For libertarians, consent is the foundation for our morality, at least at the political level. In most moral systems, however, consent is, at best, a happy byproduct, and usually an immaterial one.
Take the case of same-sex marriage. For a libertarian, the argument for same-sex marriage is straightforward and short: As long as everyone consents, why shouldn’t they get married? If the officiant consents to perform a same-sex marriage, and if each fiance or fiancee consents to be married to each other (note that I worded this in a way that implies – quelle horreur! – more than two people could be marrying each other), there’s no need for the government or anyone else to interfere.
Most of the world’s moral systems, however, strongly disagree. Marriage isn’t just about consent between all parties. For some moral systems, in fact, marriage isn’t about consent at all — arranged marriages, though less common than they used to be, still happen from time to time. Even in more traditional (to Americans, at least) moral systems, revoking consent is either impossible or extremely difficult. Catholics, for example, don’t believe in divorce at all; Latter-Day Saints, meanwhile, require the President of the Church’s permission under certain circumstances. For those who belong to these moral systems, it matters little whether two (and they really mean two) individuals consent to marry each other, and even less if they no longer consent to remain married to each other. Marriage, in their eyes, is a sacred social institution that imposes specific duties upon each individual and society as a whole. A marriage that achieves those duties is valid. A marriage that doesn’t, isn’t.
Or take the case of conscription. For a libertarian, the argument against the draft is straightforward and short: A right to life is the most fundamental right an individual has, and it’s immoral to abrogate that. If someone chooses to consent to cede that right through voluntary military service, that’s permissible, but neither the government nor anyone else should compel someone to revoke that right.
Most of the world’s moral systems, however, strongly disagree. Most countries have a draft, and the United States still maintains the option to restart one via Selective Service. Military conscription, according to most moral systems, is an obligation imposed by society upon all able-bodied individuals. According to these systems, collective defense is a responsibility which we all share, and it’s a responsibility that should be born equally, broadly, and universally.
Or take the case of alcohol. Or marijuana. Or gambling. Or prostitution.
And yet, despite most of the world’s moral systems opposing same-sex marriage, recreational drug consumption, gambling, sex work, and supporting military conscription, Nevada has legalized all of these things and the United States has abandoned conscription. Why?
The answer is simple. The United States in general, and Nevada specifically and especially, is a pluralistic society.
Take the case of marriage. True, Catholics don’t believe in divorce, but Anglicans wouldn’t exist without Henry VIII’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and launch the English Reformation in the process. History ultimately proved that the costs of imposing Catholic marital morality on England, much less anywhere else, were far too high. Consequently, from a political perspective, consent has proven to be the lowest common political and legal denominator that both Catholics and Protestants can live with. Those who voluntarily choose to marry according to Catholic custom, without a right to divorce, may consent to do so; those who don’t, meanwhile, may consent to do otherwise. As the variety of moral systems and ideas in the United States has increased, the universal constant of consent has expanded to include more timely divorces and same-sex marriages.
Or take the case of conscription. Many Nevadans live with living memory of active military conscription in the United States, justified along traditional grounds. After the Vietnam War, however, fewer and fewer people identified with the moral traditions that justified conscription during the two World Wars and the Korean War; some even adopted moral systems that opposed military service entirely. Once again, the costs of imposing pro-conscription moral standards proved too high. Once again, consent proved to be the lowest common political and legal denominator that Americans could live with. Those who volunteer to serve in the military now may still consent to do so; those who do not, meanwhile, may consent to do otherwise.
Similar paragraphs can be written about alcohol (which was briefly prohibited following World War 1), or marijuana (which is legal for recreational use in Nevada), or gambling, or sex work, or many other things our diverse society legally accommodates despite most moral systems in our society opposing them.
If SB165 passes, euthanasia will be added to the list as well.
Once again, the libertarian argument for euthanasia is straightforward and short: Liberty and self-determination are meaningless if we don’t own our own bodies. A right to speech implies a right to not speak. A right to bear arms implies a right to refuse to bear arms. Similarly, a right to life implies a right to no longer live, if one so consents.
Again, most moral systems find consent in this case beside the point. Sure, someone may consent to suicide today, but it’s impossible to revoke consent for suicide once it’s committed. Additionally, as opponents of SB165 expressed recently, most moral systems stress that family members have duties and obligations to their family members, chief of which include being a presence in the family for as long as possible. Furthermore, allowing euthanasia might also encourage insurance companies to motivate patients to choose euthanasia over more costly end-of-life medical care.
Once again, however, we find ourselves in a pluralistic society with a variety of individuals practicing a variety of moral systems.
For many people, euthanasia is absolutely unthinkable. For many others, however, bills such as SB165 provide an alternative for terminal patients condemned to a brief life of unremitting pain and decline. For those who belong to moral systems that find suicide unbearable, they can choose to live the rest of their lives as they deem fit. Many of us, however, find the idea of spending months, or even years, in illness-induced pain horrifying, and would greatly prefer a cleaner means of escaping it than, say, contributing to over half of the United States’ rate of gun violence (i.e., suicide by gun).
To be fair, just as a more consent-driven attitude toward divorce, military service, drug use, gambling, and sex work have all introduced complications into our society, a more consent-driven attitude toward euthanasia will add complications as well. For example, it’s true that insurance companies could very well push for euthanasia to cut costs. Then again, insurance companies are one of the most heavily regulated and politically vulnerable companies on the planet, so it would take an exceptional level of short-sighted thinking to pursue such a policy. It’s also true that some doctors might not be comfortable participating in euthanasia; fortunately, nobody’s forcing doctors to perform abortions if they’re not comfortable with them, either.
The good news is, because libertarians see the world through the lens of consent, we’ve spent some time considering some of the cases where consent might break down. This is good because we increasingly find ourselves in a society that can increase lifespan well in excess of many people’s healthspan, and euthanasia is one of several responses individuals will consider to address this gap. Ideally, we would all prefer to live in a world where euthanasia wasn’t necessary — a world where relieving physical pain wasn’t viewed by our government as a misuse of pain medication would certainly be a good start.
Until we live in that world, however, suicide may be evil, but allowing people that path without government interference will be far less evil than what it would take to force those who don’t want to live to do so anyway
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.