Tag Archives: ethical questions

Assisted Suicide

Yesterday a Dutch court found Albert Heringa guilty of assisting his step-mother with committing suicide. Though the judges were convinced of his guilt, they refused to punish Heringa for his actions, because he acted out of love.

We of Republic of Lagrangia believe that people should have to right to determine whether they should live or not, and as such we believe that assisted suicide should be legal, albeit with the necessary regulations.

Of course, this case has opened a controversial issue, as is demonstrated by the comments beneath the news article. One of those commenters remarked that allowing assisted suicide would set open the door to “Nazi eugenics“. This comment clearly shows a certain ignorance. First, euthanasia or assisted suicide as such have nothing to do with eugenics, which is the systematic improvement of human genotypes. Secondly, what they Nazis did with their Aktion T4 can described at best as involuntary euthanasia, which is fundamentally different from voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide. The latter are done at request of the person who will be killed, whereas involuntary euthanasia is nothing else than murder, which will and should remain prohibited.

An other objection raised, is that this would lead to elder abuse and manipulation by (greedy) relatives. The last problem is easy to solve if, as we have proposed, a progressive inheritance tax would be levied. With such a tax, people will only inherit only little wealth, so a strong motive for manipulating one’s relatives to commit suicide will be removed. The abuse of the elderly is a severe problem, and will not be solved by banning assisted suicide. Tackling this issue is a complex matter, and proposing simplistic solutions will not necessarily help anyone.

In order to ensure that euthanasia or assisted suicide only happen voluntarily, proper regulations has to be designed. For instance, a video will could be required before any life-ending decision could be made.

See also

Euthanasia and capital punishment

Euthanasia and capital punishment

The participation of medical professionals in both euthanasia and capital punishment is controversial. Lethal injection is a common procedure in both practices, but it requires trained skills to perform it properly. Ideally, either physicians or anaesthetists should carry out the injections. However, traditional medical ethics (the Hippocratic Oath) prevents medical practitioners from administering people lethal substances.

British humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling argued for the introduction of thanatologists: medical professionals specialized in human euthanasia. Though Grayling does not point out a specific method of euthanasia, it’s reasonable to assume that he is thinking about either some kind of lethal injections or some pill (“Pil van Drion” in Dutch). However, they are other possible methods for euthanasia.

Canadian-American philosopher James Park argues for the abolition of the death penalty around world, and to replace it with imprisonment for life. However, Park agrees with Peter Moskos that:

the sadism inherent in long-term imprisonment, especially solitary confinement, should give pause to all who have the slightest bit of human empathy. Is anything worse than being entombed alive? (Moskos p. 50, 2011).

Imprisonment, life sentences in particular, have been described by many as a kind of torture. For those criminals sentences to temporary prison sentences, Moskos has proposed to offer the condemned a choice between either a several years in prison or to be flogged instead (with subsequent release). But Moskos has to accept that some criminals (including murderers, serial rapists, child molesters and terrorists) are so dangerous that they have to be kept away from society, for ever.

However, if we accept that imprisonment is a kind of torture, than life-imprisonment becomes a serious moral problem. This argument is used in favour of the death penalty, since some supporters of the death penalty see it as a more humane alternative for life-imprisonment. (Conversely, some opponents of the death penalty are using this to describe the death penalty as too soft.)

In order to solve this moral dilemma, James Park has proposed to offer those condemned to life without parole the option of voluntary execution. In his proposal, the prisoner will select the date of his or her execution (at least a year into the future). During the time up to the execution the prisoner can reverse his or her decision. Further the prisoner who desires to be executed, has to make twelve requests for it to be sent to trusted person outside the prison system. Park also proposes several safe-guards to ensure that the decision to be executed is made voluntarily by the prisoners (i.e. without pressure from the authorities).

Additionally Park argues for giving prisoners the option to donate their organs after their (voluntary) execution, which could save the lives of up to seven persons. This requirement severely restricts the number of execution methods which can be used. Although Park mentions brain death as an execution method, he does not say how to induce brain death in people. But there is an execution method which is both humane and leaves the organs suitable for donation.

This method is inert gas asphyxiation. As explained on Wikipedia:

Inert gas asphyxiation is a form of asphyxiation which results from respiration of inert gas in the absence of oxygen rather than atmospheric air (a mixture of oxygen and the inert nitrogen). The painful experience of suffocation is not caused by lack of oxygen, but because carbon dioxide builds up in the bloodstream, instead of being exhaled as under normal circumstances. With inert gas asphyxiation, carbon dioxide is exhaled normally, and no such pain experience occurs.

Therefore inert gas asphyxiation is a relatively humane way to cause death. This method works also quickly, unconsciousness within fifteen seconds and death within a minute. As method for euthanasia, it has the additional benefit of causing a state of euphoria in the person dying in such manner. What way of dying is better than dying in euphoria?

However, this aspect is reason for some supporters to oppose this method for executions. But since this method only requires a bottle of nitrogen, a tube and a mask, inert gas asphyxiation does not depend on the use of medical skills. This fact makes it suitable for use by Grayling’s thanatologists. With a simple and fast method for euthanasia, thanatologists can focus on counselling their patients and their loved-ones.

References

Moskos, Peter 2011. In defense of flogging. Basic Books, New York.

How to kill a human being, part 5. BBC Horizon. 2008.

Free will and punishment

On several occasions we have published posts about criminal law on this blog. In general our position is that only acts which cause harm on non-consenting others should be prohibited, and should be punishable by law. What constitutes harm is subject to debate. However in this post we want to discuss another topic: whether the existence or non-existence of a free will is relevant in matters of criminal law.

Some authors have argued that if humans do not posses a free will, they cannot be held responsible for their actions and therefore society has no right to punish them. Some people have used the reverse reasoning to defend the existence of a free will: if people have to be held accountable for their actions, they should posses a free will; therefore a free will must exist. This latter argument is a fallacy, the so-called moralistic fallacy or the idea that the existence of A can be established from the moral desirability of A.

The most important argument raised against the existence of a free will is determinism. This is the ontological position that the order of events in the universe has been predetermined and consequently cannot be changed. There are many different types of determinism, but currently the most important one is the determinism of Laplace or Laplacian determinism. French scientist Laplace deduced from Newtonian physics that the universe should be deterministic at the end of the 18th century.

Central to Newtonian physics is the concept of force: a particle on which no forces are acting will either remain in rest or move in a straight line at a constant speed. In order to accelerate or decelerate, or to change its direction, you need to apply a force on it. The change in velocity and direction of the particle, is dependent on the magnitude and direction of the force acting on the particle. Laplace made the conclusion that if you would know the location of all particles in the universe and all forces acting on them at a given moment in time, and you know all laws of physics, you would be able to calculate the configuration of particles and forces at any other point in time.

Laplace’s determinism is based on the idea of a causal chain: cause and effect. Though Newtonian physics has been replaced by relativistic physics, determinism was still strongly established. After all, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less deterministic than Newton’s theory. Even though many, if not most, physicists believe that quantum mechanics is probabilistic rather than deterministic, there are still many scientists who support deterministic versions of quantum theory.

Even if we, for the sake of the argument, assume that quantum mechanics is probabilistic and that random quantum fluctuations are capable of steering the human mind; the existence of a free will is still not proven. After all, we have no influence on the occurrence of these fluctuations and consequently we do not control their effects. Suppose that the human brain depends on a single quantum event: the spin of a particular hydrogen atom somewhere in our nerve system. The spin is either “up” or “down”, each with equal probability. If the spin is “up” the brain will choose action A, but if the spin is “down” it will choose action B. Since the spin of a hydrogen cannot be controlled by the brain, we cannot strictly speak of “a free will”.

We can conclude that a strong case can be made against the existence of a free will. So the question is now whether the non-existence of a free will matters in case of moral issues such as crime and punishment. I will argue it does not matter at all. Let we consider the following analogy: a game of pool. If a ball lies on a pool table, while no forces are acting on it, the ball will remain where it is. If a player pushes another ball with his cue stick. the second ball will follow a trajectory which is determined by the initial force (from the player) and friction. However when the second ball collides with the first one, the trajectory of the ball will be changed and also the first ball will move. But if the payer had not pushed the second ball, the first ball would have remained in rest.

Determinism is often misunderstood as that outcomes cannot be changed. But in fact, at least in Laplacian determinism, determinism only says that if you know the input, you also know the output: if you know that x+y=z, once you know both x and y, you automatically know z. However if don’t x, y or both, you cannot know z.

We can model the human mind as a function f of y and y: f(x,y)=z. Here are x and y what we can call external variables, and z is the internal state of the human mind. Now for every pair of x and y, there is one value of z; which makes this model a deterministic model of the mind. By changing x and/or y, we can control the state of the mind.

Even we do not have a free will, we can still suffer. Regardless of the (non)-existence of a free will, the reduction or elimination of harm is a good thing to do. By prohibiting harmful action and imposing penalties on such actions, we might reduce harm. How can this work?

First, punishment might act as a deterrent: the imposing of penalties might act as external variable which changes the state of mind z such that the person affected will not commit a crime. Even if the deterrence function of penalties only reduces the amount of crimes committed, it would be a good result. Secondly, punishment might change the way the criminal thinks: either the experience of punishment is such an unpleasant one, that he does not want to experience it again, or as result of punishment the criminal’s “mind function” is transformed from f(x,y) into g(x,y). Also in this case it would a good result, if crime is only reduced by some amount. Thirdly, punishment might remove a criminal from society (either by imprisonment or death), so he cannot commit any further crime.

None of these functions of punishment do require the existence of a free will. In fact the contrary is true, to some degree. In order for these function to work there should be some determinacy in the relation between punishments and criminal behaviour.