Sunday, November 2, 2008

Slippery Slope Argument - Euthanasia in the Law

How valid is the rationale against assisted suicide? 

If you read earlier posts about the supreme court decision, you may have an idea. If not.. go read them :P. Because this entry will address one of the rationales with which the court used to justify the enforcement of the ban on assisted suicide. 

One of the major arguments underlying the supreme court decision was what many have termed the 'slippery slope' argument. The argument in its most basic form goes as follows: 

1. We allow euthanasia
2. Allowing euthanasia will lead to a chain of events in which euthanasia will be used as a justification for murder
3. Murder is wrong
4. Allowing euthanasia is wrong as well

Proponents of this argument often cite Leo Alexander (1949) a judge at the Nuremburg trials. He argued that allowing euthanasia would eventually lead to the mass killings of 'unwanted persons', by providing society with a justification for murder. In his case he referred to the then recent holocaust in Germany. He wrote as follows: 

"The beginnings at first were a subtle shifting in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually, the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans."

As compelling and tragic as this argument is, according to philosophers it is not logically valid. The argument rests on the claim that if we allow something, then a certain chain of events will occur, leading to an undesirable consequence. Unfortunately this is not true. Often there is no good reason to assume that such a chain of events will occur. Each statement in this logical equation must be verified separately in order for the conclusion to be true. 

Indeed, in the case mentioned above, the word euthanasia was merely used to camouflage mass murder. There was no documentation or evidence that there was anything voluntary about the killings. The chain of events in the argument did not in fact occur. 

Despite this, the argument remains pervasive throughout society and was even included in the Canadian Supreme Court decision Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General). The court stated that the potential for abuse of euthanasia was so damaging that the government was justified in banning the practice all together. This illustrates the courts belief that by revoking our communal ban on euthanasia we will be opening ourselves up to an undesirable chain of events, when we have no solid evidence that the chain of events will occur. In fact, many countries have put in place policies to prevent such a chain of events from occurring (the policies in such countries will be covered in a later entry). 

It is also worth noting that the 'slippery slope' argument is featured in many evaluative judgements about social and moral issues. For example, it often underwrites many pro-life individuals opposition to abortion.  This argument is implicit in many of their prominent advertising campaigns in which they show you a full term fetus being aborted, and are promoting a full ban on any sort of abortion. It implies that acceptance of any type of abortion leads to acceptance of abortion at full term. 

So in closing, one of the major arguments against euthanasia is of questionable value. It has been extremely prominent in our society and has even been included in our supreme court ruling on the issue. I for one find think this argument is escapist and allows us to avoid facing one of the tougher questions of our time, by assuming that if we create some exceptions to the mass ban on euthanasia, we will inevitably invite undesirable consequences upon ourselves. Many countries up to this point have formed and created policies dealing with euthanasia and so far they have not experienced any poignant abuses. 

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