Although little noted on this side of the Atlantic, Jenni Murray, a presenter on BBC’s Woman’s Hour , announced on-air recently that she and two of her friends have entered into a suicide pact (see here and here ). Each of the women has promised to kill (or help kill) either of the others who, as one of them put it, is "suffering extreme pain or had lost her marbles." They have not yet agreed on a method of execution but are considering lethal injections and smothering with pillows, and they intend to memorialize their agreement in writing. The desire to reduce the agreement to writing is a little curious because, assisted suicide being illegal in the United Kingdom, agreements to assist in suicides, whether written or oral, are void as against public policy and so are unenforceable. Which, in one small way, is a shame, for if the agreement were valid, I would mischievously inquire whether, if I can prove that Murray has lost her marbles, the agreement might be enforced by third parties.
Of course, Murray made the usual arguments about not wanting to become a burden to her children and about controlling her own destiny. What I find interesting, however, is her assertion that Britain’s laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are sustained only by, as she puts it, a religious minority, which of course means practicing Christians and Jews.
Now, in some ways, Murray is perfectly right: I can easily believe that people who self-identify as Christians or Jews, attend religious services regularly, pray often, and read the Scriptures will generally tend to think suicide and related kinds of killing are wrong, while, on the other hand, people who self-identify as secular, rarely or never attend religious services, almost never pray, and do not read the Scriptures will generally think the opposite. On the differences between such groups, see the important work of Bolce and DiMaio .
Nevertheless, Murray misreads the situation if she thinks that the ideological divide is between practicing Christians and Jews, on the one hand, and secular people, on the other. The reason is that the secular philosophical tradition in the West has generally condemned suicide just as much as Christian or Jewish religious doctrine has. In the ancient world, the Stoics and some others allowed suicide, but Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all thought suicide was morally wrong, and virtually all the great Enlightenment philosophers (the notable exception is Hume) agreed, including the great Immanuel Kant, who must be regarded as the moral philosopher par excellence of the Enlightenment.
So what we have here is a quarrel not between religious people and secular people but between, on the one hand, Christians and Jews backed by most of the secular philosophers of the Western tradition, and, on the other, secular people with a very particular kind of moral understanding that separates them even from most of the secular philosophers in the tradition. What is it that so separates them?
I have a suggestion. Judith Jarvis Thomson, who teaches philosophy at MIT, once published an article in The Journal of Philosophy in which she argued that what is good for a particular human being is whatever such human being freely decides is good for him. There is a lot wrong with this view. For one thing, it would be impossible for anyone, after full consideration, to ever be wrong about what’s good for him, and, for another, it would make intelligent consideration of what’s good for oneself impossible, for whatever one decided on would become the right answer merely by having been decided upon. But that’s all beside the point here. What’s important is the extreme understanding of personal autonomy being defended¯the idea that the highest good for an individual is whatever he decides it is and that this good is such precisely because the individual has so decided. Hence the emphasis, by Murray and others, on deciding their own destiny.
It’s not just that they believe that being in control of one’s fate is good because it allows one to attain one or another due end; it is, rather, that being in control of one’s fate is the highest good of which human nature is capable. And that view, which has little to commend it from a philosophical point of view, separates people like Murray from the best aspects of the Western religious and philosophical tradition.