In my recent thinking about the ethics of suicide, I've been compelled to confront a methodological issue in practical ethics that I'd not really given much thought to before now. (Nor, as best I can tell, have other ethicists thought much about the issue either.)
Traditionally, we assign act tokens to one of three deontic categories: forbidden, (merely) permissible, or obligatory. And prior to careful investigation of the morality of an act, our default assumption appears to be that an act is permissible. Furthermore, those who claim the act is either forbidden or obligatory bear the burden of proof to give reasons or arguments in favor of their claims.
But often the philosophical literature develops in such a way that with respect to a given act type, the default assumption changes, so that it is no longer assumed that the act type is permissible. What intrigues me is that where the burden of proof is presumed to lie can frame a debate is ways that might end up appearing prejudicial to a given position. Curator, the keeper of the 'View from Hell' blog, takes me to task for framing the ethics of suicide in a way that is prejudicial to the view that suicide is morally permissible:
Are there conditions under which suicide is morally justified, and if so, which conditions?
This formulation assumes a major premise: that it is the suicidal person who must justify his refusal to live, rather than the community being required to justify the action of forcing him to live.
In my own defense, I took myself simply to be reporting the state of the literature, both historical and contemporary, on the ethics of suicide, and in fact, I think there is no burden of proof concerning the ethics of suicide — that there are no sufficiently strong arguments for its permissibility or for its impermissibility to swing the burden of proof either way. Suicide is a genuinely open moral question in this regard.
Nevertheless, this example raises some provocative methodological questions in practical ethics:
1. Is permissibility in fact the default assumption?
2. if so, why? Is this a methodological commitment or an ethical one, perhaps stemming from a form of liberalism implicit in much of our moral thought?
3. When should the burden of proof shift away from permissibility?