Tony Nicklinson was denied the right to die last week. A British court ruled that if his loved ones assist him in bringing a consensual end to his agony, they will be liable for prosecution. For a lot of us, the press pictures that were soon published of Nicklinson’s reaction to the decision cemented our conviction that this was wrong, inhumane, incomprehensible.
I still have faith that that reaction is natural. But it is not, apparently, universal. For Jonathan Jones writing at The Guardian, the perception of Nicklinson’s agony and our knowledge of his wishes do not provide a reason to support his desire to die at all. On the contrary:
The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death. I see a lot of life in this man. His anger and pain are harrowing, terrible and compelling. They are the responses of someone who despite everything, is heroic and tragically strong. Is that someone who should be put to death, however “good” the intentions?
The most famous image of suffering in the Renaissance was an ancient statue dug up in 1506 of the pagan priest Laocoön being strangled by snakes, his face a contorted image of pure suffering. This statue reflects the emotional depths of Greek tragic theatre which gave us the word “catharsis” in the first place.
The image of Tony Nicklinson’s despair is profoundly moving. In his pain, he momentarily transcends his condition to communicate to the world. That should make us wonder about the wisdom of ever making it permissible to end this terrible marvellous thing called life.
Jones is suggesting that agony, whilst a bad experience, is a reason to keep its victim alive because they thereby demonstrate the virtue of strength. The ‘heroism’ of someone who can keep on living in spite of such pain makes their life worth sustaining.
The masochism here is blatant and horrifying. Jones is saying that the value of courage is worth the cost of suffering, and we should do our best to promote the former even if it increases the amount of pain in the world. I can’t think of many more twisted rankings of goods.
And that phrase – ‘put’ to death – unethically conceals the salient fact that Nicklinson wants to die. Not only does he have good reason to, but he consents to it. ‘Put’ to death brings to mind images of ill animals incapable of making decisions, or criminals facing the death penalty. The last thing it conveys is the reality that Nicklinson’s wish is entirely voluntary.
But no doubt Jones wouldn’t put much value on that fact, because, as the second quote shows, he has an agenda not to respect wishes and relieve pain, but to sustain life in all forms as long as possible for aesthetic purposes, and the task of executing this policy is left to the state with threats of force.
This barely seems worth exposing. It shouldn’t be worth exposing because its absurdity should be self-evident. But if arguments like this can reach the Op-Ed pages of The Guardian, it’s sadly necessary.