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In Judeo-Christian tradition, God is owner of all souls. The soul is on deposit with us. The very right to use it, for however short a period, is a divine gift. Suicide, therefore, amounts to an abuse of God's possession. Blackstone, venerable codifier of British Law, concurred. The state, according to him, has a right to prevent and to punish suicide and attempted suicide. Suicide is self-murder, he wrote, and, therefore, a grave felony. In certain paternalistic countries, this still is case.
The Right to Have One's Life Terminated
The right to have one's life terminated at will (euthanasia), is subject to social, ethical, and legal strictures. In some countries - such as Netherlands - it is legal (and socially acceptable) to have one's life terminated with help of third parties given a sufficient deterioration in quality of life and given imminence of death. One has to be of sound mind and will one's death knowingly, intentionally, repeatedly, and forcefully.
II. Issues in Calculus of Rights
The Hierarchy of Rights
The right to life supersedes - in Western moral and legal systems - all other rights. It overrules right to one's body, to comfort, to avoidance of pain, or to ownership of property. Given such lack of equivocation, amount of dilemmas and controversies surrounding right to life is, therefore, surprising.
When there is a clash between equally potent rights - for instance, conflicting rights to life of two people - we can decide among them randomly (by flipping a coin, or casting dice). Alternatively, we can add and subtract rights in a somewhat macabre arithmetic.
Thus, if continued life of an embryo or a fetus threatens mother's life - that is, assuming, controversially, that both of them have an equal right to life - we can decide to kill fetus. By adding to mother's right to life her right to her own body we outweigh fetus' right to life.
The Difference between Killing and Letting Die
Counterintuitively, there is a moral gulf between killing (taking a life) and letting die (not saving a life). The right not to be killed is undisputed. There is no right to have one's own life saved. Where there is a right - and only where there is one - there is an obligation. Thus, while there is an obligation not to kill - there is no obligation to save a life.
The life of a Victim (V) is sometimes threatened by continued existence of an innocent person (IP), a person who cannot be held guilty of V's ultimate death even though he caused it. IP is not guilty of dispatching V because he hasn't intended to kill V, nor was he aware that V will die due to his actions or continued existence.
Again, it boils down to ghastly arithmetic. We definitely should kill IP to prevent V's death if IP is going to die anyway - and shortly. The remaining life of V, if saved, should exceed remaining life of IP, if not killed. If these conditions are not met, rights of IP and V should be weighted and calculated to yield a decision (See "Abortion and Sanctity of Human Life" by Baruch A. Brody).
Utilitarianism - a form of crass moral calculus - calls for maximization of utility (life, happiness, pleasure). The lives, happiness, or pleasure of many outweigh life, happiness, or pleasure of few. If by killing IP we save lives of two or more people and there is no other way to save their lives - it is morally permissible.
But surely V has right to self defence, regardless of any moral calculus of rights? Not so. Taking another's life to save one's own is rarely justified, though such behaviour cannot be condemned. Here we have flip side of confusion we opened with: understandable and perhaps inevitable behaviour (self defence) is mistaken for a moral right.
If I were V, I would kill IP unhesitatingly. Moreover, I would have understanding and sympathy of everyone. But this does not mean that I had a right to kill IP.
Which brings us to September 11.
What should prevail: imperative to spare lives of innocent civilians - or need to safeguard lives of fighter pilots? Precision bombing puts such pilots at great risk. Avoiding this risk usually results in civilian casualties ("collateral damage").
This moral dilemma is often "solved" by applying - explicitly or implicitly - principle of "over-riding affiliation". We find two facets of this principle in Jewish sacred texts: "One is close to oneself" and "Your city's poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)".
Some moral obligations are universal - thou shalt not kill. They are related to one's position as a human being. Other moral values and obligations arise from one's affiliations. Yet, there is a hierarchy of moral values and obligations. The ones related to one's position as a human being are, actually, weakest.
They are overruled by moral values and obligations related to one's affiliations. The imperative "thou shalt not kill (another human being)" is easily over-ruled by moral obligation to kill for one's country. The imperative "thou shalt not steal" is superseded by one's moral obligation to spy for one's nation.
This leads to another startling conclusion:
There is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. Moral values and obligations often contradict each other and almost always conflict with universal moral values and obligations.
In examples above, killing (for one's country) and stealing (for one's nation) are moral obligations. Yet, they contradict universal moral value of sanctity of life and universal moral obligation not to kill. Far from being a fundamental and immutable principle - right to life, it would seem, is merely a convenient implement in hands of society.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101 .
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com