag, namely, our grandchildren.

Not unless the treasury stops allowing private projects to be funded from its coffers, confining itself to the support of bona fide public projects – the courts, the military, and police – will there be an end that avoids the perhaps greatest tragedy of the commons. To reach such a position of financial responsibility, the governments of our society will have to sell off all the unwisely held common assets – lands, parks, beaches, buildings, forests, lakes and such – to private parties. They will thus liberate members of our future generations from the shackles that have been so irresponsibly placed upon them by means of the tragedy of the commons.

Tibor R. Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Chapman University. His (unproofed) columns are stored @ &

Column on Political Hyperbole

Political Hyperbole!

Tibor R. Machan

I am baffled by how critics of some Tea Party stars engage in rank hypocrisy. For example, they–such as many commentators on CNN-TV–have been claiming to be utterly shocked with former Texas Governor Perry’s polemical answers to interviewers. He said, at one point, that it would be “‘almost treacherous or treasonous,’ if the Fed under Bernanke increased the money supply before next year’s election.” He added something about how such untoward policies might be dealt with in Texas, namely, harshly!

This is supposed to be some kind of intolerable, uncivilized outburst, not to be expected from any serious political candidate in the heat of election campaigning. Never mind that the Vice President of the United States just a week prior to Perry’s hyperbole, said something more indiscreet about the Tea Party. Biden was reported to have agreed with Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa) who said about some hard line Tea Party Republicans at a two-hour, closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting: “‘We have negotiated with terrorists,’ an angry Doyle said, according to sources in the room. ‘This small group of terrorists have made it impossible to spend any money.’ Biden, driven by his Democratic allies’ misgivings about the debt-limit deal, backed Doyle’s comment” with his own ultra-hyperbolic statement: “They have acted like terrorists.”*

Notice that unlike in Perry’s remark, there was no qualification in what Doyle and Biden said, nothing about “almost treacherous or treasonous.” Instead the words were, “They have acted like terrorists.” Both of these are, of course, polemical remarks but the formers is more cautious and thus more civilized than the latter. And the analogy with terrorism offered by Perry is also more accurate since what he was talking about is Bernanke’s plan to increase the money supply to such an enormous extent that it will most probably severely lower the value of millions of people’s income, retirement, savings, etc., etc., and breed inflation to boot. That kind of destructiveness is indeed reminiscent of what terrorists do, namely wreak havoc with whatever their targets value, including their lives all in the name of some supposedly higher goal.

All of this needs to be appreciated in the light of numerous complaints offered over the last few years about how Republicans and Tea Party folks especially are engaging in irresponsible rhetoric, how they have been uncivilized as they have engage in their political exclamations, outbursts, etc. President Obama himself chimed in about this, I recall, and so has, of course, his buddy Professor and pundit Paul Krugmann. Yet if one considered the two different hyperbolic statements, those made by Perry and those by Doyle and Biden, it is crystal clear that the latter have been far more indiscreet in how they have characterized–let’s call it what it is, besmirched–their adversaries.

Maybe one could say that all this is simply par for the course when it comes to campaign rhetoric. As many have noted, the same has been going on for a couple of centuries. Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, Alexander Hamilton, et al have done nothing less when they sparred verbally in their political encounters. (As someone who writes columns and receives letters about them galore, I can testify that exaggerated charges having little to do with substance and a whole to with character assassination are routine.)

So yes, there is nothing peculiar with all the heat (and little light) in what the different parties to the various current political exchanges say. What is remarkable, however, is that news anchors and reporters at places like CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and Fox join in. That is blatant lack of professionalism. And if one is permitted to point this out in how Wall Street traders, politicians, physicians, educators, and other professionals conduct themselves, it is certainly appropriate to point it out in the case of journalists. Especially when these folks intone with such righteous indignation about the missteps others take as they express themselves, as they chime in on various topics. After all, journalists are supposed to be professionals at expressing themselves and when they do this badly, that should be pointed out by those who watch them since it amounts to out and out malpractice.


A Short Note on the Republicans, So far

A Note on the Republicans, So far

Tibor R. Machan

Michelle Bachmann would lose for sure. She has too much going against her: her rigid social conservatism that most people in America reject; her rigid looks that scare people (severity in someone isn’t attractive except to people with authoritarian inclinations); she makes too much elementary mistakes when it comes to facts she needs to put forth her agenda; she sounds artificial, etc.

Romney will never get over endorsing Obamacare-like health care measures as governor and is thus too vulnerable to being shown inconsistent, incoherent and opportunistic.

Paul has great ideas on nearly every front but his presence is lacking in gravitas–sadly he comes across too much like a hick.

So who is there who could overcome the obstacles to becoming appealing to the vast majority of Americans? Seems like Perry might if he can confidently rebut the likes of Paul Krugmann who want to undermine what he did in Texas and if he can cultivate a more polished, erudite presence.