A Right of Self-Termination?
Velleman (David)
Source: Ethics, Vol. 109, No. 3 (April 1999), pp. 606-628
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Getting cancer changed my feelings about people who smoke.
  2. I remember hearing a fellow philosopher expound, with a wave of his cigarette, on his right to choose whether to live and die smoking, or to quit and merely survive. I was just beginning a year of chemotherapy, and mere survival sounded pretty good to me. But I was the visiting speaker, and my hosts were unaware of my diagnosis. Several of them lit up after dinner as we listened to their colleague’s disquisition — they with amused familiarity, I with an outrage that surprised even me and would have baffled them, if I had dared to express it. That I didn’t dare is a cause for regret even now, ten years after the fact.
  3. One objection was already clear to me at the time. A few months with cancer had taught me that a tumor rarely invades a region smaller than an extended family.
  4. Physically, the cancer was confined to my body, but even in that respect it was difficult to regard as mine. The tumor cells were growing in my bone marrow, which didn’t live up to its poetic billing as the core of my being. The marrow in my bones, I discovered, was as foreign to me as the far side of the moon: it was, in a sense, my far side — unseen, insensate — its depth inside me being a measure of remoteness rather than intimacy. Of course, this fertile gunk in my pelvis and skull was also my sole source of blood cells, and my life depended on it. But so did the life of my sons’ father, my wife’s husband, my parents’ son, my brothers’ brother, and I was never sure who among us would suffer the greater harm if that life ran out of gunk.
  5. Listening to my host laugh at his future cancer, I wondered whether he realized how many others would share it. What I would have said on their behalf, however, wouldn’t have expressed my strongest feelings, which were felt on my own behalf, in a sense that I couldn’t articulate. I was somehow offended, insulted. Watching smoke curl from the lips of people unmindful of my mortality, I felt as I probably would feel listening to anti-Semitic remarks directed at another person by a speaker unaware that I, too, was a Jew. I was witnessing an insult to a group of which I was also a member.
  6. This symposium isn’t about the right to smoke, of course; it’s about the right to die. Not surprisingly, however, these rights tend to be articulated in the same terms. A person claiming either right might describe it, for instance, as a right ‘to live and die in the light of . . . his own convictions about why his life is valuable and where its value lies.’ I can’t recall whether the speaker in my story used these exact words, but I seemed to hear his voice again when I read them in the New York Review of Books, under the title ‘‘The Philosophers’ Brief1.’’ This brief had been submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a challenge to statutes outlawing physician-assisted suicide. Reading it, I once again felt a collective slight, and this time I couldn’t miss which group was being slighted.
  7. So I think that I can now explain why I was once offended by one philosopher’s defense of smoking, and the explanation leads me to reject The Philosophers’ defense of assisted suicide as well. As for assisted suicide itself, however, I don’t know what to think. The complexities of the issue have thus far defeated my attempts to arrive at a settled position. On the policy question posed by this symposium, then, I am neither Pro nor Con. I’m, like, Not So Fast.


See academia.edu, downloaded 31/05/2015.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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