Why Do We Need Human Rights? (37): The Right to Life

Of all human rights, the right to life is probably the least controversial. It’s almost universally accepted and it’s supposed to have absolute or quasi-absolute power: most of us have a hard time accepting or even imagining justifiable limitations of this right. Hence, the question of the justification of the right to life seems relatively uninteresting. Compared to some other rights, it’s clear why we need it: we all want to live, or at least decide for ourselves whether or not we want to live.

If, for instance, you ask people why we need the right to free speech, or why violating this right is wrong, then they’ll have a much harder time coming up with a solid answer (even though there are solid answers). They’ll also assume that they would somehow be able to live without it. Life would perhaps not be pleasant or fulfilling, but it would go on. Not so without the right to life.

So why talk about the justification of the right to life? Well, because on closer inspection things aren’t so simple. If you ask yourself why killing is wrong, the answer is surprisingly difficult. The best attempt to answer the question has some unappealing results. We can argue that killing is wrong because living allows you to do things, be someone, become someone etc. (See here for instance). It’s because life is this fundamental prerequisite and this necessary condition for everything else that a right to life is basic, quasi-absolute and easy to justify in the minds of most people. It’s a justification without which there are no other justifications. It’s axiomatic. You can’t not take it for granted.

But if killing is wrong not because it takes away a life – living in itself is not valuable – but because it takes away the ability to act and be, then it’s OK to kill off people in an irreversible coma, harvest their organs etc. The harm imposed by killing can’t be the mere fact that life stops; a person whose life is ended by way of killing can’t experience the harm of absence of life. This person can’t experience anything. A dead person can no longer have any experiences, and taking away people’s ability to experience, in other words their ability to do things and to be someone, is indeed an imposition of harm. A special harm, yes, but a harm nonetheless. Contrary to the usual type of harm, this harm does not imply the experience of harm – how can it? – but rather the harm of absence of experience.

So it’s the imposition of complete and irreversible disability – the complete and final lack of the ability to do things and be someone – that is at stake, that makes killing wrong, and that justifies a right to life. Not the absence or the taking of life as such: the mere absence of life is not a harm. The disability has to be irreversible, because anesthesia for example has the same disabling effect, but in a reversible manner. That is why killing the anesthetized and harvesting their organs is still wrong.

This answer to the question of the wrongness of killing is discomforting. Many of us would shudder at the conclusion that killing off people in an irreversible coma is right because it doesn’t mean imposing harm (the harm – complete and irreversible disability – has already been done). It doesn’t sound right. We sense that we would still impose a harm. But which harm? It can’t be a harm that they can experience, given that they can’t experience anything (so we’re not talking about cases of locked-in syndrome here). Hence, irreversible coma is the same harm as death. Killing people in an irreversible coma does not mean imposing extra harm. It’s not the loss of anything valuable that hasn’t been lost already by the event of the irreversible coma.

And yet, this still sounds unsatisfactory. Many of us would try to keep comatose people alive. After all, what looks like irreversibility may not be so in the future. But even if irreversibility is a certainty, we still wouldn’t be OK with pulling the plug. I’m afraid I have no solution. I’m stuck. And the absence of a solution complicates the justification of the right to life: if killing off irreversibly comatose people is not wrong, then the right to life loses part of its meaning.

More posts in this series are here.

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