Listers, is there a right to assisted suicide – what type of right do people claim it is? To address this question, we turn to the mind of Leon Kass. Though not a Catholic, Kass’ understanding of natural law and ills of modernity is better than most. His treatment of assisted suicide is particularly interesting because he uses the modern philosophers against modernity to show that even by this modern world’s own philosophies, there is no right to die. The first part of the discussion will address what is a right and what type of right could assisted suicide be.


1. A  Right to Die: An Introduction

Is there a right to die? Rather, if an individual finds his or herself in a state in which the individual no longer wants to live, do they have the right to oblige another into assisting their suicide? In his book entitled Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, Leon Kass takes up the connection between assisted suicide and individual rights.

In his chapter Is There A Right To Die?, Kass carefully submits an argument presenting that even by several of the philosophies that shaped modernity there is only one conclusion: there is no defensible philosophic foundation for the right to die. However, the lack of philosophical framework has not stopped the modern polis from giving into the demands of right to die claimants. Kass not only brings to light several of the dangers of allowing a right to die position to find legitimacy in the polis, but also calls into question the proper limitation of rights overall.


2. Free to or a Right to Act?

If there is a “right to die,” then it is a new right unlike any other. Leon Kass observes the right to die is “grounded neither in nature nor in reason.”[1] In order to properly understand this critique it must be asked: what is a right? Examining their origin, Kass refers to Thomas Hobbes as the “first teacher of rights.”[2] According to Kass, Hobbes submits a right to be “a blameless liberty,” which means, “not everything we are free to do, morally or legally, we have a right to do.”[3] A “true right,” as seen by Kass, “would be at least a blameless or permitted liberty, at best a praiseworthy or even a rightful liberty, to do or not to do, without anyone else’s interference or opposition.”[4] There is a distinction between what one is free to do, and what one has a natural right to do. For a mundane example, one may be at liberty to wear “offensive perfumes,” but that does not mean one has a natural right to do so.[5]


3. Classical Rights and Welfare Rights

Kass parses out two general types of rights traditionally seen in the modern polis: the first are the “more negative classical rights,” and the second are the more entitlement based “welfare rights.”[6] The former were “asserted to protect” individuals from external authorities or peers by declaring certain liberties “blameless or rightful.”[7] The latter are a later modern addition in which “certain opportunities or goods” must be provided – “usually by the government” – due to the individual’s right to them.[8] Welfare rights are seemingly best read with the following distinction in mind: there is a difference between stating an individual has a right to possess a good, and submitting that an individual has a right for that good to be given to them.

What is the canon by which a right should be judged? Kass intimates that the answer is justice. He avers, “having a right means having a justified claim against others that they act in a fitting manner: either that they refrain from interfering or they deliver what is justly owed.”[9] Obligation undergirds this view of a right. As Kass states, “whether to noninterference or to some entitled good or service” a right “necessarily implies another person’s obligation.”[10]


4. The Right to Become Dead

Given the adumbrated language of rights, how then could a right to die be articulated? Like many political mantras, the phrase right to die is a misnomer. “Taken literally,” says Kass, “a right to die would denote merely a right to the inevitable.”[11] If we all die, why fight to secure it as a right? The matter at hand is not death, simply speaking, but rather assisted suicide – “in short, a right to become dead, by assistance if necessary.”[12]

How then is this assistance practically performed within the medical community? Kass delivers two notions of such a right: “the well-established common-law right” to refuse various forms of treatment and the “newly alleged ‘right to die.’”[13] The latter is as already stated, the assisted suicide via the refusal of therapy “so that death will occur,” while the former “permits the refusal of therapy, even a respirator, even if it means accepting an increased risk of death.”[14] Furthermore, the former “would seem to be more about choosing how to live while dying, the latter mainly about a choice for death.”[15] For Kass, the former is not a misnomer, while the latter is.


5. A Right to Deadly Assistance

And what of the notion of obligation that accompanies the concept of a right? Here is term assistance is key. The right to die does not include suicide, because suicide simply speaking does not involve the medical community. However, if that individual cannot perform the suicidal act, then – in respect of their right to die – the medical community and/or government must assist them. “They claim is not only a right to attempt suicide,” observes Kass, “but a right to succeed, and this means, in practice, a right to the deadly assistance of others.”[16]


6. The Claim of Cosmic Injustice

How should one categorize the right to die? Is it a classical right defending the individual from an injustice or is it a welfare right claiming the possession of some good? If it is classical then it seems it must be asserted against the medical community that sustains the patient’s life or against the legal community that has criminalized assisted suicide.[17] If it is a welfare right then it must claim the good of assistance in suicide must be provided if demanded. Moreover, could the right to die not be asserted “against nature, which has dealt [the individual] a bad hand by keeping [him] alive” in an undesirable condition?[18] Here Kass notes the “most radical formulations” of a right to die argument: “the complaint of human pride against what our tyrannical tendencies lead us to experience as ‘cosmic injustice, directed against me.’”[19] Placed within this context, the individual’s right to die is not only marked with a “compassionate charity,” but now carries the trait of “compensatory justice.”[20]


PART II: 6 Reasons Euthanasia is Incompatible with Modernity’s Own Philosophy


[1] Leon Kass. Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. (New York: Encounter Books, 2002), 203.

[2] Kass, 204.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 205.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 206.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 207.

[17] Ibid., 209.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.