A piece from Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in the telegraph has made me think about the limits of the law.
When I was a child, like all children I was vulnerable. As a young man I had the ability, if not the inclination, to rape, murder, steal and plunder. As an older man I guess I could wage economic war on people if I chose. As I grow older I will become more vulnerable.
In the knowledge that some are vulnerable all their lives, all of us start off being vulnerable, and, if we live that long ,will end up being vulnerable; we have laws.
We give up the mayhem we might cause in youth for the protection that affords us at either end of our lives.
It's the fundamental social contract that allows us to form societies and live with some stability.
Prisons are predominately full of young men who have found this contract hard to keep.
Is this the logical limit of law? In some countries this is a non-argument. I've implied that we are born free, but give up freedoms to repay the protection society gave us in childhood, gives us in old age, and gives family members who would otherwise be preyed upon.
Some nations take the other attitude; that the state owns all, and freedoms are those the state choose to allow.
In T.E. White's The Once and Future King, he imagines the society of an ants' nest where "What is not forbidden is mandatory".
Here in England we have always tried to follow the principle that all is permitted, apart from the few things denied by law. On the continent it has always been that nothing is permitted but those things allowed by law.
The article in question is about the right to take your own life, or if you cannot achieve this, to ask others to help.
Ms Butler-Sloss is a lady positively marinated in the law. The danger of such a state is that you might not look up and think about the purpose of law.
In my view, the law is that social contract and no more. Taking our own lives at will is one of those native freedoms never surrendered for any social good. If someone helps where the individual cannot achieve this themselves, but where there is a clear will, this cannot be murder. The law perversely currently calls it murder in defiance of logic.
I'm no great fan of drugs, but I have always thought also that taking them is a personal choice that the state should have no concern with. This was the view of the law too, before the 60s.
We ought to ask "what is law for?" In my view it is that social contract that demands good behaviour at one point in your life for the benefits of that same good behaviour at others. As such it ought to be the minimum that achieves this. Every extra law is an unwarranted infringement on our natural freedoms.
Ms Butler-Sloss agonizes over whether our law on assisted suicide achieves some social goal or other. This misses the point. The law is not a social engineer; it exists to protect the vulnerable. If you want to die the law has no say.
This is not to say that anyone ought to assist a suicide. That is an individual thing. I'm sure I would find it very difficult, although when I was young and worked in a hospital I saw it done several times.
I remember a girlfriend who was a student nurse in floods of tears because she had been told to administer what she knew to be a lethal dose of painkillers. She never completed her studies. Perhaps this was why...