The term “property rights” implies many things, but three things in particular stand out above the rest: ownership, usage, and disposal. These three traits of property rights are, in effect, the very definition of property rights, and each is necessary in a moral sense if property rights are to be recognized properly.
Ownership of a piece of property means that it belongs to one specific individual – or a group of individuals who agree on the terms of ownership volitionally – and that no other individual or group has the ability to take control of someone else’s property without their consent. Usage of a piece of property means that the owner’s will and the individual rights of others are the sole determinant factors on how that property is to be enjoyed by the owner – if individuals wish to spend hundreds of dollars on the latest Apple product only to smash it outside the store for fifteen seconds of fame on YouTube, then they have that right. Lastly, disposal of a piece of property means that the owner is at liberty to use a particular piece of property until the end of its existence (as individuals do with the gasoline in their vehicles) or to get rid of that property, and consequently revoke ownership of it, in any way that the owner sees fit to employ (e.g. charity, transfer of estates, abandonment, destruction).
If all three traits of property rights are applicable to any piece of property in existence, then they most assuredly apply to an individual’s most personal of all property – one’s body and one’s life. While disputes about the criteria regarding the legitimacy of an individual’s claim to other forms of property can be resolved at another time, what requires little elaboration is the legitimacy of an individual’s claim to himself.
While ignoring a great deal of metaphysics, an individual’s life and body belong to that individual because A. that individual and that individual alone is in control of and responsible for the actions of his body and life, B. because suggesting that an individual’s life belongs to another flies in the face of reality by claiming that an individual can survive by serving someone other than himself firstly, and C. because if an individual is unable to call his own life and body his property, then he is unable to use them to pursue life as the only metaphysical end in itself. That explanation is brief, but it will suffice for the purposes of this article – it is not ownership that I intend to focus on, but instead specific forms of usage and disposal.
Although conversations about individual rights usually focus on the rights of individuals to act in ways that maintain and improve their own life, rights of suicide are moral provisions that protect actions that may be inherently self-destructive. They extend from the most mundane issues of a driver being free to operate his vehicle without a safety belt, to more complex issues such as drug usage and drunkenness, to the literal taking of one’s own life both through euthanasia and self-administered means.
At this point, many people will object for various reasons: “But some of those things are immoral! The government shouldn’t allow people to do things that are immoral!” More religious individuals may exclaim, “But an individual’s life isn’t his to take; our life is a gift from God, and we should not destroy it. It’s not ours to take!” The second set of objections is easy enough to explain in both a legal and a moral sense. The first, however, will take more explanation.
Religious objections to rights of suicide are answered by the simple phrase, “If it is a sin in your religion, then do not do it.” The United States was rightly founded on the idea that the church and the state should be separated – that the government could pass no laws restricting the actions of people of any faith solely because of faith, and this includes atheists, agnostics, or any other form of religious belief that does not specifically restrict the actions that rights of suicide protect. Just because an action is protected by a certain right does not mean that it must be taken, nor does it necessarily mean that action is correct (as explained below). If it is a sin, then the best individuals of faith can do is attempt to convince those living (or dying) in sin to turn away from it before it is too late. If the faithful are unable to, then it is not their burden to bear nor is the fate of the sinner theirs to determine.
As for the calls for legal bans on immoral actions, these have some validity to them. If a rational morality holds life as the ultimate value and if that same rational morality claims that actions are only moral if they pursue that ultimate value, then many of the actions protected under rights of suicide are immoral. The pleasure of drug usage, for example, is derived from an irrational value of unconsciousness and unconscious behavior, two things that are the direct opposites of actions that actually pursue the ultimate value of life. Drunkenness is of the same moral stature. Additionally, euthanasia and suicide are often considered immoral, not only by religious doctrines, but also secular codes because they end one’s own life which, if acting to further and improve one’s life is the only moral way to act, means that euthanasia and suicide are immoral actions, correct?
Actually, no; in many cases, euthanasia and suicide are more than justified in a rational, secular code of ethics. The morality of euthanasia is pretty straightforward. When an individual is diagnosed with a terminal illness, especially one that is painful and causes great expense to extend one’s life, then that individual is more than justified in choosing to end his own life before the disease does if that is his wish. If pain is no longer avoidable, then taking part in actions that improve one’s life become negligible or even impossible, hence continuing one’s life may be against an individual’s rational self-interests. Furthermore, the additional financial burden that an individual would levy on his family may not be a worthwhile tradeoff, and the rational happiness he may receive from freeing his family from that burden could very well outweigh the happiness he may receive from extending his life temporarily. Of course, these value decisions are completely dependent on the rational values of the individual in question, but the ones listed above merely exemplify the values of an individual that might choose euthanasia.
However, the moral status of suicidal actions taken by a physically healthy person is somewhat more difficult to determine. After all, if a person is suffering from no physical impediment to furthering and improving his life, then many people believe that he has no moral justification for ending his life. Nonetheless, there are just reasons for committing suicide. Rather than coming up with an example myself, I will allude to Atlas Shrugged in which one of the main characters (this should not be a spoiler, but I will give a reader fair warning to skip to the next paragraph if necessary) tells the one he loves that he will kill himself if she is captured and tortured as as an attempt to force him to submit to the will of the torturers. While this example is extreme (i.e. of the highest degree), it gives the readers an excellent example of when suicide is justifiable.
Essentially, what determines if a suicide is justifiable is the value judgments of the individual in question, who is ultimately the only one that truly knows his own values. If a value is of great enough importance to an individual’s life, then it is very possible that losing that value would negate all other values, making it impossible to act toward the fulfillment of one’s life any further. This value could be nearly anything so long as it is important enough – a life’s ambition, the whole of one’s property, one’s liberty, or a dearly loved one are just a few examples. Again, however, these value decisions are very individualistic – just because one person feels that they would be able to continue in life and find happiness again after a certain value is lost does not mean that another person would judge that value in the same light and consequently would not find himself able to live without it. If a real-life example is needed, then the man who immolated himself in Tunsia as a response to his nation’s statist policies, sparking the uprisings in the Middle East, is a perfect example.
Regardless, even if a form of suicide was not morally justifiable (e.g. killing oneself only to elicit a particular emotional response from those affected rather than as a result to the loss of a severely important value), that does not mean that there should be legal prohibitions on it. While morality would exist even if a man was stranded alone on a desert island, political ethics, i.e., the extension of a rational morality that involves relationships between men, would not. The only purpose of a correct code of political ethics is not to punish man for taking part in actions that hurt himself – reality does that aptly on its own. Instead, the only role of political ethics is to remove force, i.e., violations of individual rights, from human relationships. Since no individual has a legitimate “right to happiness,” or a “right to not be surrounded by drug users,” or a “right to live in a world without drunkards,” there is no actual moral sanction for banning self-destructive actions.
Many people still say, “But those actions affect me! Since they affect me, I have a right to regulate them!” This is not true. Nearly every action that an individual takes “affects” someone else. For example, if I was to buy the last candy bar at a grocery store, then my action would necessarily affect every other person in the world that wanted to buy that candy bar from the same store. However, my purchasing of that candy bar did not violate any of their individual rights, even if they would like to claim a right to that particular candy bar. Instead, the store had a right to that bar and was at liberty to dispose of it by selling it to me. Both the grocery store and I acted within the bounds of the individual rights of others. In the same way, an individual’s life is his to control – just because committing suicide may very well cause emotional stress to those around him does not give those around him the right to use government force to stop him. The same applies to all rights of suicide.
That being said, there are some additional cases that require further elaboration, specifically cases involving an indebted suicide victim. After all, if an individual owes a great deal of debt to a creditor, then some may claim that committing suicide or taking part in some sort of suicidal behavior (i.e. drugs usage, drunkenness, driving without a safety belt, etc.) is regulable by law in defense of the creditor’s property rights.
Such claims, however, have broader implications than the arguers may recognize. If, as they argue, the government can intervene to prevent debtors from participating in activities that may cause the creditors to lose their investment, then there is really no action that is off limits from government regulation. Anything that could be perceived by lawmakers as harming the interests of a creditor would fall under governmental jurisdiction if this argument were applied consistently, but these regulations disregard two very important aspects of a moral economy and government: the responsibility of the creditor and the principles of voluntary association.
Firstly, a loan requires two parties, a debtor and a creditor. Just as it is the responsibility of a debtor is to fulfill the requirements of his contract, it is the responsibility of the creditor to ensure that he is only making loans to individuals that can, or likely will, fulfill those requirements and return his investment, which brings us to the principles of voluntary association.
Voluntary association is any noncoercive interaction between two or more people that can be of economic nature, personal nature, or any other type of human relationship. In every case, voluntary association includes a contract, verbal, written, or unstated (usually in personal relationships), that outlines the terms of the association and what happens if the terms are broken. If terms of severance cannot be agreed upon by the two parties beforehand or at the time of severance, then an appeal to civil courts can be made. The only time criminal courts would be employed is if there is provable criminal intent, i.e., taking out loans with pre-meditated intent for malfeasance such as accepting the money under a false identity or deliberately attempting to escape the contract (and consequently the terms of severance) altogether.
If a debtor, however, does not attempt to evade a civil suit for breaking a contract or undergoing a predefined, contractual path of severance, then it is not morally regulable. If anything, suicide is a sort of declaration of bankruptcy – all contracts that the suicide victim was party to would undergo their predefined severance with the heir of the estate or, in the case that their was no predefined terms of severance, the terms could not be met, or there is no living heir, then all disputes over the ownership of the estate could be resolved in probate court (a form of civil court dealing with resolving any outstanding debts upon a person’s death). In any case, suicide itself cannot be banned because, no matter what, no creditor can claim a right to the debtor’s body and life.
An individual’s body and life are exclusively that person’s property. It can never truly be transferred – it can be loaned out to others, such as in providing labor as part of one’s employment or as in personal relationships, but that kind of loan can always be immediately collected. In the case of a debtor committing suicide, the remainder of his estate can be divided amongst his creditors, but his body was never theirs to begin with.
Ultimately, rights of suicide are often unpopular to defend. They usually involve action that one person may find completely acceptable while another may find absolutely abhorrent. Nevertheless, the value judgments of an individual are for that individual to make, and he should be free to make them without having those that disagree with him appealing to the government to stop him.