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Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions
Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions
Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions
Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions
Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions
Definitions | Issues | Case Studies | Ethical Responses | Christian Responses | Resources | Books | Links | Multimedia | In the News | Quizzes | Exam questions

Ethical responses to euthanasia

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Utilitarianism

Kant

Natural Law

Situation Ethics

Virtue Ethics

Responses to Euthanasia

 

Utilitarianism

Bentham's Hedonic Calculus can be used to weigh up the pleasure and pain caused by two courses of action - in this case, helping someone to die, or not doing so. Bentham would consider the Intensity of the pain and its Duration. He would have to weigh that against the number of people affected (Extent), and consider whether keeping someone alive woud lead to other pleasures (Richness). He would also need to add up the amount of other 'pains' the patient would face e.g. loss of dignity (Purity), and consider the chances that there' might be a cure or treatment in the future (Certainty). The pain is immediate, while possible future benefits are Remote.

In most cases, the degree of pain is so great that Bentham's theory would support euthanasia. Mill would also have supported euthanasia, as he believed in the sovereignty of the individual - despite the principle of utility, if I'm harming no-one else, I can do what I please.

Mll did make a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, which can be shown effectively here. Thomas Hyde was 27 when Dr. Kevorkian helped him to die. He had ALS - the same condition that Stephen Hawking has. For Hyde, an athletic man, the thought of never using his body again was too much. Mill would argue that if his maind were still working, Hyde should have been able to enjoy a happy life. Someone with Alzheimers would be a different story, as Mill would see little benefit in continuing with life if your mind wasn't working properly.

Utilitarianism and euthanasia exam question

 

Kant's Ethical Theory

For Kant, the outcome of an action is not relevant to whether or not it is ethical. This can easily be demonstrated - sometimes evil actions lead to unintended good consequences. He also disagreed with making moral choices out of compassion, kindness etc. It is also easy to give an example of where kindness leads to doing the wrong thing (the road to hell is paved with good intentions). The only right thing is to do what reason dictates.

When considering euthanasia, then, Kant will not be interested in the level of suffering of the patient or relatives. He would not agree that we should do the loving thing. He would work out what the right thing to do was.

Universalising the maxim "I should help [George] to die" would give a universal law that everyone should be helped to die - a self-contradiction. If you took the maxim "I should help George, who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and desparate to die, to die" you might create a more acceptable universal rule such as "Anyone who is terminally and incurably ill, suffering greatly and has freely chosen to die, should be helped to die".

You get closer to what Kant would have said himself if you consider another statement of the Categorical Imperative - that we should act according to maxims that we would make into laws of nature. Here, it seems irrelevant what a person chooses. If we decide that a person in a particular physical state should, naturally, die, they would die regardless of their wishes. We could not will this - it is a contradiction of the will as the person has not chosen to die.

Some Kantians may disagree. They could argue that you can include what a person chooses in a law of nature. Some people believe that people can die when they lose the 'will to live'. It may not be too hard to imagine someone wanting to die being a factor in their death according to laws of nature.

The last statement of the Categorical Imperative says we should not use people merely as a means to an end. Kant may have said that killing someone to end their pain was using them to another end. Other Kantians might argue the opposite - that a person's ends are best served by ending their misery.

Kant himself was strongly against any form of suicide, and would have argued against euthanasia. However, modern Kantians may well disagree.

Kant and euthanasia exam question
Kant and euthanasia chart

 

Natural Law

Natural Law theology has led to strong sanctitiy of life responses from the Catholic church. Natural Law deals in moral absolutes - secondary precepts that cannot be broken regardless of the situation, The end never justifies the means, so no amount of suffering can justify an 'evil act' (Do good, avoid evil).

One of the primary precepts is to 'protect and preserve the innocent'. It is therefore a secondary precept and an absolute moral rule that you should never kill an innocent person. It would seem that euthanasia is always wrong. You couldn't argue for assisted suicide, as the same principle would outlaw killing oneself even if you could justify helping someone to die , which is unlikely.

However, we mustn't forget the principle of double effect. It is wrong to kill, but is it wrong to give someone pain relief if a secondary effect is that they die? Once you accept that death is merely a by-product of another action, you are asking a very different question. You are asking 'Is death a proportionate outcome?' This brings in a utilitarian type of consideration, which we would not expect from Natural Law!

In other words, while Natural Law clearly doesn't support active euthanasia, it may well allow an action whose intention is merely to relieve pain, even if the action leads to death. There are natural law thinkers who find the doctrine of double effect difficult to reconcile with Natural Law thinking.

Situation Ethics

Situation Ethics is easy to apply here. Quite simply, you can dispense with rules about killing, because the most loving thing to do may well be to give someone a peaceful death. Situation Ethics is Personal - it puts people before rules. It is also Pragmatic, allowing us to do whatever works best in the circumstances. What is the use in keeping someone alive to suffer?

Relativism is at the heart of the theory. This means that in any situation, when faced with a difficult decision about whether to help someone to die, we need to act out of love, which means ignoring any hard and fast rule and doing what the situation requires.

Situation Ethics isn't helpful when it comes to legislation, largely because the situation ethicist would ignore any rules that were made anyway if the situation demanded it. Situationists may well be worried that a law that allowed euthanasia might put pressure on people who didn't want to die. They might argue that there need to be great safeguards against the misuse of any euthanasia rules. However, they are likely to argue in favour of allowing euthanasia. A situation ethicist would probably say that, even if euthanasia was not allowed, it may well be right to break the law and help someone to die.

Virtue Ethics

Aristotle believed we should aim for eudaimonia – happiness, but the sort of happiness resulting from a life in perfect balance.  Eudaimonia means we have developed habits of patience, temperance, courage etc.  These virtues are perfected so that we may be perfectly happy – not in order to benefit others.  People suffering greatly from illness would not be living a eudaimon life.  If there was a way to improve their physical well-being, Aristotle would support this.  However, where someone is incurably and terminally ill, Aristotle might hope that they would have the courage to accept their fortune.  It is not clear whether he would expect someone to have the patience to cope with their condition, or the courage to end their own life.  He would say that person achieving eudaimonia would have the wisdom and judgement to make the right decision.

Aristotle was concerned with the good for society above the individual.  In those cultures where resources are scarce, euthanasia may well make a huge difference on the well-being of society as a whole.  Under these circumstances, it may be a courageous, noble act for someone to take their own life when very ill.  Even in our own society, where people are living longer and people with illnesses are surviving when they wouldn’t have before, there may be huge financial benefits to society if those who are unproductive were euthanized.  However, it doesn’t seem in keeping with Aristotle’s virtues of patience, modesty, temperance etc. 

MacIntyre is a relativist virtue ethicist. He might argue that in Britain we are moving towards a change in law regarding euthanasia. We are a more secular society than America, and America found it difficult to imprison Jack Kevorkian who helped over 100 people to die. However, MacIntyre might explain why other countries, particularly Roman Catholic and Muslim countries, are likely to strongly resist any weakening of the law regarding the ending of human life.

Macintyre will not say whether it is right to allow euthanasia - he will just explain the decisions people make in terms of the context in which those decisions arise.

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