Our fear of death makes us lousy at passing right-to-die laws

It’s tough to face our own mortality.
It’s tough to face our own mortality.
Image: AP Photo/Denis Farrell
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“It is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human,” Scottish essayist Alexander Smith wrote in 1857. Awareness of our mortality can encourage us to live fuller lives—to confess our crushes, audition for a Broadway play and buy that plane ticket to Morocco.

But the realization that death is inevitable and can happen at any time can also be very frightening. Our tendency to deny death and respond defensively when we are reminded of it can help explain the vigorous—and often vitriolic—debates surrounding right-to-die legislation around the world.

As cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argues in his 1974 book The Denial of Death, contemplation of death can give rise to potentially paralyzing terror. Humans typically manage that terror by embracing cultural worldviews that give us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe. This might mean subscribing to a religion or political affiliation, affiliating oneself with the values of a particular nation or region, or identifying with another subculture, such as yoga practitioners or New York Yankee fans.

People are highly motivated to maintain faith in their chosen worldview. And when people are reminded of their mortality, they become even more fervently committed to their cherished cultural beliefs and strive to boost their self-esteem. For example, Christians who are reminded of their mortality subsequently have more favorable impressions of fellow Christians, according to a 1990 study that I co-authored, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The same study found that Christians contemplating death had more negative impressions of Jews. And materialistic Americans who are reminded of their mortality become more desirous of fancy cars and expensive watches, according to a 1999 Advances in Consumer Research study.

All this helps explain the clash over right-to-die laws. There are genuine ethical complexities surrounding such laws, and legitimate concerns that they could be malevolently deployed to goad vulnerable people—the elderly, indigent, disabled, and mentally ill—toward premature death. But we can also see patterns that suggest productive conversations about right-to-die laws are unusually difficult, precisely because they require people across different groups to stop denying death and contemplate its reality.

For example, consider the differences between people who belong to collectivist cultures and those who belong to individualist cultures.

Collectivist cultures stress interdependence among group members and argue that social obligations and deference to authority should trump personal autonomy. Collectivist groups are often (but not always) religious. Geographically speaking, collectivism is also generally associated with traditional communities in China, Japan, and Korea. Contemporary examples in the West might include Amish and Latino communities in the United States.

People from collectivist backgrounds, or who harbor collectivist sentiments, tend to be ardently opposed to right-to-die laws. They believe that only God, and/or the state, has the authority to make decisions about life and death.

Individualist groups, by contrast, stress independence and the idea that individual freedoms and personal autonomy trump social obligations. This view is characteristic of many secular citizens in the US and Western Europe, as well as devotees of Ayn Rand. Unsurprisingly, people from individualist backgrounds, or those with libertarian inclinations, tend to be fervently in favor of right-to-die laws. People in this group believe they have an inalienable right to self-determination, which includes the right to self-termination.

The aforementioned research on how people respond when they are reminded of death suggests that when people in collectivist groups consider their mortality, their opposition to right-to-die laws will increase. By contrast, people in individualist groups will become even more in favor of right-to-die laws when talk of mortality comes up in public discourse or private conversations.

Mortal terror thus polarizes public opinion about right-to-die laws. Based on your cultural beliefs or individual predilections, any discussion of right-to-die will amplify your commitment to your belief and increase hostility and disdain toward people who harbor different views. This makes it difficult to foster rational inquiry and civil discourse on an issue of great social and personal import.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that people should have the right to die with dignity.  However, we should also strive to create the material, psychological and social conditions to maximize the possibility that everyone can perceive themselves to valuable individuals in a world that has meaning. In this way, we can do our best to ensure that those who choose to end their lives do so because they love life, rather than because they fear death.