In philosophy there are a wide range of different ethical positions. Many of these might influence what someone believes about a moral issue. One moral issue is euthanasia; it has been labelled a moral issue as it is concerned with what we ought to do i.e. right and wrong concepts that form the basis of ethics. Euthanasia is also a controversial issue as it is a matter of life and death. Death is one of the primary concerns of most individuals and cultures and therefore anything that brings about death will always be contentious.
The first question that arises is what is a good moral choice? How can we determine what good is when there are many differing opinions? Is an action good if the nature or intentions of the action are considered good? Or is it the consequences of the action that determine the goodness of the action?
Many different philosophers have suggested that there are certain ways of determining whether something is right or wrong. Immanuel Kant produced a deontological theory known as Kantian Ethics as his way of deducing right from wrong. A very different approach to this was Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s teleological theory of Utilitarianism. Both theories are very different from each other and are unlikely to reach the same conclusions when applied to a moral dilemma because they differ strongly on the philosophical principles which they are based. There is one clear difference between the two theories and this is what they base morality on. Kant didn’t agree with what he’d heard of Utilitarianism, and thought that morality rarely has anything to with happiness. Kant believed that ordinary people are to believe that morality is essentially about sticking to a set of compulsory rules. Kant wanted to give this belief philosophical justification.
In the case of the Utilitarian the action is decided upon what the consequences would be whereas the Kantian would consider the nature of the actions and the will of the agents. For Kant good is the good will, seeking what your duty is. For a Utilitarian good is pleasure, seeking what will cause happiness. Kantian ethics is therefore concerned with duty and takes justice into account, while Utilitarianism is concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number and does not include justice.
How do these theories work out when applied to a moral dilemma? Firstly what is a moral dilemma? A moral dilemma involves a vital and involves complex choices for the persons involved. The issue is usually debatable and therefore creates many challenges. We are confronted with a right action and a wrong action. A judgment will inevitably have to be made and this therefore causes conflict between different views. Euthanasia is one such dilemma. Supporters of euthanasia believe that a dying patient has the right to end their suffering and leave the world in a dignified manner. Those who oppose euthanasia, on the other hand, believe that no one has the right to end the life of another person no matter what pain they may endure.
The word euthanasia originates from the Greek word ‘euthantos’ meaning a good death and referred to intentional mercy killings. In society today euthanasia has acquired a more complex meaning. There are various types of euthanasia; usually it is when one person does something that directly ends the life of another for example giving a lethal injection. In assisted suicide the provisions of means and the opportunity whereby a patient may terminate their own life. Passive euthanasia is the termination of treatment which is prolonging the patient’s life for example stopping a life support machine. Passive euthanasia is usually carried out on people in a persistent vegetative state and those who are terminally ill, to allow a natural death to occur earlier.
Therefore pain becomes a factor that can influence someone’s decision. Sometimes a patient’s pain can cause an unbearable burden; death can represent a relief from agonizing pain. Many patients feel that their quality of life has diminished, as they are being treated like infants, this may cause them to wish to die. Others simply want to die with dignity.
The ethical issue of euthanasia involves whether it is permissible for a third party, such as a physician to end the life of a suffering person. In assisted suicide the physician and the patient must share the same view that death is preferable to continued existence. This is where the moral dilemma is created. Such judgements are not medical ones. To conclude that another person’s life is not worth living requires that the medical practitioner becomes more than a medical expert.
The role of a doctor is traditionally seen as the healer and advocate in the life of the patient. The doctor has been trained in the medical profession to treat disease and relieve pain. A Hippocratic Oath must be taken stating that they will not give a deadly drug if asked for one.
What decision would Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics decide upon when applied to the moral issue off euthanasia? Firstly I want to consider three very different case studies.
Euthanasia does not only occur for individuals who feel that they are no longer able to make rational decisions, they may feel that they are somebody else, but there are cases of individuals who are terminally ill, but yet still fully competent, deciding that they wish to terminate their life. Sue Rodriguez is one such case. She was a rational, competent adult patient but chose to die. Sue Rodriguez knew her own mind and had an impressive reason for wishing to end her life. A very different case to this is that of Karen Ann Quinlan. In 1975 Karen Ann Quinlan, for unknown reasons ceased breathing for several minutes. After being taken to hospital she was described as being in a chronic persistent vegetative state and it was later revealed that no treatment could restore her to cognitive life. The only thing that was keeping her alive was a respirator. The Supreme Court in New Jersey appointed her father her legal guardian and requested the respirator be turned off. Karen Ann Quinlan remained in a coma for a further ten years until she died naturally.
The final case study is that of Tracy Latimer. Tracy Latimer was clearly someone else to her father. Her father decided to end the life of his daughter as Tracy was clearly in no state to make a decision. Would Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics agree with the actions that were taken in each of the case studies?
In regard to Euthanasia, a Utilitarian would ask whether the action produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham was convinced that pain and suffering was an essential factor for a moral universe. Bentham believed that it was pain and suffering that gave you moral rights.
Mill however chose to respond to the problem of how we are supposed to make moral decisions. Mill believed that rules could be developed from the Principle of Utility.