Law, Convention, and the Choice Landscape of Patients Requesting Assisted Sucide

Euthanasia is a touchy subject for many people, and understandably so.  There are strong intuitive reasons behind both the for and against position.  Those who want legal euthanasia can appeal to the idea that we should have a right over our own lives, that we should not be deprived of our autonomy.  Those against can appeal to the externalities that legalizing Euthanasia may generate, and also to the notion that Doctor’s should not have the responsibility (or possibly the right) to kill people.  Previously I came down on the pro-euthanasia/autonomy side.  Though I understand the concerns of the opposition that varies harms could follow from legalizing euthanasia, I felt that all this meant was that we needed to make sure to construct tight legislation.

A paper that I recently read in my program has persuaded me that the problem is more complicated then I originally thought.  This paper, Against the Right to Die by David Velleman, makes the argument that allowing Euthanasia changes the rational choice landscape within which agents operate.  He analogizes allowing Euthanasia to allowing dueling.  If dueling is allowed then people will duel to defend their honour.  However, they would really prefer not to be allowed to duel because then they have not failed to uphold their honour if they do not engage in duels.  In the same way, it may be the case that if euthanasia is legal then some people will rationally choose euthanasia because they feel that their life is a burden on society or their family or something along that lines, but they would really prefer euthanasia just be illegal so that they didn’t have option in the first place.

I find this argument to be quite interesting, and Velleman’s solution even more so.  At the end of the paper, Velleman says that he’s somewhat inclined to believe the best solution to Euthanasia is to have very weak regulations.  Essentially he suggests that it should be illegal, but if someone really wants it then we should just let it happen under the table, in a manner of speaking.  Velleman persuaded me that this is a very good solution – it lets the people who really want Euthanasia have access, but it prevents many of the harmful externalities that might otherwise come about.  The solution is not perfect, of course.  Weak regulation and unwritten rules are prone to unfairness and unequal enforcement.  Sometimes a doctor might be punished for actions many other doctors have done before, or a patient might end up being killed under ambiguous circumstances.  However, I am quite intrigued by the notion that sometimes unwritten rules can make better choice landscapes for rational agents.  The notion vastly complicates what it means to work in policy.

Let me know what you think,


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