Adrian presented David Velleman’s paper “A Right to Self-Termination?” Velleman wishes to dispute an idea expressed in “The Philosophers’ Brief” on assisted suicide, namely, that each person has a right “to live and die in the light of … his own convictions about why his life is valuable and where its value lies” (Dworkin et al. 1997).
He believes this idea can be derived from the conjunction of two principles (Velleman 1999, 607).
A person has the right to make his own life shorter in order to make it better — to make it shorter, that is, if doing so is a necessary means or consequence of making it a better life on the whole for him.
There is a presumption in favor of deferring to a person’s judgment on the subject of his own good.
Velleman disputes the first principle in this paper. He tries to show that persons have value that is different in kind from their interests. He calls this value “dignity.” So even if you would be better off with a shorter life, you do not have a right to shorten your life because you have to respect the dignity of the person that you are by continuing to live a longer life.
Coleman got us rolling by asking about what dignity is. Adrian noted that dignity has a particular feature: it is independent of your interests. He also told us that he did not think it is clear how a person could lose their dignity. Velleman says that it is connected with what he calls rational agency. Someone whose pain “prevents him from choosing any ends for himself other than relief” lacks dignity, I gather (Velleman 1999, 618).
James asked why dignity is so important. Even if you grant that dignity is independent of a persons’s interests, it doesn’t follow that it is always more important to respect dignity than it is to promote interests.
Coleman said that Velleman is trying to show that there is a kind of contradiction in pursuing your interests at the expense of your dignity. He believes that caring about the dignity of the person is a precondition of caring about that person’s interests. Even so, James was not convinced that this would answer his question. James was also unconvinced that a person could not make a dignified decision to end her own life. At least, he did not think that Velleman had demonstrated this.
I mentioned a general rule of thumb: the first step is often the questionable one. So I resolved to focus on page 607. Having spent some more time with it, I think I can explain my suspicions a little better.
Velleman is trying to show that you can be required to stay alive even when that is contrary to your interests in having a shorter life. In order to establish that, he starts by separating reasons for caring about a person from reasons for caring about a person’s interests. He needs that separation because he wants to argue that you have reasons to care about the continuation of the person that you are even when that conflicts with your interests.
In short, he wants to say something like this:
The contrary position would be that there is no such difference. The way you care about a person is by caring about that person’s interests. If you buy that, you would say something like this:
Velleman uses an argument from Darwall to show that there is a difference between caring about a person and caring about a person’s interests. This argument maintains that you have reason to care about someone’s interests only if you care about that person. That seems right to me. If I loathe you, I don’t have much reason to care about your interests.
What I have trouble with is seeing how this establishes Velleman’s point (a) rather than the contrary one (b).
If you believe the contrary position (b), you believe this:
If you believe Darwall’s argument, you believe this:
Another way of saying that is:
But (e) is half of what the contrary position (c) holds and the contrary position is the opposite of the one Velleman needs to establish. So Darwall’s argument alone does not appear to me to establish the separation between caring about a person and caring about a person’s interests that Velleman needs for his argument.
I think that the reason why this happens is that Darwall’s point is that caring about a person is a necessary condition of caring about that person’s interests. But someone who thinks that the way we care about people is by caring about their interests would agree with that. If caring about a person is identical with caring about the person’s interests, then you can care about the person’s interests only if you care about the person. You can’t do the one without the other.
By analogy, wanting something that has a color is a necessary condition of wanting something that is green. You can’t want something green if you want to avoid colors by having something transparent. But it doesn’t follow that you want something with a color independently of wanting something that is green. Wanting something green just is wanting something that has a color because green is a color.
Maybe the subsequent arguments about the dignity of a person are sufficient to show what he needs apart from Darwall’s argument. So I’m not saying the argument fails. I’m just questioning how much has been shown in that very first step.