Freedom and Voluntary Death

Arguments for or against voluntary suicide and/or voluntary euthanasia (hereafter referred to as voluntary death) usually presuppose reductionist understandings of human attributes such as freedom.  For example, folks sometimes ask: what is so terribly wrong with a person coming to a substantially-autonomous decision to die?  In more personal terms, why should “you” be able to tell “me” that “I” should not voluntarily choose death on “my own” terms?

How, one might wonder, can I respond to such a line of thought in cogent and convincing fashion?  One can do so by accounting for freedom more completely.  For example, more than simply asking yourself what you are free from, have you ever asked yourself what you are free for?  Does a sufficient lack of coercion account for the totality of your freedom?

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©Heidi Bratton Photography

In other words, have you ever voluntarily chosen a course of action that has left you less free at the end of the day? Bearing such questions in mind, does it not seem reasonable to hold that although voluntary choice is a part of personal freedom, it is not the whole of personal freedom?

And yet, how can one prudently consider voluntary death vis-a -vis more fulsome freedom?  While I agree with those who think it wise to address such questions on grounds intelligible and attractive to folks without faith, I think it neither necessary nor even a good idea to steer clear of philosophical and theological sources as bedrock for doing so.  After all, deep intellectual honesty is crucial for any truly-fruitful dialogue and/or debate. On an experiential note, I have found such sources to be helpful in speaking about this specific topic to mixed audiences in a variety of settings.  Where to start?

Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP has clearly distinguished between “freedom of indifference” and “freedom for excellence.”  His account of these two types of freedom is based in part upon his realistic understanding of human nature, human inclinations, and virtue.  While freedom of indifference has everything to do with voluntary choice in the here and now, freedom for excellence has everything to do with people fully flourishing over the course of their lives. Finally, human freedom, crucial though it may be, is but one vista point from which this question should be reasonably and lovingly addressed.  Other points such as human suffering, compassionate care, attributed and intrinsic human dignity should also be carefully considered by people thinking about why voluntary death is not in anyone’s best personal interests.

For a place to start dealing with voluntary death specifically, see:

Christopher M. Saliga, O.P., R.N. “Freedom at the End of Life: Voluntary Death vs. Human Flourishing,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6.2 (Summer 2006): 256-257.

Also, see the following primary sources for a more extensive discussion on the nature of human freedom:

Servais Pinckaers, O.P. The Source of Christian Ethics, trans. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

Servais Pinckaers, O.P. “Aquinas on Agency: Beyond Autonomy and Heteronomy?”  in The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, trans.  Mary Thomas Noble, O.P., ed. John Berkman and Craig Steven Titus (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005.

Fr. Chris currently serves as the University Chaplain of Walsh University in North Canton, OH and as an ethics consultant to The Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York. Commensurate with the goals of these ministries, he continues to speak at a variety of schools, health care institutions/organizations, and Church groups, and continues to write concise essays, reflections, and case studies on a variety of topics.