February 19, 2015

Physician-assisted suicide

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, February 19, 2015

Physician-assisted suicide

Canada's Supreme Court recently declared the Criminal Code prohibition against physician-assisted suicide (PAS) constitutionally invalid and has given Parliament one year to draft legislative safeguards.

Unfortunately, public discourse on PAS has been skewed: it tends to look at arguments in favour of PAS, not against. But we should look at pros and cons, not just pros.

A major pro for PAS has to do with personal autonomy, i.e., the individual's choice in response to suffering. Suffering can be terrible, to be sure. And freedom is important, truly.

However, the freedom to exercise one's choice is not absolute. I do not have the freedom to swing my fist without regard for the tips of other people's noses.

So, yes, individual freedom is important, but the individual does not live in a social vacuum. In public policy debates we should think about the individual's freedom AND the consequences for the larger society.

The acceptance of PAS has (at least) four cons or concerns—i.e., four possible negative consequences for the larger society—which should also be considered.

Concern 1. With the acceptance of PAS, our society will see suicide more and more as a legitimate way of solving an individual's problems. Got a problem that makes you suffer? Don't forget you can get help to kill yourself!

(This scenario is not far-fetched. At one of the universities I attended not too long ago, I worked as a teaching assistant in an ethics course for a fellow doctoral student who told the class [a] that he had advised his roommate that suicide was an option as a solution to the roommate's problems and [b] that subsequently the roommate committed suicide. My fellow doctoral student displayed no qualms about the advice.)

Concern 2. Life will no longer be seen as society's default position and so our most vulnerable—the elderly, terminally ill, disabled—must begin to justify their lives. Surely, this is a nasty burden to place on people when they're already down.

Concern 3. If the choice or autonomy of the sufferer constitutes sufficient legal grounds for the sufferer to end his/her life, then unwanted suicide intervention or counseling against suicide may become grounds for a lawsuit against the intervener or counselor. There may very well be a chilling effect against suicide intervention and counseling.

Concern 4. With the acceptance of PAS, a non-fallacious, logical-legal slippery slope looms large.

Reasons for one action sometimes also justify other actions that are unintended to be justified by those reasons. The alleged right to end one's life because one is suffering justifies not only the situation of the terminally ill, but also the elderly, the disabled, the parent suffering the loss of a child, the person suffering chronic back pain, the depressed, etc. (Think of the experience of Belgium and Netherlands here.)

Enter: so-called safeguards—and their failure. Significantly, if we have already accepted individual autonomy as a legal justification for PAS, how can we deny anyone PAS?

Courts will do what courts do: promote consistency. But consistency requires that PAS's fundamental justifying principle—i.e., that the sufferer has the right to choose PAS to end his/her suffering—will carry more legal weight than the situational differences. The situational differences will (with the help of a good lawyer) be seen to be incidental.

In other words, legal acceptance of PAS puts gobs of logical-legal grease onto the path that leads to killing as a solution to suffering. The result: eliminating sufferers becomes equated with eliminating suffering.

In view of the pros and cons, I think it would be wise for Canadians not to embrace physician-assisted suicide. Instead, we should do a better job of providing palliative and hospice care for those with terminal illnesses—and we should do a better job of providing life-enhancing dignity for all who suffer.

We should strive for a culture of life, not slip into a culture of death.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

Additional Apologia columns on physician-assisted suicide:

February 06, 2015

Question-begging, golden nuggets, and Jesus' resurrection

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, February 5, 2015

Question-begging, golden nuggets, and Jesus' resurrection

Question-begging (a.k.a. circular reasoning) is a mistake in reasoning which occurs when an argument assumes as proven that which is at issue. The conclusion, which is the claim in dispute, is used/ assumed as a premise, which is provided as support for the claim in dispute—so the disputed claim is provided as support for itself.

Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker provide a fun example in their book Critical Thinking (2012):

Two gold miners roll a boulder away from its resting place and find three huge gold nuggets underneath. One says to the other, “Great! That’s one nugget for you and two for me,” handing one nugget to this associate.
“Wait a minute!” says the second miner. “Why do you get two and I get just one?”
“Because I’m the leader of this operation,” says the first.
“What makes you the leader?” asks miner number two.
“I’ve got twice the gold you do,” answers number one.

The humour arises because having twice the gold is assumed as settled and offered as support for having twice the gold while that is the very issue in dispute.

More seriously, consider the argument against reasonable belief in miracle reports by the skeptical philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Hume's argument is aimed at Jesus' resurrection, which, if it occurred, vindicates Jesus' claims to be and reveal God (but Hume apparently wants to resist Jesus' claims).

Hume defines miracle as a violation of the laws of nature due to the volition of a deity. Hume then takes the violation-of-law-of-nature aspect of miracle to be sufficient grounds for counting the violated laws of nature wholly and destructively against miracle testimony.

Hume's argument can be summarized as follows:
  •      Miracles violate nature's laws (i.e., go against nature's usual course).
  •      Nature's laws are super well established.
  •      Therefore, miracles are maximally improbable.
  •           Therefore, disbelieve miracle reports.

See the question-begging?

Yes, in the case of Jesus' resurrection such an event is maximally improbable, given the laws of nature and given that there is no intervention from outside the system. But notice: Hume assumes that no other background knowledge is needed to make a probability judgment—all that's needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature.

But we are supposedly talking about a possibly miraculous resurrection, and so, although we are given the laws of nature, we are not given that there is no intervention from outside the system.

In making his assumption, then, Hume is assuming that either God does not exist (and so God never intervenes via miracles) or, if God does exist, God's intentions concerning nature are shown to us wholly by the laws of nature (and so, again, God never intervenes via miracles).

But if the issue is whether a miracle has occurred, then Hume's assumption about the background knowledge is at issue.

For Hume's argument to work requires the assumption that the laws of nature express either all of the goings-on of a universe without God or, if God exists, all of God's intentions concerning the universe—but the truth of this assumption must be put on hold when a miracle (whether actual or alleged) is supposed to be under investigation!

Indeed, for one to be actually open to the possibility of the occurrence of an occasional real miracle, requires that the assumption Hume makes be suspended, at least when one is purportedly investigating the evidence for a miracle.

In other words, Hume's argument works only if we assume that there is no God or God-like being who on rare occasions intervenes in nature, but this assumption is at issue when we are considering any alleged evidence for miracles.

Thus, by assuming the above-described background knowledge, Hume mistakenly begs the question that only the miracle evidence can answer. He assumes what is at issue. He sneaks his conclusion into his premises.

The question-begging fallacy—don't let it rob you of nuggets of gold or knowledge of God!

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

Further reading:

January 15, 2015

Loaded language

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 15, 2015

Loaded language

Language can be abused, especially when it's loaded with emotion.

Philosopher Trudy Govier explains (in The Practical Study of Argument): “Through the use of emotionally charged language, a mood and attitude can be set without providing arguments, reasons, or any consideration of alternate possibilities.

Govier is quick to point out that completely neutral language is “probably impossibleand “too boring to be desirable. Nevertheless, when the emotional associations of language do more work than is justified by evidence, there may be problems.

One such problem is the perpetuation of bias. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) humorously illustrates: “I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool. I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

Govier calls this Our Side Bias. According to Govier, “It is often tempting to employ double standards when using language so as to use positive (or pro) language when describing your own side and negative (or con) language when describing the other side.

Here is a light-hearted sports example (from Govier): “We have star players, but they have prima donnas who can't work together. “We have aggressive players, but their players play dirty.

More seriously, Govier discusses terrorism. Those who support the Palestinian cause might describe Palestinian suicide bombers not as “terrorists but as “fighting oppression, “liberation fighters," or “martyrs.

Govier rightly points out that failure to acknowledge loaded language may be an obstacle to understanding violent conflicts.

However, Govier doesn't ask (but I will): Is one nation's terrorist simply another nation's freedom fighter and vice versa? Is Our Side Bias wholly relative?

Enter the need for careful thinking.

Consider this: in general, the soldiers of “our side” (e.g., Canada, Britain, U.S., France) tend to be discriminating in their targets. The goal, usually, is to strike against opposing soldiers/armed insurgents and avoid civilian casualties, even though this goal is, tragically, not always achieved; yet it’s severely criticized when not achieved.

But evidence clearly shows that Palestinian suicide bombers are not so discriminating: their goal—typically—is to destroy civilians. (Think, too, of ISIS fighters.)

So, on the one hand, civilians tend not to be targeted; on the other hand, they are targeted. This is an objective moral difference that shouldn't be dismissed by uncritical acceptance of Our Side Bias.

More generally, when loaded language is used in place of argument—when argument is needed—fallacious reasoning occurs: an unjustified bias occurs, whether it's Our Side Bias or not.

To illustrate, here is a Canadian political example (which I heard in last year's discussion of Manitoba's anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18).

“We ought to approve all sexual orientations and gender identities in order to promote diversity.


Here “diversity—difference—is assumed to be a good. Clearly, in today's climate of political correctness the word “diversitycarries much positive emotion. But is mere difference a sufficient condition for moral approval?

We should of course respect and accept all people, because each person has intrinsic worth (and because each person is made in God’s image).

But we should also pause, and think: Should we accept and affirm all our sexual dispositions and urges to behave in various ways?

Aren't some behaviours harmful to one’s self and/or others?

Think about serial rapist (and murderer) Ted Bundy. He had sexual urges that are different. But, surely, Bundy was bad.

Pedophiles have urges that are different, too.

(Theological note: There is diversity due to God's abundantly variegated and good creation AND there are diverse forms of brokenness due to the Fall/ moral rebellion, therefore not all diversity is ipso facto good.)

In other words, merely appealing to “diversity” as a justification of a moral position or public policy is to use loaded language. Because some differences are good and some bad, what needs to be addressed is the nature of the difference, not the mere fact of difference. Further argument is needed.

Whether we're discussing sports, terrorism, or diversity, beware of loaded language!

(Hendrik van der Breggen teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)