Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is The Right to Die Justifiable?

The latest case of an Indonesian law student who burned himself to death in front of the Presidential Palace is indeed an interesting one. At first, I want to disregard the student's motive but then I realize that the question of motive is the essential part in the analysis which will affect our final thoughts in perceiving his decision. So, let's start with the question: do people have the right to die?

It's a tricky question which triggers a lot of debates involving significant different views. The comments on the above case can be a good example. Some people consider the action as a foolish one without any benefit to the society, that people will soon forget it and it is harmful to the student's parents and close family members. Other people consider it as a heroic action, that it demonstrated a resistance to a corrupt government, and that the student should be honored because not a lot of people will have the bravery to burn themselves as a form of protest.

What interest me the most is the fact that the discrepancies in views were ultimately caused by the motive of the student in burning himself. Why the motive should be considered at all? Are we saying that the right to die should be honored in certain conditions in accordance with the motive? We condemn ordinary suicide (in case the student burned himself out of desperation with his own life) but we approve the action if it is done out of desperation of other people's life? How come? More importantly, why should we bother with the right to die? The dead guy would have no interest with what we will say on his right to die simply because he is already dead.

The main problem here is because if we agree that people have the right to die, it indicates that people should also have the basic right to freely do whatever they want with their own body (well at least some people believe that people should be free to do so). I mean, if we agree that people has the right to kill themselves (which is the ultimate action that a man can do with his body), they should also have the freedom to, say, hurt themselves or conduct activities that may be harmful to their body as long as they give their full consent for doing such action (meaning no fraud or coercion or misappropriation of condition by third parties).

Applied consistently, there should be no paternalistic regulation on how people should behave, and there should be no "protective" regulations intended to protect the public from doing dangerous activities as long as they agree to do such action. In other words, those "protective" regulations should be optional instead of mandatory. Yet we know that the this is not the case in real life. Safety regulations in factories and mining sites, and even mandatory safety belt in cars can be a good example of those kind of regulations.  

It is weird if we assess the validity of a right only based on a motive. Suppose, a company is conducting a risky business. Installing a safety device would cost them a lot of money, say, US$20 million which will reduce the accident rate into 1%. If the Company chooses this option, they will pay 5 workers, each with a fixed salary of US$20,000 a year. Another possible way of doing this business is to employ those 5 people without any safety device, where each will receive an upfront payment of US$1,7 million, but the risk of deadly accident will increase to around 85%. From economics point of view, it is possible that the second option would be optimum for the welfare of the society. The company can reduce its costs, allowing them to sell cheaper products, and they compensate the employee generously for the additional risk taking.

Now imagine that one of those 5 employees is a father to three children. Thinking about the future of his family, he decides to take that risky job with a full understanding of the high probability of death. He believe that the payment justifies his increase of risk that even in the case that he dies, the overall compensation is enough to ensure the survival of his family in the future. Should he be prohibited from doing so? Should the company be deemed liable when an accident happen and the father dies? If we care about motives in deciding whether an act is good or not, can't we consider this as an heroic action? A father who chooses to increase his probability of death for the sake of his family?

I bet that most of you will consider this idea as a perverse one, but if we choose to assess the right to die simply from the motives, this is the consequence. It's easy to create similar cases and yet people preferences can vary significantly. It is almost impossible to find consistency of opinion in this matter. Here Law and Economics tries to provide the answer from welfare maximization issue. It might be easier to have a standardized safety regulation because not all people have the same perception of risks. Some will agree to take the risks, some will not. Creating a standard regulation could effectively solve the collective action problem among the employees. Granted there are costs associated with safety regulations, but the costs should be calculated in a way that promotes overall efficiency to the society (increase safety might increase productivity and might induce people not to participate in too risky business which may turn out to be bad for the welfare of the society).

If we agree with the above welfare maximization analysis, the right to die should also be viewed in such instance. Thus motive is irrelevant, instead, we should ask, what's the costs and benefit for granting people with the right to die? Should we give incentives for people to die? Might be in war with other countries for the sake of gaining victory or in case of patients with terminal ill where prolonging life would be too costly and too painful for him. But in cases where there is no perceive benefit of killing yourself and even worse, where the action imposes certain costs to third parties (imagine the costs imposed to the family left behind due to the suicide), I would say that we need to give incentives for people to avoid such action.

How can we give the incentives if the person is already dead? Well, we can do that by condemning certain type of suicidal activities that we view as wasting a precious life for nothing or where the benefits do not justify the costs of losing the life. Might not be effective for people who have lost their hope with their life, but for those who believe that their suicide can be meaningful, it could be a good deterrent mechanism. By informing them that their action would be useless and meaningless, we impose a huge costs to them for doing their action. What is the use of killing yourself in such case if people will simply disregard it?

Another way is to impose liability to anyone who knows a person's plan to kill himself but fail to prevent such death. Again, might not work for suicide for private reasons. But if it is for the so called "public cause", there is a high probability that some people will know about the plan in advance and therefore should be imposed with an obligation to refrain the soon-to-be-dead guy from his planned suicide. This is primarily based on the least cost avoider principle. It is not cleat though whether our current law is in line with the above approach. While there is no legal sanction for a failed suicide (no court will punish you if you fail to perform your suicidal action successfully), any people who assist you in your suicide attempt can be penalized with a prison sanction of at least 4 years. The text of the law indicates active assistance, while my proposed solution is to impose liability for passive assistance.

To close this post, I admit finding a right answer on the right to die is problematic. I am certain that some people will disagree with the notion that killing yourself could be justified as long as the perceived benefits exceed the costs. But we do have some examples on this issue, such as in war (imagine suicide mission) or in euthanasia (interesting to note that some Islamic legal scholars prohibit active euthanasia but not the passive one). It might be that there is no right answer for this problem and in the end, it's all about preferences. If that's the case, the voice of the majority will eventually determine whether a right to die should ever be granted.

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