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Euthanasia
Michael Lacewing
[email protected]
© Michael Lacewing
Euthanasia
• 6 types
– Involuntary, voluntary, non-voluntary
– Passive, active
Utilitarian thoughts
• Act utilitarianism
– Look at each act of euthanasia individually; not
making a rule
– Involuntary: person doesn’t want to die, so is
made unhappy by the thought of their death
– Voluntary: person does want to die, often
believing they will be less unhappy by dying
Morality v. legality
• One of the most common arguments
against euthanasia is the possibility of
abuse (pressure from relatives) or bad
choices (from pain or depression).
• Whether a practice should be legalized
is a separate debate from whether it is
moral acceptable.
• These arguments are only relevant
when looking at rule utilitarianism.
Metaethics and practical
ethics
• Act utilitarianism says that the
(objectively) right thing to do may vary
in different situations (including what
people want). This is different from
saying that what is right is subjective.
• Don’t get into metaethics
– The premise of practical ethics is that we
are searching for the (or a) right thing to
do. So don’t start talking about relativism
or subjectivism.
Kant on suicide
• Euthanasia is sometimes called assisted
suicide.
• Kant argued that people who commit
suicide destroy their rationality in
service to something else – pain.
– So asking for euthanasia does not show
respect for our own rationality.
• This doesn’t cover cases in which the
person loses their reason.
Kant on suicide
• We may agree that rationality is what
bestows dignity on human beings, and we
must respect people’s dignity.
– A human being who may lose their dignity through
illness may legitimately request euthanasia.
• We respect and protect their dignity by
helping them die in circumstances of their
own choosing.
• But it is not right to help someone do
something that is morally wrong.
Active v. passive euthanasia
• Is there a moral difference between
active and passive euthanasia?
• Act utilitarianism: no
• Deontology: yes
– Active: more like murder, in that there is
intervention to cause death: justice
– Passive: often combined with intended
pain relief: charity
Justice and charity
• Justice: we must not kill people
• Charity: we should help others, not let
them die
– Not giving to charity is not as bad as
actually killing people the money would
have saved
– But not providing your child with food is
murder.
Justice and charity
• In voluntary euthanasia, the person
wants to die.
– Do we have a duty not to kill even those
who want to die?
– Do doctors have a special duty not to kill
their patients?
– But doctors should do what is best for
their patients, which may mean killing
them.
The doctrine of double
effect
• We may bring about a foreseen
harmful effect in pursuit of a good end
– The good end is intended, the harmful
effect is unintended
– If we could bring about the good end
without the harmful effect, we would
• High doses of painkillers can bring
about death more quickly
Two practical points
• Separate empirical (sociology, psychology)
from philosophical
– E.g. don’t spend long discussing whether or not a
slippery slope would actually occur.
• The conclusion is often conditional
– E.g. ‘if allowing voluntary euthanasia in some
cases caused people to seek it wrongly, then it
would be wrong to allow it at all’
Complexity
• So is voluntary euthanasia permissible?
• Utilitarianism
– Pro: Individuals suffer differently
– Con: It has bad consequences, so look at better
alternatives
• Deontology
– Pro: We should respect people’s choices
– Con: Bringing about death unnecessarily is always
wrong
Complexity
• Virtue theory (and deontology)
– Active euthanasia is unjust?
– (Passive) euthanasia is not unjust, and is
charitable
Two final practical points
• Avoid oversimplification
– Normative theories might not deliver just one
answer, but give reasons both for and against.
Noting this is important for evaluation.
• Don’t say ‘Who knows? Who can say?’
– You are the thinker – this is your attempt to try
to say.
– Why think practical ethics should or could be
easy?
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