March 10, 2020 - 8:30am

The Bundesverfassungsgericht — the German federal constitutional court — has overturned the ban on ‘assisted suicide services’, asserting instead the right of every German to ‘a self-determined death’ and associated right ‘to pursue and carry out the decision to end their life on their own terms’.

The English-language version of the ruling states:

Where, in the exercise of this right, an individual decides to end their own life, having reached this decision based on how they personally define quality of life and a meaningful existence, their decision must, in principle, be respected by state and society as an act of autonomous self-determination
- Bundesverfassungsgericht

This is founded in ‘the central notion that human beings are capable of self-determination and personal responsibility.’ Founded in ‘the belief that personal autonomy and development of one’s personality are integral to human freedom,’ the logic of this position requires German law to protect ‘human dignity’ by defending ‘individuality, identity and integrity’. If an individual human wishes in their integrity to end their own life, it then follows that German law must protect their human dignity by protecting their right to kill themselves.

In a moral framework that holds ‘autonomous self-determination’ to be the only meaningful value worth protecting, this makes sense. Missing from it, though, is the recognition that human dignity might exist in how we belong not just to ourselves, but to others as well.

By framing dignity in this light, we see societies — not just individuals — showing stress. Among working-class men, for example, the decline of marriage, social dignity and ‘traditional’ jobs have gone hand in hand. Stable and well-paying jobs have been offshored, so many feel unable to marry and start families. Then, without families to provide for, men lose the motivation to work, express their loss of social standing via substance abuse or antisocial behaviour, struggle to find work or a partner as a consequence, and so the vicious circle goes on.

Chris Arnade’s 2019 book Dignity explicitly links the decline in meaningful working-class work with the decline of dignity as expressed in community bonds.

The German ruling suggests that human dignity is an attribute solely of each individual. But the growing phenomenon in the US and elsewhere of ‘deaths of despair’, driven by a declining social fabric, suggests that for many, suicide is less an expression of dignity than of desolation at its loss.

If we understand dignity in individual terms only, there is no need to care about deaths of despair. After all, as the German judgement puts it, these suicides decided on the basis of ‘how they personally define quality of life and a meaningful existence’ to exercise their own right to die.

I am jumping between developed nations in this discussion. But the whole West is presently wrestling with the same tension, between the absolutist demands of liberal individualism and the needs of the social fabric. If we are not to argue ourselves into an indifference to deaths of despair that we do not truly feel, we should resist the drive to privatise dignity and look instead for language that lets us acknowledge what we owe one another.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.