The UK Government’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons in September of this year, was, rightly, a controversial one. The question of assisted suicide, in order to prevent the onset of pain or the so-called “loss of dignity” from a degenerative disease or old age, is disputed amongst libertarians too, with some asserting that if you own your body and your life you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whereas others claim that anything that seeks the destruction or termination of one’s life is antithetical to freedom.

We are not, of course, hoping to resolve this kind of debate here. Rather, the focus of this essay is an interesting article that appeared recently in The Spectator authored by Matthew Parris entitled “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and subtitled “If the law does not lead, it will follow — at root the reason is Darwinian”. Parris states forthrightly what he believes will be a result of any assisted dying law, a result that most people do not wish to countenance – that, one day, we will encourage and/or require people to end their lives. Unwittingly, however, Parris unveils not the dangers of any assisting dying bill at all. Rather, it is the dangers of the culture of statism in which such a law would be enacted, a culture of government permissibility, prohibition and encouragement which has seeped into our psyche that rejects any difference between law and positive morality.

The argument (deployed by opponents of assisted dying) is that licensing assisted dying is to smile upon the practice. The legal change would act as a cultural signal that society now approves. This would in time lead to pressure on those who might not otherwise have contemplated ending their lives, to hasten their own demise — so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others. One day (say the faith squad) it could even become the norm.

I am sure they’re right. We who may argue for ‘permissive’ legislation must have the intellectual honesty to admit that the ending of a legal prohibition does act as a social signal. In vain do we protest that ‘nobody is forcing’ upon anybody else (say) same-sex marriage, or the cashing in of pension pots, or a quickie divorce, or the possession of marijuana. Indeed not. Nobody is forcing these delights upon others, but humans are social animals and one of the ways a society signals its attitudes is by criminalising behaviour it thinks very harmful, and decriminalising behaviour towards which its attitude has softened. [Emphasis added]

It is clear from this that Parris views government laws and the will of “society” as harmonious – that government restricts what “society” does not want and permits what “society” does want. There is, therefore, in Parris’s view a union between government and people, that we are all one. It is clear also that Parris views “government” and “society” as primacies – any rights and freedoms we enjoy exist because society and government have been kind enough to pass “permissive” legislation so that we can enjoy them. “Society”, however, is not some mysterious entity with its own cognitive ability and even if it was there is no reason for the government to be in step with anything “society” decides. The prevailing attitudes, opinions and points of view on certain moral subjects originate in the minds of individuals in disagreement with the points of view of other individuals. After all, if everyone was in agreement the alleged immoral act would never occur and hence laws against it would be pointless. Never does Parris consider that the law is simply being used by one set of persons to curtail the freedom of others. Never does it occur to him that the law’s proper scope is to simply prevent invasive violence between individuals and not to confer any moral propriety on anything. Rights and freedoms originate with individual people and do not require the government to permit them. They require a total absence of government, not any piece of government paper with a Royal assent or presidential signature in order to bring them about.

The stoning to death of women taken in adultery under sharia law is undoubtedly the signal of a cultural attitude towards adultery. Were you to advocate the abolition of this punishment, Islamic moral conservatives would be right to warn that the move would both indicate and encourage a softening of public moral disapproval of female adultery. Likewise, the progressive removal of legal restraints on homosexuality has been both consequence and cause of an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards gays. It is futile to deny this

Assisted dying is not a novel desire, not a strange new way of thinking. As a moral impulse, the idea that one might hasten one’s end because one gained no pleasure from living and one had become a burden on friends, family and the state has been with us since the dawn of man. You will find it in literature right down the ages. In your own lifetime you will have heard it expressed by others of your acquaintance. The impulse, though, has usually been discouraged — resisted as an unworthy attitude to life — and this cultural disapproval is reflected in law.

To alter the law in a permissive way would therefore be pushing (as it were) at an open door: legitimising a moral argument that has always been present (or latent) among humans. I would have every expectation that, given the extra push, the habit would grow.

All of this would be true only if one accepts the view that law either is or should be, by its presence or absence, a promoter of positive morality. As libertarians we reject this view. Perhaps stoning adulterous women and criminalising homosexual behaviour was rejected not to signal any cultural approval but merely because what people do to each other in their own bedrooms is no business of the state nor of anyone else? Legalising them simply means that legitimised violence cannot be used to prevent them by people who have no business interfering in the lives of others. There is no reason to suppose that legalisation, as well as having been a consequence of relaxed social attitudes towards certain acts, should be regarded as a continuing cause of this tolerance. Everyone is still free to disapprove of such acts and to disassociate themselves from them if they so wish. Nor is there any reason why legalisation should transform simple permissiveness into encouragement or promotion. Adultery may be legal today but it is not culturally acceptable to cheat on one’s partner, and such acts are met with indignation, disapproval and rebuke. Where there has, on the other hand, been a continuing social relaxation to acts such as homosexual behaviour it is because a greater exposure to these acts that legalisation permits has caused people to realise that such acts are probably not as horrific as they might have once thought from when all they knew about them was disseminated from the propaganda of the government and moral zealots. If, on the other hand, murder was to be legalised it is likely that such exposure would cause people to still regard this as horrific and abominable. Legalisation is not, therefore, necessarily a direct cause of any social attitude towards anything.

And so it must — indeed, in the end, will: and if it does not lead, the law will follow. At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper. As medical science advances, the cost of prolonging human life way past human usefulness will impose an ever heavier burden on the community for an ever longer proportion of its members’ lives. Already we are keeping people alive in a near-vegetative state. The human and financial resources necessary will mean that an ever greater weight will fall upon the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the population still productive. Like socialist economics, this will place a handicap on our tribe. Already the cost of medical provision in Britain eats into our economic competitiveness against less socially generous nations.

This does not mean an end to social generosity. It does not mean an end to economically unproductive state spending. These are social goods that we value for non-economic reasons, and should. But the value we place on them is not potentially infinite. They have their price. Life itself has its price. As costs rise, there will be a point at which our culture (and any culture) will begin to call for a restraining hand. I believe that when it comes to the cost of keeping very enfeebled people alive when life has become wretched for them, we’re close to that point.

Parris seems to have forgotten that “tribes” are only handicapped because they existed in a pre-capitalist era where they had to compete with either each other or with other tribes for a finite number of resources. Capitalist economies, however, allow every person to take their place in the division of labour and all are better off from the resulting manifold increase in productivity. More alarmingly, however, Parris seems to think that all values and ends are collectively held and desired. What is “useful” as well as the “costs” and “prices” of attaining these ends are all decided by the “culture” or by “society”. It is absolutely true that all ends have their price but the only reason these ends are priced by “society” is because the government has taken upon itself to socialise welfare and medical care. People only become a burden to everyone else because they are forced to pay for the sustenance of other people’s lives through the conduit of the state which cannot and will not ever do so in the most cost effective and sustainable way. Indeed, it is government that creates the problem of hordes of sick and dying individuals by encouraging demand through the provision healthcare and welfare that is either free or vastly reduced in cost at the point of need.

Parris refers to “socialist economics” as harming “the tribe” yet he doesn’t seem to realise that the tribal mentality that he adopts is precisely a symptom of socialisation and collectivism. Socialist economics doesn’t harm “the tribe”, which in Parris’s case seems to mean his country the UK, a country that must, for some reason Parris does not explain, remain “economically competitive” with other countries. Rather, socialist economics creates tribes in the first place, with the tribal leaders – the government, the heads of planning, etc. – deciding what is important ahead of everyone else. The value of “economic competitiveness” ahead of other ends would be valued by them, the leaders, and forced upon everyone else, with the “useless lives” sacrificed for that end. Parris makes a mistake typical of collectivist thinking which is to regard society, or man’s propensity to be a “social animal”, as requiring each human to value the same ends or to work towards the same goals. This is not true. Society exists because humans realise that they can pursue their own ends (that differ from everyone else’s ends) peacefully and more productively through the division of labour and voluntary trade. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that everyone can coexist peacefully and harmoniously while pursuing their own material, self-interest (and indeed can accomplish their individual goals to a much greater extent). It is utterly false to view society as a vast machine in which individual people comprise nothing more than metaphorical cogs and pistons, all fitting together and moving along to produce the same output. If, therefore, socialisation was ended, how much should be spent on medical care and on other so-called “economically unproductive” ends would be a matter for each individual person with their own individual means, or with the voluntary assistance of other people. They would willingly sacrifice their individual “economic competitiveness” and direct resources to providing for their care in old age at a point that was desirable to them without forcibly burdening everyone else.

I don’t even say we should look more benignly upon the termination of life when life is fruitless. I say we will. We may not be aware that our moral attitudes are being driven by the Darwinian struggle for survival, but in part they will be. And just as we feel ourselves looking more sympathetically at those who wish to end it all, so we shall be (unconsciously) looking at ourselves in the same way. The stigma will fade, and in its place will come a new description of selfishness, according to which it may be thought selfish of some individuals (including potentially ourselves) to want to carry on.

We admire Captain Oates for walking out of his tent and into his death when he judged his enfeeblement was threatening his colleagues’ chances of survival. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates a moral impulse that I expect to grow — and for the same reasons as it occurred to Oates: the good of our fellow men.

I do not therefore need to campaign for assisted dying. I do not need (and wouldn’t want) to persuade anybody that the time has come for them to end their lives. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that suicide can be a fine and noble thing, or rail against the ever growing cost of medical care in the final, prolonged phase of people’s lives. My opinions and my voice are incidental. This is a social impulse which will grow, nourished by forces larger than all of us. I don’t exhort. I predict.

In these closing paragraphs Parris makes clear that he is not advocating the ending of life at some point that it is deemed socially useless. Rather, he makes it clear that it is an inevitable result of a Darwinian struggle for survival. This case may be probable, or even certain, under current conditions. The problem, however, is that Parris’s analysis once again misses the elephant in the room. Captain Oates only walked out of his tent because the resources available to him and his “fellow men” were finite – his “enfeeblement” threatened the survival of his colleagues because they lacked the ability to produce more resources. Government socialisation of welfare and medical resources replicates the predicament of Captain Oates across society as a whole, stifling production, and increasing demand of what becomes a dwindling supply of resources at ever spiralling costs. Moreover, statism and socialisation entrenches in our psyche the “common good”, the willingness to sacrifice the individual to upon the altar of the collective, a willingness which has only become necessary precisely as a result of the ineptitude of collectivism. So although we may have some, limited agreement with Parris’s “prediction” we can, as libertarians, respond emphatically that none of it is necessary if one simply puts an end to the mantle of the state. Had Parris abandoned his collectivist mind set he might have realised this.

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