In a case reminiscent of the medical and legal circumstances surrounding Charlie Gard last year, British infant, Alfie Evans, is now the center of a controversy over the delivery of care and the boundaries between the rights of parents and the powers of the state. In both examples, the staff of the National Health Service determined that the child in question suffers from an incurable and terminal disease and should be allowed to die, while the parents understandably want to preserve his life. And in both, last-minute offers of treatment in another country have been made, heightening the intensity of the melodrama.
The right wing on social media is predictably clamoring for the government of the United Kingdom to allow the baby’s parents to take him to Rome for the treatment offered by Vatican doctors and are using this case as evidence that universal healthcare systems do not work and must be rejected here in America.
I will be thought of as cold-hearted by pointing out that there is an appeal to emotion fallacy here, so I will address this immediately. Human beings have emotions. We could even say that we are emotional, and that is different in an important way. I possess books, and I am a reader and a writer. If I lost my entire library in a fire, I would still be someone for whom words are a part of my being. In the same way, I experience emotional states moment by moment, but emotions — speaking broadly to include desires and drives — are a part of what puts me into motion.
To test this, consider a question that I get impish fun out of asking my students: Why should human beings exist? They stumble around, searching for an answer that can be based solely on objective reasoning, but in the end, we have to admit that we should exist because we have a desire to do so. The universe does not need us.
Taking the desire to continue existing as a given, then, is all we can do. If aliens demand that we defend our right to be, we are in trouble, but when arguing with each other, this basic impulse is a part of our nature and outside of a philosophy seminar does not need to be justified beyond saying that if we do not acknowledge each other’s wish to live deserves to be respected, we are on the verge of violence.