I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”
Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.
The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.
Upon my first reading of this, I had this visceral reaction against the need to justify my own (or anyone else’s) existence. It seems much better, including much morally safer, to presume the givenness of life and, accordingly, the gift of life that is to be cherished rather than squandered or discarded.
Not everyone can justify the value of their own existence. Many people cannot yet do this for themselves.
However, upon reflection, maybe there is some benefit to us exploring the value of life specifically as its goodness has been thrown into question, its preciousness is no longer a given, and its rationale has become precarious.
So what if every person’s continual existence is a choice? So what if it even needs a defense by them or by us?
The gravest danger is not the need to justify our existence; it’s the inability to say anything contributing to its justification.
Nihilism enters not because of the question, but because of the apprehensive or despairing attitude to finding any answers to it.
When we return to the reasons why being is good, we recapture the givenness of the goodness of life but this time with its supporting rationale to embolden and defend it.