The Right To Die and Mental Illness

Assisted suicide and right to die advocacy are pretty hot topics right now. More and more states are making it legal for physicians to assist the terminally ill in ending their lives. For secular activists, it’s become fairly clear that being able to choose how and when you die is an important right, especially when the alternative is intense suffering and low quality of life.

Many people have started to recognize that simply being alive is not always inherently good if it involves too much bad stuff, and that we need to provide people with options if their lives are going to be miserable. Of course there is still debate on the issue, but the idea that terminally ill patients who are suffering have a right to die has become a common concept and for most people at least seems on the table as a possibility.

But there’s one set of illnesses that seem to be entirely off the table when it comes to questions of assisted suicide: mental illnesses. There do seem to be some pertinent differences between physical illnesses and mental illnesses: mental illnesses can often leave one vulnerable to manipulation or abuse, which would make it even more difficult to ensure that no one took advantage of the legality of assisted suicide. Often those who have mental illness feel guilt at being a burden, which might lead to a self-selecting kind of mini-genocide. And perhaps most importantly, there really isn’t such a thing as a “terminal” mental illness, one that will inevitably lead to the death of the individual afflicted.

But I’m not wholly convinced that these differences are the most pertinent elements of whether or not someone has the right to die, and the right to die with dignity.

The thing that is most pertinent in most of these cases is that an individual is in serious amounts of pain and distress, and it is highly unlikely that the situation will change. Also important is that an individual has decided that the pain is more than they can tolerate (no one else is allowed to make that choice for them). The vast majority of patients with terminal illnesses don’t seek out assisted suicide, but those who are in serious amounts of pain or suffering are more likely to. We’re all going to die eventually, so the simple fact that an individual has a more clear time frame of when that will happen doesn’t change the moral status of what it means to allow them to choose death sooner.

What is relevant is the suffering and loss of self that comes with some illnesses. Those concerns are just as relevant to mental illnesses as they are to physical illnesses. Of course mental illnesses might introduce some additional complications: it’s incredibly difficult to determine whether a mental illness will respond to treatment or whether someone will later recover. Many people who attempt suicide say that afterwards they are happy they failed, but there are also many people who make multiple attempts at suicide. We simply don’t know as much about mental illness as we do about physical illness, and so it might require more regulations and documentation of the long lasting nature of a problem before assisted suicide becomes a legitimate choice.

But the nitty gritty of what it means to practically put into place laws and regulations that ensure those who seek out assisted suicide are not taken advantage of or manipulated, are offered all available treatments, and are not pressured into any decisions are separate from the question of whether people have the right to die as they so choose.

It is inhumane to force someone to continue on in a situation that causes them unbearable pain. That is true even if the unbearable pain is an unremitting mental illness. The automatic way that people discount mental illness from the conversation when talking about the right to die seems to be another circumstance in which the severity of mental illnesses is downplayed, another case of “it’s all in your head” or “if you just try hard enough you’ll get better.” There is no recognition that sometimes treatments don’t work, just as they don’t for physical illnesses. The question of how much pain is too much pain is just as relevant for mental illnesses as it is for physical ones.

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

The Internet Is Not a Free Pass

Last week I posted a status on facebook bemoaning the fact that some people on the internet feel that they have a right to give other people random and unsolicited health advice. In response, I got a fair number of people saying “well it’s the internet, what did you expect”, or “you put your information out in public, that means you want people to comment and converse about it.” This was not exactly what I had been expecting.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to assume that because people often behave really badly (harassing, insulting, generally just being offensive and condescending douches) on the internet, that means that we shouldn’t care when people behave badly on the internet. They say that people are anonymous on the internet, so it’s bound to happen. They ask “are you surprised?” They act as if everyone has license to treat you however they choose online, because you have chosen to be in a public space. Oddly enough I’m not really convinced by all these arguments that I should just stop caring and let the assholes run wild.

So there appear to be a few reasons that people seem to think that the internet is and should continue to be a complete free for all in terms of civility and behavior. One is because the internet is impossible to regulate. “There’s just too many of them out there, we might as well give up!” Oddly enough I hear this argument pretty much nowhere in the real world. “There’s too many murders, we might as well give up!” Generally, when a bad behavior is prevalent we take that to mean that we should work harder to get rid of it, not throw our hands up in despair. Even if we can never solve the problem entirely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve how people treat each other. Yes, it’s entirely true that we may never solve the problem of incivility on the internet, that we can’t regulate it in the most effective ways because of the medium, but we can still do our best.

Another is that the internet is the place of free speech! NO ONE CAN TOUCH THE HOLY SHRINE OF THE FREE SPEECH! So here’s the thing about free speech: you may have the right to say what you want in a public place, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want in my space, you don’t have the right to say whatever you want without criticism, and you absolutely don’t have the right to be heard no matter what you say. I have the right to ban you, to delete your comment, to ignore you, to criticize you, or to tell you what’s wrong with what you just said. None of these things infringe on your free speech. In fact the benefit of free speech is that it allows these kinds of interactions to happen and we all grow from it. The beauty of free speech is that we can alert people to the fact that they might be saying something absolutely horrible and then argue for our point.

But perhaps the most pernicious myth about the internet is that that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it is. The internet is anonymous and so it will never be improved because anonymity will always lead to asshattery. We can’t do anything about it, and we shouldn’t, we should simply accept it as is. Here’s my problem with that: if we did it for any other problem, our world would become a stinking cesspit of hate and filth and cruelty. It is a huge logical fallacy to assume that because something is a certain way that’s how it should be.

When I mention something that I find inappropriate, I don’t do it just to complain. I do it to illustrate to people who do it that it’s not appropriate. I generally try to explain why I find it inappropriate, and what they could do differently. I expect more of my fellow human beings and I’m willing to tell them so. Even if it is harder to be kind and empathetic online, I believe that we can do it, or at least that we can do better than we’re doing now. There are ways that we can improve how people behave online and when they’re anonymous, and that’s by having consequences for bad behavior. In the offline world, there are absolutely consequences for being a jerk: people stop listening to you, stop hanging out with you, stop dating you or inviting you to parties, they call you out and make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing. We can do all these things on the internet. We can ban those who act inappropriately. We can call them out and tell them we don’t like it. We can tarnish their reputation with their own actions. We can make them unwelcome because they are treating us poorly. Yes, this may take some energy and some time, and there are still places that they can slink off to where we have no power. But we can keep our own spaces safe and kind and healthy. None of this is bullying or cruelty: it’s simple cause and effect. If you come onto my blog and insult me, I will make you feel unwelcome. That is my right.

Anywhere that’s not the internet, our public spaces have rules and expectations. We don’t condone someone running down the street screaming at people and insulting them. We understand that just because we’re in a public space that does not mean that we should accept being treated poorly, and in general we work together as communities to build certain expectations into our public spaces. The same goes for the internet. If we want to claim this new public space as somewhere that we can be safe and comfortable, then we have to be willing to police our own space, demand more from others, and create consequences for those who act inappropriately. For me, that’s calling people out and reminding them that just because you’re online that does not give you a free pass. It’s banning. It’s commenting on bad blog posts. It’s actively engaging where hate and cruelty are happening and saying “that’s bullshit”. We’re still all human beings, even when we’re on the internet, and I still expect all of us to act with the basics of human decency.

 

P.S. I have no idea why I chose the image I did but it came up when I googled internet.