hard cases make bad law

Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s, wants assisted suicide to be legalised.

Michael Wenham, who has motor neurone disease, doesn’t.

If ever there was an issue that needed to be discussed without the distractions of opinion polls and emotive stories about the mercy/compassion/love of those who aided the suicide of their relatives, this would be it.

10 thoughts on “hard cases make bad law

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thoughtful take on a complex issue in so few words. Well done.

    I suspect I might disagree with you about the ultimate best solution on this issue, but I agree about the method: a good answer to this issue will only be found by a rational evaluation from basic principles, not by inflated rhetoric and gratuitous popularity contests.


  2. …or even without individual cases being mentioned at all.

    I think “quality of life” arguments will trump us all, though. Then it’ll be up to Christians to show that damaged lives also have value.

    I enjoyed reading your archives the other day. Thanks.


  3. Quality of life … the divide there is between an approach which tries to improve quality of life, versus one which prefers to end life. Most lives are damaged in some way, or for some amount of time, but it doesn’t mean they lose their value.

    The existing legislation isn’t in place as some sort of cruel means of making people and their caring relatives suffer – it’s supposed to protect people, especially at vulnerable points in their lives. Changing the law (or indeed the guidance for prosecution) will remove safeguards which can already seem fragile enough to people with terminal illness, people with chronic illness, and disabled people.

    The archives? you must be a brave soul, Otepoti!


  4. Robert Spaemann, retired German ethics professor, who often dealt (and deals) with this topic, as with those of organ donation and abortion in his talks and articles, stresses just that. I heard him saying once that this had become the ‘fashion’ in discussion of moral questions: finding hard or ‘borderline’ cases which tend to dissolve all boundaries. Law, he says, can never be made as to be just in every single conceivable case. Someone confronted with such an extraordinary case would have to have the courage to follow his concience and suffer the legal consequences. The only alternative would ultimately be to abolish all law. The mere economic pressure of the demographic shift will in his opinion be soon great enough to break all dykes in the question of killing old or sick people, if the – moral and legal – laws governing the taking of human lives are not most firmly enshrined.


  5. Yes, absolutely. Thanks, Notburga. People’s understanding of morality is so confused though, especially if it’s coupled with the idea that suffering of any sort is almost the ultimate evil, so that at all costs, suffering itself must be avoided. In that kind of foggy environment, it becomes much easier to popularise the view that it must be more moral to end the life of the sufferer than to try to alleviate their suffering.

    That’s in contrast to the ‘basic principle’ that human life is valuable enough in itself that we should collectively spare no effort to (a) alleviate suffering as far as possible and (b) maintain that doing so is not a burdensome chore and (c) continue to support/respect/honour people for their own sakes even when we/they are at or approaching the limits of how much ‘alleviation’ is possible. (That 3rd isn’t particularly clear, but I just mean that a person, and their carers, are not failures as human beings even in cases where you can’t really do any more for them, beyond “being there”.)


  6. I was interested to read your archives because the FC is the church from which came the settlers to Dunedin, to establish a free church settlement here. These are my ancestors. Sadly, NZ Presbyterianism has wandered far from its roots.


    • Intriguing. I would love to know more about presbyterianism in the antipodes. There are currently FP congregations in Auckland and Wellington (and a couple of other places) although I don’t know anything about the FC in NZ.


  7. It is true that we should not take suffering as the “ultimate evil”. I would also agree that human life is valuable, and that value is not lost simply because someone is terminally ill – even in great pain.

    But I (and many others) contend that “respecting someone” also entails respecting their wishes. And it is possible for someone to choose, of their own free will, an end to their own suffering.

    Whether the law is a delicate enough instrument to recognize such cases and deal justly with them is an open question – one that we as a society are grappling with. I don’t know what the right answer is in legislative terms.

    Personally, I would choose to die with (what I consider) dignity, rather than to linger on in pain, losing my self to the suffering, as many people are forced to do. And I would hate to think that a loved one helping me do that would risk being treated like a murderer.


  8. Hey, what happened to the ‘no individual cases’ rule? :-) Personally, I would prefer …

    The problem is the factors which in reality always constrain the wishes of people who come to the conclusion that ending their life is their only/best option. How free really is the free will of someone who decides that this drastic step is the best thing for them?

    The opposition you see between “dying with dignity” and “lingering on in pain” either contradicts what you say about human life not losing value even in great pain, or else we need to start from basic principles to arrive at an understanding of what’s meant by “dignity” in this context.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s