Saturday, February 14, 2015

The right to die

In a blog-post called The Gay Marriage Thing in March last year, I recognized that the legalization of same-sex marriages in effect dismissed procreation as the basic premise on which formal marriage has always been based. The premise dated from the days when love had nothing to do with marriage, and everything to do with family alliances.

When marriage is removed from the context of family alliances and children, why does a community – any community – need to be in the business of licensing marriages at all? Why can’t communities simply butt out altogether, and let marriages happen in the absence of any community acknowledgment?

By the same token: why does any community have to be in the business of legislating with regard to death?

In most Western societies – liberal democracies – individuals are already free (within reason) to bequeath their assets to whomever they want. Most societies do levy ad-valorem taxes on deceased estates, though. That’s a custom that began when relatively primitive communities or their rulers held actual legal title to all the land, and whose approval had to be granted for the transfer of occupancy on the death of their tenants. It’s not called “real estate” for nothing; the word “real” meant “royal”.

At all levels of society, it wasn’t just the land that belonged to a community or its lords and/or kings, it was also the people who lived on it. The rulers held the power of life and death over their subjects. It still is, if you think about it. Even in democracies, such actions as abduction, assault, murder and theft are forbidden to all but the authorized servants of the state.

Chief among those prohibitions is the termination of human life. Even the most lowly members of the proletariat are valuable, as spear-carriers and cannon-fodder in tribal wars. To deprive the community of prospective soldiers was tantamount to treason. Even today, the killer of a fellow-subject must be tried in the lawcourts of the relevant king or his agents. Private vengeance is forbidden. Vengeance is mine, saith the king: I will repay.

 Suicide deprives a community and its rulers of their property. Therefore, nobody can assist in a suicide, any more than in a private murder. In many nations, a suicide forfeited the privilege of being buried in a churchyard – as well as the privilege of God’s mercy in the afterlife.

Over centuries, individuals have gradually been allowed to gain some rights over their own lives. In Western societies, at least. Some simpler, pacifist, cultures have always been generous in recognizing individual rights in respect of death. Committing suicide has never been a shameful act, there, and nor has assisting it.

Logically, suicide is the final freedom. Indeed, it is irrefutable proof of individual freedom. Neither church canon nor civil statute ought to hold any veto over the basic human right to be free. The main clause of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights obliges all national government-signatories to recognize a right to life, and the right to life ends with death, surely, not a split-second earlier.

Human Rights advocates and supporters claim that human rights exist ab initio, so to speak. They can’t be granted, only recognized: they can’t be withdrawn or cancelled, only not recognized. Communities who endorse the basic principle have no moral option but to recognize the logic of the statement in the paragraph above this one. The right to life ends with death, and not a moment earlier. Suicide is the act of a free man. Preventing it is the act of an unfree society.