The case of Daniel James

The case of Daniel James raises important issues concerning the right to die. What are the ethical principles we might invoke in this case? And should Daniel’s parents be prosecuted for assisting him?
The following is a blog by Peter Baron, 18 October 2008. Here is Peter’s presentation on Daniel James

On September 12th Daniel James, aged 23, travelled to Switzerland with his parents and killed himself by lethal injection in a suicide clinic run by Dignitas, an organisation that exists to facilitate voluntary euthanasia.

Daniel was the youngest British person of the 100 people who have taken their own life by this route.

In March 2007, during a practice session at Nuneaton Rugby Club, the U-16 England International was paralysed from the chest downwards when a scrum collapsed on top of him, breaking his neck. His mother explained: “he couldn’t walk, had no hand function, and had constant pain in his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body, and needed 24-hour care”.

His parents supported his decision to die: “Daniel continually expressed his wish to die and was determined to achieve this. He was not prepared to live a second-class existence … his death was, no doubt, a welcome relief from the prison his body had become and the day-to-day fear and loathing of his living existence.”

Although no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for assisting suicide in the UK, the police investigated the case and sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. Did the parents do the right thing in assisting Daniel to die?

A Utilitarian might argue that they did. Utilitarians seek to maximise happiness or pleasure or preferences of individuals. Daniel clearly chose to die: no-one forced him. His life had become intolerable, we are told. And parents and friends were consulted, and so presumably, though sad, were happy that his wishes were fulfilled or they would not have driven him to Switzerland.

And yet something about this case leaves us uneasy. Even from the Utilitarian standpoint, can we be sure Daniel’s life wouldn’t have improved? Part of the problem with Utilitarian ethics is that we cannot be sure of the consequences. We aren’t God: we cannot precisely predict the future. Daniel’s physiotherapist expressed deep shock: “I was totally shocked. Daniel was improving and still had the use of his arms and hands. He could feed and dress himself – most paralysed people do improve over time – perhaps two or three years after the accident. It was early days for Daniel”. So not only are we uncertain of the future consequences, in this case Daniel’s closest carer suggests he would have improved. How can we be sure he wasn’t simply suffering from depression, which might have lifted as his condition improved?

To a natural law theorist (like Aquinas) suicide is an absolute wrong because it breaks the intrinisic relationship between the primary good of self-preservation and the sanctity or sacredness of life. If you are a Christian natural law theorist, you might go further: God knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm139:13) and his gift of life is something only God can take away. It is our job to minimise suffering, not to take the role of God in ending life. Such an action is to repeat the sin of Eden, where Adam and Eve usurped the power of God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Kantian ethics would seem to provide a more complex answer. Kantian ethics has three main strengths. It is reasonable because decisions should be universalisable. It promotes equality because the individual is seen as morally autonomous (ie can take his or her own decisions), and it is consensual, because laws should go through a moral parliament where most people should agree.

Kant himself argued in Metaphysics of Morals that suicide was self-contradictory as it violated the second formulation of the categorical imperative – treat people not just as a means but as an end in themselves.

“Firstly, under the head of necessary duty to oneself: He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him”.

Daniel’s action might be universalisable, however, according to the first formulation of the categorical imperative – act in such a way as you action could be willed as a universal law. Would you or I want the right to do the same thing in similar situations? Or would our moral parliament decide that we need to be protected from our depressed self in such situations, and so pass a law saying it was absolutely wrong to assist a suicide?

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