A brief discussion into the ethics of assisted suicide
Throughout the course of this essay I draw on Susan Wolf’s experience of her father’s death to discuss the moral implications of assisted suicide. Initially comparing the choices made by her and her father to that of the principles of Utility produced by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and further expanded on by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) to assist in assessing those choices as moral calculations. I then expand on this briefly discussing autonomy and right to life before discussing Immanuel Kant’s (1780) ideas on moral duties and maxims.
I then conclude with my own ideas of quality of life, discussing the idea that life is the property of man and to do with what they wish.
In chapter 2 of Traditional Theories of Ethics in A Concise Introduction to Philosophy, Susan Wolf writes about the death of her father and the days and choices leading up to it. Both Susan and her father’s position is quite clear at the onset; they both oppose the idea of euthanasia as an option for terminal patients, not out of religious beliefs, quite the opposite. Susan’s father argues that because he believes there is no afterlife every second alive is important, so he wants to hang on to every minute he has left and will do anything to do so (Wolf 2008 P172).
“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”
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)
So initially I agreed with this argument as a rational, logical conclusion. Upon reviewing with the theory of utility it holds up quite well, since being alive makes him and his family happy, having more time is a utilitarian good, but as time passes he realises that his situation is actually a burden to his family, it is damaging emotionally for his family to have to sit back and watch him deteriorate. This with the combined lack of support from the hospital seems to be the cornerstone of his decision to die. There seems to be nothing the hospital can do and they just want to get rid of him as there is no treatment for dying (Wolf 2008 p173).
So he changes his mind but this still fits with Mill’s utilitarianism as his death although it will bring sadness to his family it will release him from his suffering and his family from the emotional burden of his deterioration. Although he has changed his mind from his original stand point it is still a decision rooted in logic, a moral calculation, and I fully support that.
“The principle of autonomy holds that people are entitled to be the architects, as much as possible, of how they die. The principle of mercy requires that pain and suffering be relieved to the extent possible.”
Susan Wolf (2008)
These two theories both support Assisted Suicide, and I agree with them, in some respects the only thing we ever have as living beings is our lives and it should be ours to do with as we wish, no law or god should have any say in that.
The arguments that counters this is of course that of the religious ideas of the sanctity of life, the idea that all life is sacred, a gift from god and should not be wasted but this holds little or no consequence in real life, although the idea of religion to someone lying in a hospital may be comforting it does little to dull the pain of dying. (Wolf 2008 p. 175)
“I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”
Immanuel Kant (1780)
Another argument is that of its ability to be abused. This is the idea that people are being euthanized without consent. In Netherlands there were found to be many cases like this to which the counter argument is one explaining the relationship between Dutch doctors and patients are more intimate. The doctors understand the patient so well that they know what they want almost before they do, it’s as if in the Netherlands the important thing is what the doctor thinks is the best course of action, which in some cases appears to be euthanasia. This in theory sounds almost plausible but at the same time mirrors that of a veterinary surgery. You can see the implications if this became a universal law. Although Kant was obviously against killing saved for the killing of killers as it conflicted with moral duties, what is more important is the intention of the person who commits the act and in the case of euthanasia it should be to ease the suffering of the person dying (Wolf 2008 p. 176).
In the conclusion of Wolf’s discussion of her father’s death, when confronted with the term; “Death with Dignity” she asks; “Why does suicide endow a death with dignity? Does dignity depend upon control?” In Japanese culture; suicide is seen as a way to return lost honor, to die with dignity. Although this isn’t necessarily relevant today or to western culture, it resolves to point out that the stigma surrounding suicide is simply a cultural or religious phenomenon. This is an issue of quality of life and I think that should extend to quality of death. Throughout your entire life you make all your own decisions, why should this not encompass how you die? I think at the end of ones life a dignified death is the least you can ask for.
Kant, I. (1780) “Preface”. In The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics. Translated by Thomas
Kingsmill Abbott, Retrieved; http://philosophy.eserver.org/kant/metaphys-elements-of-ethics.txt
Mill, J. S. (2002). Utilitarianism and On Liberty. UK: John Wiley and Sons Ltd
Quill, T. E. & Wolf, S. Physician-Assisted Death in the United States: Are the Existing “Last
Resorts” Enough? Hastings centre rep. Sept.-Oct. 2008, at 17. Issues in Law & Medicine, Volume 24, Number 2, p. 171-176