‘The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy. That we can let go whenever we want is for me the deepest sort of thrill.’
So Matthew Parris, in a Saturday Times article (‘Why I’m opposed to legalising assisted suicide’, 1st August 2009). In the piece he argues against legalised assisted suicide but not against assisted suicide as such. What he is against is a ‘creep towards the state regulation of death’ and I must say that I certainly agree with that. Do Not Resuscitate cards are about the limit.
But what caught my eye was the expression of his libertarian view of the politics of one’s own life. Who may exercise authority over my own life? Not the state, certainly; not you, except to help me if I ask you to and you agree. For it is I, me, who am the sovereign over my own life. And for Parris, an atheist and something of a Lucretian, (‘death is nothing to me’) this means the right to exercise sovereignty not over some phase of my life, but over my life, period.
There is more
‘The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry’.
It’s this attitude, and the argument itself, that interests me, not Parris’s jejune theology. (What’s childish is the idea that God cannot have brought to pass what has already been done, so to speak. I can end my life so God cannot end it; my life has been ended by my decision so its ending cannot have been God’s decision too. God regularly uses what is against his will to serve his will. Does he receive another raspberry when someone is suddenly knocked down and killed by a speeding joy-rider?).
Parris’s attitude is surely self-deceiving. What he is saying is that the freedom to end one’s life whenever one wants is also the freedom to keep it. The deep thrill I get every morning comes from reflecting upon the fact that, before sundown, I could have chosen to end my life, but that if I decide not to make that choice then I shall safely arrive at the end of the day, to be presented with the same choice when tomorrow dawns. ‘The knowledge that I’m here by choice’. That I’m here by choice seems plainly false; false, even, that I’m here by my parents’ choice, though they most certainly had a hand in the matter. ‘That every breath I take I take by choice’. Even allowing for a modicum of journalistic hyperbole, this also seems rather over the top.
The first question is, Am I free to end my life whenever I want? (Metaphysically free, that is, not morally free.)
To start with, we may be able to let go whenever we want, but surely the relevant question is, can we want to let go when we have the opportunity to do so? Could there ever be a reason for me to want to stop breathing? Maybe so. But that prospect is not something that that we are capable of reviewing at a distance, or even regularly (once a month, say, or once a year). We may be able to will a choice, physically able, with no one or no thing holding us back. But can we always, or once a week or once a month, indefinitely, want what we could will if we wanted it? Maybe I shall be driven by extremity to want what I can will. But the dawn of the day when I am driven to it will not be one on which I reflect on the transcendent joy of the fact that I possess such a power, the power to turn off my own light. The realisation that (as Parris puts it) I am no longer useful and life is no longer fun will hardly be trumped by the transcendentally joyous realisation that I can flip the switch. That sort of talk is for the op ed page. It may be joyous, on a summer’s morning now, but I wager it won’t be joyous once it becomes a live option.
And the second question is, Am I free to keep my life?
As a political conservative, Parris already knows the answers to this question. He knows that life is full of contingencies, of unintended consequences, of unforeseen calamities, human weaknesses, corruptibility and corruption. That’s part of what makes him the political animal that he is, distrustful of the plans and the policies of the state any more than is strictly necessary, simply because the state can no more see into the future than he can. We can no more plan our lives than the state can plan the future of its people. That’s a good reason not to trust the state or to extend its power over death, or over life. So it is strange to find him writing of 'The knowledge that I’m here by choice'.
The reasons for nor trusting the state more than is strictly necessary, Parris believes, are a part of the human condition. They offer themselves universally, and so they provide an equally good reason for not trusting ourselves. Our lives are not in our hands. We do not know what a day may bring. And so this is also a reason to go easy on the hubris. Realising this, we just might be tempted to take the initiative, simply to affirm the contrary point, that I'm master of my own fate. But that won’t be a joyous thing to do, either.
So, neither free to keep my life, nor free to end it; not at least free in any sense that is transcendently joyous. To say otherwise, and to mean it, is to be seriously self-deceived.