Thinker Laureate Paul van Tongeren (O&D, 30 April) argues that the demand of Coöperatie Laatste Wil (CLW) to abolish the punishability of assisted suicide is based on a philosophical error about human autonomy. ‘The problem lies in that autonomy itself: if we really want to be in control, as CLW says, if we want to be the director of ourselves, we have no grip whatsoever. And that is a problem that cannot be ‘solved’, but must be acknowledged, ‘Van Tongeren writes.
I do agree with him philosophically, and he rightly points out a fundamental problem that everyone should think carefully about. The human will is indeed much more problematic than the naive idea that people are in full control of their life and death.
Suicide is often a tragic decision, and so we can still learn many from the Greek tragedy writers who recognized that the idea that man is in complete control of his or her own destiny can be a dangerous illusion.
Punishment and tragedy
However, CLW’s trial of abolishing the punishability of assisted suicide is not about the philosophy of free will or the tragedy of human destiny, but about why that aid is punishable. Why should criminal law allow the state to intervene in the tragedy of human life and prohibit people from committing certain acts?
Criminal law intervention by the state assumes a completely different direction of life and death, the direction of the government in order to be able to direct human lives with criminal coercion.
The illusion of that direction is just as susceptible to error as the illusion that a person can dispose of his own life in complete freedom. The question is therefore not only to what extent people are able to exercise control over their own lives, but also to what extent the state can do this. And the state is the others who want to control people’s lives with the power of the government.
On what is the power of those others based to control people’s lives and why are people not allowed to do that themselves, however illusory their idea of autonomy might be?
Crime and Punishment
The classic idea of the 1886 Criminal Code was that suicide was contrary to “the reverence due to human life in general.” The suicide violated that due respect and therefore could not be buried in the consecrated soil of the church. The counselor who assisted the suicide was considered a criminal who deserved imprisonment.
Most people have long ceased to think about suicide, and many people regard the Christian view of the sinful suicide as a dangerous illusion and a bad presumption on the part of people to judge the lives of others.
The Netherlands has been secularised in a political sense, which is why the state can no longer enforce respect for human life in general by means of criminal law. In a free society, people have the fundamental right to assign meaning to their lives, however difficult and tragic the decisions about it may be.
The process of CLW is not about autonomy in a philosophical sense, but about political freedom in a secularized society in which the government cannot prescribe the value of life. People are allowed to determine this for themselves and they do not need a moral guidance from criminal law, but perhaps the existential doubt of the philosopher who makes them think, such as Paul van Tongeren.
Klaas Rozemond is associate professor of criminal law at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and author of The self-chosen end of life, a plea for the right of people to dispose of their own end of life, ISVW Uitgevers 2021.