Moral/Ethical Implications of Euthanasia
Euthanasia refers to the act of removing support systems for the maintenance of life of a person suffering from a terminal or grave illness.
Despite the negative arguments put forward against euthanasia, at least four ethical philosophies support the practice of euthanasia.Among these are utilitarianism, Kantianism, egoism, and emotivism.Each of these moral philosophies shall be discussed below to provide support to the practice of euthanasia.
Utilitarianism is an indispensable word in the study of normative ethics, whether it is medical, legal, or other professional ethics (Merriam-Webster Online).
Indeed, utilitarianism could provide sufficient arguments against or in favor of removing life support systems of one who appears to have no hope of recovery from an illness.
Utilitarianism, the theory that could either save a life or relieve pain and suffering in the above situation, has been entered in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as “a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically: a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number (Merriam-Webster Online).”
Utilitarianism is anchored on the principle called the “Greatest Happiness Principle,” which holds as morally right or ethical such actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Mill).
John Stuart Mill explained the said principle in his work entitled Utilitarianism in 1863. He explained, thus:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure (Mill).
Utilitarianism still exists at the present as a strong argument in favor of many ethical issues, such as the propriety of euthanasia. Applying utilitarianism to such a scenario, one could argue that removing the life support system would be in accordance with the “Greatest Happiness Principle.” Euthanasia would be justified under this moral philosophy because it is an act that would remove pain from the patient who, on his own, could not continue living. The same conclusion would be had if the situation is observed from the viewpoint of the patient’s family and friends, whose suffering would not be needlessly prolonged by the sight of their ailing loved one.
Kantianism is an ethical philosophy put forward by 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (The Categorical Imperative, 2001). Kant, in his writings, presented a criterion of moral obligation that is a break away from the traditional moral philosophies of his time. Whereas traditional moral philosophies prior to his time focused on good character traits and the consequence of actions, Kant formulated one supreme principle of morality, which he called the categorical imperative. (The Categorical Imperative, 2001).
He belongs to the deontological tradition, which is believes in the ethical theory based on conformity to duty, rather than utility or practical bearing. It is thus clear that deontology is in direct opposition to utilitarianism or pragmatism. (Deontology, 2006).
Kant’s ethical theory provides for the categorical imperative, which is the ‘supreme principle of Morality’ on which moral actions are based. The categorical imperative is characterized by objectivity, reason and freedom of choice (The Categorical Imperative, 2001). In describing this standard, Kant stated , “So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings (Kant, 1886).” According to Kant, this standard is “the only possible standard of moral obligation (Kant, 1886).”
Under the categorical imperative, subjective considerations like emotions have no place; rather, morality is determined through rational considerations of necessity and obligation (The Categorical Imperative, 2001).
Kant realizes that human will could be influenced by positive and negative factors, but claims that the human will remains supreme. According to him, only rational considerations matter when deciding moral dilemmas (The Categorical Imperative, 2001).
Applying Kant’s moral philosophy on euthanasia, it could be argued that stripped of emotional underpinnings, reason would dictate the rule that a person wholly supporting on extraneous factors be relieved of his suffering, when all facts show no hope of recovery. Given such a situation, the general rule of removing life support systems would be wholly supported by reason.
Another ethical philosophy that could be used to justify euthanasia is egoism. This moral philosophy is grounded on the notion of “self-interest” or welfare (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002). This means that a person desires to promote his own welfare or interest in all his actions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002). Thus, this philosophy works in direct contradiction to the principle of altruism, which tend to minimize the maximization of one’s self-interest (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002).
Egoism obviously supports the concept of euthanasia, both from the point of view of the ill persona nd his friends and family. On the part of the former, it would be for his interest to remove all his sufferings in favor of non-being. On the other hand, the latter would benefit from the alleviation of worries and the deduction of expenses related to the hospitalization and medical support of the former.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Finally, another ethical philosophy that could support euthanasia is the one posited by Aristotle in his work entitled Nicomachean Ethics (Kilcullen, 1996). In this work, Aristotle expounded on the notion called virtue, which is is the determinant of a person’s or a thing’s nature or character (Kilcullen, 1996). Similar to the philosophy of Kant, Aristotle gives primacy to the notion of reason in determining or attaching moral value to any act or thought (Kilcullen, 1996).
Applying this philosophy to euthanasia, it could be argued that reason would support the removal of life support systems provided that the facts warrant the lack of hope for the recovery of the patient, because reason would recognize the futility of keeping support systes when there is no chance of recovery.
Deontology. (2006). Tiscali Encyclopaedia. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0023766.html
Kant, I. (1886). The Metaphysics of Ethics.
Kilcullen, R. J. (1996). Aristotle’s Ethics: Essay. Retrieved April 22 2007, from http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/y67s08.html
Merriam-Webster Online. Utilitarianism. Retrieved April 26, 2007.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2002). Egoism. Retrieved February 19, 2007, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egoism/
The Categorical Imperative. (2001). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/categorical-imperative.html