By Lawrence Newport
I recently came across the phrase ‘moral suasion’. I’m not sure of its original use but it has become a useful term in describing a phenomenon I’ve noticed in politically or morally difficult arguments. In theory, the term ‘moral suasion’ criticizes arguments that simply characterize opponents as inherently evil.
As a result of using moral suasion in a debate, everything becomes cartoonish; you’re either pro-choice or against women completely; pro-gay marriage or homophobic. An understanding of the complexity and nuance of opponents is lost amid war cries and moral shaming. ‘I don’t even want to understand their view, its evil’ is the kind of outcry you might hear. I can understand that in narrow cases (i.e. discussing the KKK or the Nazi Regime) moral suasion is acceptable. However, I’ve heard it used to justify something as trivial as not engaging with anyone who is a Conservative.
Surprisingly, euthanasia is an area where this doesn’t seem to have happened. A reason for this could be that nobody wants to approach the issue. No one wants a protracted national debate on the issue because most people don’t know where they stand on it. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t know how everyone else stands on it. This means many people don’t have much information on whether or not their points of view are contentious or strange. Or, conceivably further, they aren’t sure if they’re on the ‘right side’ yet, because their friends and family haven’t declared where they sit either. Euthanasia thus becomes cast aside like numerous other moral issues that everyone collectively ignores.
However, I can see – and have heard – moral suasion used in euthanasia debates. This kind of condemning argument is unhelpful, to say the least. It implies that euthanasia, even if allowed only in the most terrible cases of fatal illness, would send a message that our society condones the killing of one citizen, by another citizen; and that banning it would mean that people will suffer and die painful deaths. Allowing it will probably lead to a couple of killings that were not justified – but it will also communicate that one citizen can assist in the killing of another if the circumstances match those written in an abstract law.
A fair question to ask would be that if we allow euthanasia for painful diseases, why not allow it for less terrible painful (but still terrible) circumstances? My point? Euthanasia is a very complex and emotive issue. Brandishing the language of morality, or comparing it to Hitler, doesn’t get you any closer to a resolution to the argument. It doesn’t help you decide on any logical or empathetic level. It just makes you afraid, internalising a “good guy vs. bad guy” narrative. It doesn’t help you make up your mind as an informed individual.
This is mostly because moral suasion informs you of nothing. It just bullies people into silence. On issues like euthanasia (and a whole host of others in our society), we can’t afford to run to easy “good” and “bad” sides. We have to understand the complexity of the moral world we live in. Without that, we’re putting our own desire to feel morally right above actually doing what is morally right.
Featured image courtesy of The Guardian, Phanie/Alamy