I dread a prospect of dying slowly with Alzheimer’s far more than I fear dying from COVID-19 flu. If I were diagnosed with onset of Alzheimer’s I would be seriously tempted to kill myself or have physician assisted suicide if legal.
Suppose that I have received such a diagnosis. Suppose also that I, along with a close group of family and friends, have planned the taking of my life so that the dispiriting effects of my suicide on a much broader group of family and friends have been eliminated or greatly reduced. In short, suppose that utilitarian considerations show that my suicide is best for satisfying the human inclinations of all concerned. The actual harm done to people by my suicide would be less than the actual harm done to people by my undergoing a long slow dying with Alzheimer’s.
Suppose that there is a moral law forbidding suicide. I have argued for such a moral law.Immorality of Suicide. But the topic of this post is not to argue for a moral law prohibiting suicide. The topic of this post is to characterize the moral harm produced by violating the moral law prohibiting suicide.
In this situation in which I am tempted to take my life, the moral authority’s will is that I choose not to take my life to be in conformity with its will that life not be taken. But the moral authority has left a freewill gap in its legislation whereby I can choose to will as it wills for the situation or choose to will against it. I will against the moral authority by willing that in this case what ought to be done is the taking of a life. The moral harm of breaking the moral law is this new norm that a life ought to be taken. The new norm is that some human life ought to be taken. This new norm is “dirt” in the moral order; it is out of place in the moral order which is a system of norms.
To review: In the temptation to violate the moral law “No life ought to be taken” I had the choice to ratify that law by setting aside the temptation to commit suicide or I had the choice to create my own norm on what ought to be done in opposition to the authority’s norm on what ought to be done. My norm opposing the moral authority’s is “Some life ought to be taken.”*
So the moral harm of my committing suicide is a moral norm that some human life ought to be taken. My suicide corrupts the moral order with this perverse norm. This norm can be removed from the moral order only by it being carried out or by the moral authority erasing it by forgiveness through its mercy. The carrying out of the norm prescribing death would be retributive punishment.
* In standard deontic logics, the contradictory of “No life ought to be taken” is “Some life may be taken.” However, when an agent willfully defies a moral law, the agent is willing more than a simple rejection of the law. The agent is willing that this act in defiance of the law is what I ought to do.