It’s hard not to feel for Paul Lamb, paralysed in a car crash, who yesterday lost a court battle to win the right to a doctor-assisted death. Outside the court, Lamb (a lively and engaging fellow, sharp and engaged with his court case) told the media of the pain caused by his disability: “I haven’t committed a crime, I don’t deserve to be punished like this”.
So begins an excellent article by Kate Maltby in The Telegraph.
She touches on lots of the themes I write about here – like the concept of what we deserve (“Lamb talks about his suffering as “punishment”, albeit punishment undeserved… Is there any crime he could have committed for which paralysis could be considered a fitting punishment?”), and the question of rights (her article is entitled “We don’t have a ‘right to die’. We need to stop thinking of everything in terms of ‘rights'”, though sadly she doesn’t really unpack this idea directly).
What I want to focus on here, though, is her thoughts on equality, and what that really means.
Maltby quotes Lamb as saying,
[T]his country prides itself on treating disabled people the same as able-bodied people; this is discrimination, because able people [are physically capable of suicide],
but challenges this notion:
But just because able-bodied people can and do commit suicide – always a terrible thing, always cataclysmic to the people around them – doesn’t mean disabled people should. If we could stop each and every able-bodied person from privately committing suicide, we should. There’s a reason volunteers patrol the cliffs at Beachy Head.
I’ve written before on the anomaly of our society simultaneously seeking to prevent some suicides and provide others, but Maltby uses another interesting example to make her point:
Paul Lamb’s vision of the world (and who could not be compassionate towards him?) proposes that to be equal, we must all be the same. And that it’s the government’s job to ensure that. If an able-bodied person is physically capable of committing adultery, must we arrange for the disabled to be given mistresses, and in secret, too? Neither suicide nor infidelity are helpful things for the government to ban, but neither are to be encouraged.
There’s a lot of content and thought in that short paragraph: what does it mean to be equal? What is the government’s role in bringing about that equality? Are suicide and adultery good things or bad things? One has, in the past, been illegal, the other only immoral; what role, if any should the government have in legislating for morality?
If the purpose of government is to provide for the flourishing of its citizens (and that is by no means an incontestable or uncontested question), would it promote or restrict our flourishing to allow those in pain and distress to be helped to kill themselves?
One of our highest values as a society is freedom, but where is the line between allowing people freedom and facilitating their freedom? Particularly when facilitating the freedom of one person restricts the freedom of others (the new euthanasia law in Quebec, for example, grants freedom to die to those seeking it, but denies doctors the freedom to object to killing their patients).
As citizens and human beings, we have a responsibility to seek the good of our neighbours, and while compassion may lead us to want to acquiesce to the requests of someone in deep pain, our knowledge of right and wrong need to overrule our emotions.
Unfortunately, Maltby’s example of adultery is an unhelpful one here, though, because although we objectively know adultery is wrong, when a friend is miserable in their marriage and attracted to someone else, it is all too easy for us to be duped into thinking that his or her happiness would be best served by breaking their marriage vows (Hollywood is very good at this – I am ashamed to say that there are films I have watched where I find myself wanting the main character to leave his/her unhappy marriage and find freedom and happiness with the gorgeous, tender, caring, fun new person in their life).
That which seems compassionate isn’t always right. Just because one person can do something, doesn’t mean everyone must, or must be helped to.
“Anything you can do, I can do better” is a silly, immature song, and a silly, immature approach to life. Humanity is richly diverse, and human life is no less so. We don’t all get what we deserve – at least in this life – but we all have the freedom to choose between right and wrong in playing the hand we are dealt.
I’m sorry Paul Lamb is suffering, but I’m glad the courts ruled against killing him. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Picture Credit: Paul Lamb (c) Reuters