The Right To Die


How Russell Might Interpret "The Right to Die" in Logic and Knowledge

Unlike his student, Wittgenstein, right from the start Bertrand Russell saw no application for a logically perfect language in ordinary use. He did believe that such a language would create the best of all possible worlds, and being a mathematician, believed wholeheartedly in the feasibility of the construction of such a language. His simple conclusion was that since mathematics are infinite, language must be so too, and like mathematics, we can prove that there are facts which do not form part of our present experience. "It seems certain that we shall not think of more than a finite number of arithmetical facts in the course of our lives." Thus, all we have to do is to make the words in a proposition correspond one by one with the components of the corresponding facts which we do know.

In a logically perfect language there will be one word and no more for every simple subject, and a combination of words for complexes. The reason such a language would not work in ordinary use, he says, is because language is ambiguous—not everyone means the same thing by the same word.

The meaning we attach to words depends upon the objects we are acquainted with, and since different people are acquainted with different objects, we would not be able to talk to each other without attaching different meanings to our words. This is why all debate and analysis is so ambiguous, why almost every argument has holes in it. Nevertheless, he seemed to believe that philosophical investigation was equal to linguistic analysis.

What is interesting about Russell's approach to investigation is his apparent analysis of the purpose of such an approach, rather than the actual employment of such an approach. In other words, all of his essays seem to be discussions of problems in the context of the purpose of a logical philosophy of language. He never does develop a philosophy of language, indeed—he seems almost opposed to the idea, and rightly, since he says upfront that linguistic analysis, as we are able to have it, is not logically perfect.

Russell's theory of acquaintance could be applied to "the right-to-die" in some very provocative ways. This theory distinguishes between two forms of knowledge: "acquaintance" and "knowledge about." The difference between them is the difference between having a presentation of something (seeing it) and not seeing something but only describing it. In the former situation knowledge is direct and immediate and in the latter it is inferred and indirect. Direct knowledge is acquaintance with the object itself and this knowledge is not subject to error. He says that in this way he is acquainted with a thing which exists and this acquaintance gives one the knowledge that it exists. This concept is basic to knowledge of the external world.

Why immediate knowledge of an object should guarantee its existence is a problem Russell relates to his theory of mathematics: In order to qualify as genuine knowledge, an empirical knowledge claim must be supported by evidence sufficient to establish it as irrefutably true. If it is possible to doubt the claim, then the proposition is something less than genuine. He says that he knows a color being described perfectly and completely only when he sees it, as opposed to knowledge of truths about it. All things, he says, with which we are directly acquainted can be regarded as proper names. This is because these are entities designated by words functioning as names. We can only give a name to a thing we have seen and we must know what it means, what entity it refers to.

When applied to the problem of the right-to-die, one wonders how a team of medical and legal judges can possibly have sufficient genuine knowledge of the abstract term "life," or another person's life, to decide if it should be sustained. According to this theory, it would be clearer to avoid interference when the vital signs indicate death. Medical professionals and the like must operate from a basic viewpoint which assumes that mental events are different from physical events. That is, the person whose life is being sustained is not having mental events but is having physical events; therefore we must sustain the life. What does that mean?

The theory of acquaintance implies that we must have a direct experience of the object before anything can be said about whether our knowledge of it is genuine. For this Russell examines the definition of mental events. On the one hand there are idealists who believes that whatever exists is mental and known to us by introspection as belonging to our own minds. On the other hand, realists believe that mental events are identical with physical events. Dualists believe that there are both types of events but that some things do not possess both characteristics. Our so-called mental life is composed of beliefs about knowledge of facts, and most of the facts which we consider to be within our knowledge are not experienced directly. A person who is unconscious is supposedly not having experiences which can be stimulated by acquaintance with physical objects. Perhaps the person is experiencing something through memory. Here Russell distinguishes between intellectual and sensational memory. In the former the memory is of a past experience (yesterday) and not immediate (just happened). The sensational memory becomes an intellectual memory when we are conscious of a lapse of time since the thing remembered was present. The point of this analysis is to show that every word which we now understand has a meaning within our present experience.

Russell says that we can never point to an object and say that it lies outside our present experience. We can only know what is in our present experience and nothing outside it. For this we must be present and the objects present to us. It only makes sense to talk about a right-to-die if you are an idealist or a dualist since, according to Russell's theory, knowledge itself is life sustaining and a realist would not give such credence to a machine. On the other two theories physical events alone may be life sustaining. Russell was a realist, and I believe that had he argued for the right-to-die his argument would have involved his theory of acquaintance, both from the standpoint of professionals making the decision and the vegetative person.

In order to argue a right-to-die the medical and legal professionals must establish and argue from a viewpoint about what life is. There are only so many angles from which this problem can be approached and these involve one's thinking about mental and physical events as outlined above. If one believes, as Russell did, that immediate knowledge qualifies as proof of the external world, proof of existence, then he could make an argument against sustaining the life of a brain-dead person. In fact, in Russell's theory, mental events are the same as physical events, so that the life-sustaining machine is only pumping air or food into an already dead person. The idealist or dualist might argue that physical events, such as breathing, are themselves life-sustaining, and that a person may live a so-called full life without the activity of separate mental events.

When professionals argue against a right-to-die they do not argue necessarily from a position of linguistic truth; for they have immediate knowledge of and evidence of the vegetative state. They argue, rather, from a philosophical position which may differ and probably does, from the position of anyone arguing for the right-to-die. Furthermore, this argument is linguistically all wrong: a right-to-die can only be applied to a conscious person capable of exercising that right and not to a professional or family member who wants to be granted the right by proxy. Their emotional arguments for a right-to-die are clearly not for the patient, whom they say suffers, because the brain-dead person cannot experience pain; the argument is to end the family members' suffering. Finally, someone must establish what death is. This has not been established, even by the Supreme Court members who, today, are bumbling through the arguments without embracing any particular viewpoint.

The word "consciousness" is the one most often thrown about by doctors. lawyers, and judges. Do they really know what this word means? They probably think it means an entity, like a soul, that hovers around a person like an aura and is their collection of thoughts, perceptions, and reactions to the external world. Philosophically, it can refer to very different concepts, or to nothing at all. The word is fundamental to the right-to-die argument, as are the words, life, death, and right. Apparently the Supreme Court is unconvinced that lawyers in right-to-die cases understand these words. The state of Missouri asserted that it could constitutionally require a patient, even a conscious and rational one, to continue to receive food and water against the patient's will. That was probably because there was no constitutional right to die. Yet lawyers for comatose people typically argue that the Constitution requires a state to defer to a family's judgement when a comatose victim's wishes about life-sustaining equipment are not clear. This is perhaps the only argument lay people understand: it is not abstract and it relates their understanding of death to personal family affairs. If there is a middle ground between the two cases it is not immediately apparent. I believe that is because no one really understands the words they use which are fundamental to the argument.

For this they need linguists and philosophers since the argument is about language, but instead they use doctors and lawyers—both of whom argue from already biased viewpoints. Only Justice Scalia called it a philosophical debate. "Decisions about whether life is worth living are based on philosophical beliefs," he said. Constitutionally, the argument seems simple—there is no argument—because there is no constitutional right to privacy, to control one's own body. (It should be argued on the right to property.) How then, can they argue for a right to control another person's body?

The doctors said that, for example, Nancy Cruzan, the Missouri comatose woman, would never again regain consciousness, although her tubes could maintain her in what neurologists called a "persistent vegetative state." The state of Missouri maintained that since Nancy's wishes about life-sustaining equipment were unclear the state simply opts for life. But what does that mean? Is a vegetable alive? Is a person alive just because machines pump in air and food? That depends upon one's theory of consciousness and how it relates to life. Russell says of consciousness that there is no aboriginal stuff or quality of being contrasted with that of which material objects are made out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function of experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality if being is involved. He calls this function "knowing." The knower is the bearer of knowledge, the objects the things known.

Russell's underlying theory about acquaintance would, it seems to me, put doctors and justices to shame in their right-to-die debates. I do not think we can deny his fundamental theory that the meaning of a sentence must be rendered in terms of entities we can know. To the extent that a referent of an expression cannot be recognized, as in what constitutes life, the expression is vacuous and has no function in the realm of meaningful discourse.

Copyright 2012, Kathryn Kurtz, ©. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be

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