Dieuwe de Boer
Back to top

Duty to Live - Seymour vs Locke

While David Seymour continued his pushed for euthanasia over the last year, I've been reading John Locke's Two Treatises on Government. I hold to the principles of personal responsibility, small government, and the rights to life, liberty, and property, what is commonly called classical liberalism, but I had never read the original source of this philosophy from the Father of Liberalism himself. While reading the works of John Locke, I realised that most professed classical liberals probably haven't either.

Seymour makes his arguments on a website dedicated to his euthanasia bill. This letter contains a few strange remarks that bothered me since I first read it, and I will address primarily the following one:

The difficulty is that an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying effectively creates a “duty to live” rather than a “right to life”.

I have met David Seymour a few times and have heard him speak on occasion. He is a libertarian who often identifies himself as classically liberal, the member of parliament for Epsom, and sole representative of the ACT Party.

Seymour's philosophical argument appears to be that we are failing to protect a right by twisting it into a duty. If there is any merit to this claim he makes, we should be able to find some reference to them in the works of John Locke, the one who coined the three basic natural rights we have held dear ever since: the rights to life, liberty, and property.

Locke on the Power Over Life

We will now attempt to analyse John Locke's position on the right to life. Let's start with a quote from Locke's Second Treatise on Government, Chapter IV: Of Slavery:

… for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.

And again in the next section, still the same chapter:

… for, as has been said, no man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.

John Locke states that (1) a man does not have the power over his own life and that (2) that he cannot give someone else the power over his own life. Things are not looking good for both suicide and assisted suicide from a classical liberal philosophy. "But wait," you might say, "Locke is only speaking in the context of slavery." Let's move on to Chapter XI: Of the Extent of the Legislative Power:

… for no body can transfer to another more power than he has in himself; and no body has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.

Now, instead of speaking about slavery, Locke is speaking about the power of government. No one can transfer to the government the power to end their life, precisely because it is not their power to give. Locke returns to this subject a few chapters later in Chapter XIV: Of Prerogative:

And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it.

Again, what see here in plain terms is a condemnation of suicide, assisted or otherwise. In addition, Locke affirms that no man, in a right frame of mind, would ever neglect his own preservation. It is precisely the victim's desire to die that euthanasia advocates use to affirm their position, but John Locke rules this desire out as being unnatural.

Rights are Duties

This brings us back to the original statement by Seymour: that we have turned the right to life into a duty to live. John Locke answers with a resounding "yes!"

The right to life is absolutely a duty to take all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others. It is a duty to live.

We have a duty to exercise and defend our liberty. We have a duty to own and defend property. We have a duty to defend the liberties and properties of others.

Arguments from Suffering

I will not attempt to respond to any of the more subjective arguments here as the focus of this piece is on the works of John Locke, but I shall note the criteria that are to be used:

"... a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual"

There are many things that can be considered intolerable to an individual. Depression. Loneliness. Old age. A sense of worthlessness. Feeling like a burden on the system.

As an argument, terminal illness the thin end of the wedge. We have many examples from other countries so we know terminal illness will not be the measuring stick used. As a safeguard it is useless and as an argument it is deceptive. Seymour and libertarians in general are usually quite open that they want "death on demand" and talking about appropriate safeguards is just a tool to appeal to the emotions of the general public.

While we don't know what John Locke might have thought about so-called mercy killing in the what-if scenarios that right-to-death campaigners give us, I think we can assume he would have found the hastening of death, even inevitable death, repugnant as would most in his time. Especially since he spends a number of paragraphs arguing that we do not have the power over our own life, or that of anyone else, to say when it should end.

The First Right

John Locke's Second Treatise on Government has had a huge influence on the development of the Anglosphere and beyond. His philosophy underpins our entire system, the rights to life, liberty, and property are considered fundamental to our modern democracies. The right to life underpins all our other rights, duties, and privileges. It is the most important right and the right that should be most zealously defended.

It is tragic that within the last century, the first and foundational right of Locke's liberalism has been slowly abandoned. Modern liberalism, in the form of libertarianism, has developed a theory of personal ownership that trumps the right to life. They generally do believe that one can subject himself to absolute slavery voluntarily and also chose to end one's life in the time and manner of his choosing.

This is antithetical to the classical liberalism of John Locke, who believed that all we have, including our life, is on loan from the Creator.