May 24, 2024

‘We’re all vitalists now’, Oxford ethicist tells utilitarians   

Utilitarians have been overlooked

In a characteristically provocative article, Oxford medical ethical ethicist Charles Foster observes that, in the current emergency, policy-makers the world over have ignored utilitarian solutions. “The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.” How will this eventually affect our views on assisted suicide and euthanasia, he asks.

I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

Surely this must affect other issues, he muses. The obvious candidates are assisted suicide and euthanasia. The argument supporting them goes like this: people should be permitted to autonomously choose to die. The argument against them is: if so, so what? It’s too risky.

if it is (or might be – for surely the precautionary principle applies) empirically right that legislation permitting assisted dying would indeed put at risk the lives of people other than those who choose, entirely autonomously, to die, the policy considerations that have determined the international response to the virus would, if applied consistently, seem to make it harder for advocates of assisted dying to advance autonomy-based …  arguments.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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