Posted by: Chris Cole | September 22, 2010

Rationality in public policy-making… Wherefor art thou?


We do it to our pets, and other animals, when it is obvious that their potential quality of life, if actively prolonged or allowed to continue, is so poor that any benefit or enjoyment from it is considered far outweighed by the suffering they would endure for the time they continue to live. Most people would agree it is the humane thing to do in such circumstances. Why then, when it comes to human beings, is it suddenly so very difficult to apply the same rational approach? Why is it so hard to be humane to humans?

There are plenty of valid reasons why someone might oppose the idea of euthanasia, and plenty of valid reasons for supporting the concept. While debating sensibly the real pros and cons of euthanasia is a very worthwhile discussion to have, I’m not going to explore that here. Just at the moment, I’m more concerned with the types of arguments (or non-arguments) that people put forward in defense of their own position on the subject. Specifically the people who are entrusted to make decisions about such important matters for the rest of us. People who should know better. I’d like to explore the basis of their decision-making, because frankly, after sifting through a few recent news articles on the topic, I am somewhat concerned.

So, let’s have a look at some common “reasons” for opposing euthanasia. This may seem biased, but I’m afraid most of the worst arguments in such debates are to be found on the opposing side for this particular issue…

Arguments from Moral Authority

“Because it’s wrong!! Because…because… it just IS!!”, and any argument whatsoever that is based on the words “bible”, “christian”, “god”, “jesus”, “commandment” (or any other religious teaching or doctrine) do not constitute an adequate response. No. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but purported authority derived from gut feelings, or instructions from imaginary friends in the sky simply don’t count. If you think they do, then perhaps it’s best you keep quiet while the grown-ups are talking. Better yet, while you’re keeping quiet, actually start thinking. It’s what your brain evolved to do. Honest.

Arguments from Fear-Of-Those-Who-Purport-Moral-Authority

This category mostly comprises politicians. To be fair, politicians are hamstrung by the unavoidable fact that their continued employment is dependent on catering to everybody; this unfortunately includes the ignorant, poorly educated and people with an imaginary friend in the sky. There is no intellectual means test applied to the right to vote. A direct consequence of this is that even a politician who can do the right thing and put aside their own personal views when deciding policy of this nature, will still do the wrong thing if it means retaining much-needed votes from the aforementioned sections of the populace.

Democracy is a wonderful ideal, however one should always remember that the majority will of the masses is by no means always the best thing for the masses. A clever fellow once said that it is rather important in a well-functioning society that a people should never fear their government, but a government should fear its people. This is a sensible and noble sentiment, however it should also be remembered that while important family decisions might be made inclusive of the opinions of all family members, it’s usually not a great idea to let the three-year-old decide the specifics of your new mortgage arrangements, or the wiring up of the house.

Arguments from It’s-Different-But-I-Can’t-Tell-You-Why

This is really a subset of the “Just because!” crowd who are able to bang a few more brain cells together but then stall en route. They might tell you that even though it’s not for religious reasons, they think euthanasia is still a flavour of murder, but they still can’t articulate a rational argument as to why it’s okay to put down your terminally ill dog, but not your grandmother. These people are victims of what Richard Dawkins has called, in a somewhat different context, the discontinuous mind. They perceive some vast but indefinable moral divide between humans and all other animals.

Kim Hames, the Minister for Health in Western Australia, has spouted a couple of superlative non-arguments for his decision not to support euthanasia when it is debated in parliament. Firstly, he says that while he supported the idea when he was previously working as a GP, he has changed his mind now because “…I just couldn’t myself be the one injecting the substance that takes somebody’s life and so my feelings have moved away.” So his personal opinion regarding whether he himself would like to be the one to push the button has changed, and that’s absolutely fine. No-one is asking him to. What he is quite blatantly overlooking, or more likely knowingly choosing to ignore (he is a medically qualified doctor, and in high public office; one presumes the man is not stupid), is the simple fact that his job is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people he is sworn to serve, not to make decisions based on his own personal convictions. There is a rather important difference between the two perspectives. Secondly, he cites input from his constituents: “I talked to people in my electorate, particularly those with strong religious convictions, and they’ve convinced me that I won’t support this legislation.” Bowing to pressure of opinion from a group of people whose own conviction on the issue comes via the poorly documented mythology of bronze age desert goat-herders, regarding what an imaginary man in the sky allegedly thought we should or should not do, is surely a great basis for determining public policy? Isn’t it? No? Really?

Another favourite approach of politicians from both sides of the main political fence regarding this issue is to simply downplay and attempt to ignore it. This week, both the NSW Premier and the federal leader of the Opposition have said that it’s just not an important issue, and that parliament shouldn’t even be debating it. One has to wonder if such firm and summary dismissal of such a life-and-death topic is motivated by the need to distance themselves from having to publicly admit that their own standpoint on the issue has no rational basis, and they simply don’t want to look like total twats to the majority of the population who are, in fact, capable of both thinking for themselves and recognising it when others are evidently not doing so.

So, I wonder if it would be asking too much for our elected officials to do two things. Firstly, to set aside their own personal convictions and do what they are paid to do; make decisions about important matters of policy based on the best interests of their constituents. Secondly, to grow a pair, and have the fortitude to make policy that is in the best interests of the people, despite the objections of a minority upon whose votes they may very well depend, but who are very probably the least likely to base their vehemently held opinions on any rational assessment of the true pros and cons of the issue at stake.

Euthanasia. Present your reasons for supporting it. Present your reasons for opposing it. I don’t care. Just have reasons. Real ones. Please.


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