Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:
This is the second of three posts dealing with the implications of evolutionary theory for traditionalmorality (see Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity). In it, we’ll be looking at the vexed and disconcerting issue of suicide and the closely-related topic of voluntary euthanasia.
Philosophers have debated the ins and outs of self-killing for thousands of years. The questions they ask are provocative. Are we obliged to stay alive if we really do not want to? Should people have the right to kill themselves? Should people have the right to stop others from killing themselves, if that’s what they really want to do?
As a general rule, philosophers and religious thinkers have been opposed to suicide. Their reasons are many and varied. Some have argued, for instance, that God has forbidden us to take our own lives, others that it’s up to God to choose the moment and the manner of our deaths, and others still that suicide is wrong because it’s unnatural. But arguably the most important argument is based on the doctrine of human dignity. As I discussed in my last post, this is the idea, implicit in traditional Western systems of morality, that the lives of human beings have infinite value whereas the lives of other animals have little value or perhaps even none at all. A natural corollary of the idea that human life is infinitely valuable is that taking a human life – including one’s own – is infinitely wicked. Thus, according to this argument, ending one’s own life is wrong for the same reason that murder is wrong: because human life is sacred.
The argument is most often applied to suicide, but it has been applied to voluntary euthanasia as well. Kant noted that when an animal is suffering we put it out of its misery, and that’s OK; but it’s not OK when it comes to human beings because of the infinite worth of human life. Similarly, the Rabbi Moshe Tendler opposed voluntary euthanasia on the grounds that ‘Human life is of infinite value’. In his view, we should not cut short a person’s life by even a few days because ‘a piece of infinity is also infinity, and a person who has but a few moments to live is no less of value than a person who has 60 years to live’. Thus, the injunction against assisted suicide – like that against unassisted suicide – is commonly underwritten by the doctrine of human dignity.
But the whole edifice starts to crumble once we bring Darwin into the picture. With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of thehappiness of the individual living that life?