Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Column on Million Dollar Baby

Ethics vs. Politics in Million Dollar Baby

Tibor R. Machan

Who has a right to one?s life? The individual whose life it is, that?s
who. And what does that entail? That it is up to that individual whether
to strive to continue to be alive, to thrive, or to discontinue living, to
stop thriving and discontinue living.

But having a natural (and justly protected legal) right to end one?s life
doesn?t make the act itself morally right. One has rights to do what is
wrong?just think of the right to freedom of speech, how often when it is
legitimately exercised what comes out is wrong! The right to be wrong is,
however, a right, nonetheless.

And it is also true that sometimes ending one?s life can be the right
thing to do, although there is probably no general account of when that
would be. Living in constant, unrelenting extreme pain could qualify?no
one is obligated to carry on in such a state unless there is a decent
prospect of recovery. One may also risk one?s life for various purposes
that merit such a risk, such as protecting the freedom of one?s country or
the safety of one?s loved ones or, for some folks, even going mountain

In the Clint Eastwood directed movie, Million Dollar Baby, this issue
comes up quietly, as it did in Whose Life is it Anyway, which starred
Richard Dreyfuss some years ago and explored the topic head on. Whether
the answer reached is the right one is, of course, one of the vital
questions in morality and also of medical ethics. But there is first the
question of whether anyone has the right to end his or her own life, with
or without assistance from someone else.

The answer to this last question is a clear cut ?Yes.? It is one?s own
life and however wrong it may be, or right, it is up to one to decided
whether to end it. Of course, there are some complications?if one has
obligations to others, say one?s children or creditors, the answer is
different since one has made commitments one must first fulfill. But all
rights can face such complications?I have a right to my property but if I
have used it as collateral for a loan, that changes things. I have a
right to my liberty but if I chose to be married, some of my liberties
have been freely restricted by me.

Still, the fundamental issue is the same: It is the individual who has
the right to decided whether to live or die since it is he or she who has
an unalienable right to life. To defend this idea is itself not so simple,
especially since there are many views contrary to it. Some hold that the
individual belongs to humanity?communists thinks so. Or to
society?socialists believe that. Or the community?communitarians hold that
view. Or to God?which is the view of various religions. Some even believe
that there is no individual at all?some eastern philosophies subscribe to
this idea.

This isn?t the place to work out the issue in full but it is possible to
remind ourselves that at least in the American political tradition,
derived from the philosophical works of classical liberals?most
importantly John Locke?one has an unalienable right to ones? life. One is
sovereign, self-ruling. And that implies that no one else may interfere
with one?s authority to guide one?s life as one will, be this for good or
for ill, so long as no one else?s rights are being violated in the process.

Accordingly, Million Dollar Baby depicts what must be understood as a
sound political or legal doctrine, even if one can take issue with its
morality. Sadly, few make this distinction. Few are now taught in school
that what the Founders meant by all of us having equal unalienable rights
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among other things, means
that everyone must accept everyone?s ultimate authority about matters as
controversial as whether one will live or die and whether one will seek
assistance in either task.

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