By D. S. Dexter Tarbox, Jr. for The Liberty Block
As I sit here at the keyboard, I find myself hoping-against-hope that in New Hampshire, the union, and—indeed—the world, there are flavors of libertarianism that reject the one which I contested last week in my debate on legalized suicide at the SHELL.
I will admit that there were moments in the debate where I was left unusually flummoxed, but the normal awkwardness that I would feel in such circumstances was mitigated by the troublesome quality of those points which raised my bafflement. Even days later, my mind remains engaged with the question: can they really believe that all morality is so self-determined, that no universal principles exist beyond pursuing one’s own interest?
The libertarian argument advanced by the resolution’s proponent contended that most individuals should be legally allowed to commit suicide with whatever willing assistance was available. I counter-argued along two lines (moral and practical), and although the latter concern does remain largely unaddressed, my exclusive interest in writing this piece is the former.
Where active questions of life or death are concerned, the rhetorical positions are rather binary. One either asserts that it is appropriate to curtail the animate humanity of another person under certain circumstances, or else that is inappropriate under the same. Nearly all non-pacifists would agree that using fatal aggression to defend one’s person is an acceptable effort against a reasonable threat, while the same might not be said of a minor offense, wherein the threat failed to rise to the deadly level. For instance, one should not defensively kill a libeler or a cheat.
But what are we to do when the prevailing morality bears no regard for the intrinsic value of human life? If the mortal fate of a living person depends upon the standard of an arbitrary or flexible ethos, how can we rest easy that any society will continue the prevention of—for example—even such grievous crimes as murder? If the final question of morality depends only upon each person doing whatever he wishes, according to what set of rules will we justly decide any controversy? One can’t immediately tell by what code a stranger he encounters on the street lives (and therefore the ethical boundaries to which he conforms his behavior), as these invisible lines are personal, fundamentally arbitrary, and ultimately movable. However, one needs to know nothing about him to appreciate the clear line that exists as concerns the value of his life –– unlike others, this line is universal and cannot be crossed.
Expecting that a common language of goodness existed across most thinking populations, I was amazed to find my argument expounding the universal intrinsic value of human life met rather bluntly with a direct rebuttal. Not only was I told that libertarians put no stock in the notion of life’s inherent value, but that the only appreciable gauge for virtue was indeed the mere propinquity of unrestrained freedom. The primal importance of human life was not here at stake, but only the question of total individual liberty: so long as an action was justified by pursuit of this “liberty,” the supreme moral rectitude of that act was supposedly manifest.
One can quibble with my application of the term “liberty” as opposed to “autonomy,” or “self interest” as against “self ownership,” but these matters are largely semantic and only serve to obscure the essential issue.
Traditional suicide, assisted suicide, and even involuntary euthanasia — under the argument I confronted in the debate, none of these are questions of life at all, but the casual exercise of that same blanket commitment to unmitigated freedom of behavior.
I have often joked that many New Hampshire Republicans are actually closet libertarians; but I find even my own libertarian leanings devastatingly challenged by this worldview. While I share an enthusiasm to maximize the people’s freedom from government, such a world would indeed be a terrifying place to live if its only moral conceit was self-interest. Under this philosophy, how does the desired libertarian state not cease to be a utopia, but instead a brutal reversion to the state of nature? To expect that any good might prevail in such a society would be to embrace the likes of Rousseau — a proposition more readily taken-up by undergraduates and authoritarian leftists than by lovers of liberty.
Without any belief in extrinsic morality, no society can exist.
The question of legal suicide—with all its many practical counterarguments put aside—illuminates the deeper and more dangerous matter which the debate conceals. The radically solipsistic belief that the water’s edge of morality is one’s own desire presents a bleak future for the world; and therefore, the salutary libertarian conceptions of good government must be balanced with an acceptance of that moral code which is both manifest and universal. Absent this vital reverence for life, I suspect that the entire movement may dissolve into ultimate obscurity.
The opinions expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Liberty Block or any of its members.