Dissertation Abstracts

The evidence of ethical beliefs

Author: Daniel Burnier, dburn100@uottawa.ca
Department: Sociology and Anthropology
University: Ottawa, Canada
Supervisor: Dominique Masson, José Lopez
Year of completion: 2017
Language of dissertation: French

Keywords: euthanasia , dignity , presentation of self , ethical beliefs
Areas of Research: Language and Society , Political Sociology


This interdisciplinary thesis analyses how citizens debate on controversial ethical issues. More specifically, it examines how individuals build their "presentation of self" through writings intended to strengthen their discourse on euthanasia. The voices of “ordinary citizens” on the topic of euthanasia have not often been studied. To remedy this, I study the case of the public consultation organized in 2010-2011 by the Quebec Select Committee on Dying with Dignity. Using conceptual tools developed in rhetoric and “argumentation in discourse”, I analyze the written briefs (n=149) submitted by citizens to the Select Committee. As the number and length of these documents were substantial (from 1 to more than 250 pages each, average 5 pages), I use the formula “dying with dignity”, which is central in this Quebec debate, as a “front door” to these briefs. I begin by analyzing the way participants debate around this formula before looking at the other parts of the briefs. Four average types of participants emerge from our analyses: the expert (n=40), the witness (n=40), the “opinant” (n=52) and the amateur (n=17). In his presentation of self, the expert insists on details about his professional background whereas the witness develops a personal story. On the contrary, the opinant gives very little (and sometimes no) professional or personal information about himself/herself. The amateur could use his/her professional expertise or personal experience to support his/her view on euthanasia, but often chooses to say something like “ordinary citizens like myself” In this regard, the amateur is located in between the expert and the opinant: personal or professional facts are generally developed on a few lines only. Almost all the people who participate in this public consultation, as different as they are, speak with certainty about their ethical beliefs. To the question asked by the Select Committee – shall we legalize euthanasia? – the participants present no doubts in their writings. Everyone seems persuaded that the convictions of the other camp are less valid than his/her convictions which are presented as universal. In regards to the formula “dying with dignity”, the participants imply that their definition is objective. They even act as if there is only one valid definition of the formula “dying with dignity” and one single ethical truth regarding the morality of euthanasia. I argue that the tone of evidence, the claims to single truth, universality and objectivity are very efficient techniques to mask the fragility of the ethical beliefs, and keep the opponent at a distance. However, our conclusion suggests that ethics could strive to resemble a more humble, complex, and social system.

We use own or third-party cookies to improve your user experience. If you allow the installation of cookies or continue to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies..

Read more