Euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide, is a controversial issue that divides people into its supporters and opponents based on their moral values, interpretation of human rights, or religious views. It is also a major ethical problem because the right to live is fundamental, and deprivation of life is considered a crime. However, the possibility of dignified death through the use of medical interventions, such as lethal injections, promises to end the suffering of terminally ill patients (Keown 1). Utilitarian and Kantian theories might interpret the role of euthanasia from philosophical and ethical positions and provide opposing views on the issue. The following essay will discuss the topic from the utilitarian and Kantian perspectives and defend the theory that can support physician-assisted suicide.
The utilitarian theory might be used to interpret the ethics of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. According to the utilitarianism theory, “the right action is the one that produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people,” and morality is tied to the consequences (Lawhead 421). Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher, formulated the main features of utilitarianism in an attempt to establish the scientific basis for the legal system and morality (Lawhead 466). Bentham recognized psychological hedonism (avoiding pain/obtaining pleasure) and developed the theory of ethical hedonism (Lawhead 466). John Stuart Mill accepted Bentham’s hedonism but translated it into a qualitative form, stating that pleasures differ in quality and that the pursuit of happiness is not the only human purpose. Moral commands have a purpose, and the utilitarian philosophers promote the idea that the end should justify the means (Lawhead 463). Individual interests are essential for moral decisions but should be balanced with the interests of others, which leads to different interpretations of the same situation under varying circumstances (Lawhead 422). It should be noted that regardless of moral evaluation, the basic and universal ethical principles remain obligatory.
Considering the utilitarian approach to consequences, it might be assumed that the theorists would defend the use of euthanasia. The philosophers might raise the question of whether the end of the person’s life will bring positive outcomes for others. If the benefits for a large group of people outweigh the moral consequences of a suicide/killing, then the action is justified and permissible. For example, death will relieve the patient’s suffering caused by unbearable pain, while the family will not witness his/her struggle and experience the financial burden of medical expenses. Moreover, the research by Banovic et al. suggests that 35,2% of physicians view active euthanasia as ethically acceptable, and 10,2% consider the procedure in some cases (173). Patients experiencing unmanageable chronic pain attempt suicide in 5% to 14% of cases, which makes euthanasia more viable in comparison to unassisted suicide (Pergolizzi et al. 1). Therefore, euthanasia happens in its active or passive form and serves as an alternative for unassisted suicide, which would allow theorists to defend it by recognizing the distribution of happiness and utility of the procedure.
The ethical theory of Immanuel Kant radically opposes the position promoted by the utilitarian philosophers. Kantian ethics is the most common and influential deontological theory based on the concept of absolute moral duties, which cannot be influenced by the consequences (Lawhead 422). Kant’s philosophy prioritizes the moral law that should guide people’s actions and “emphasizes absolute duties, motives, the dignity, and the worth of persons” (Lawhead 482). The ethical theory contains some elements of the Christian tradition, but Kant claims that even unreligious people have the innate ability to recognize moral perfection (Lawhead 482). The rationalism of Kantian ethics suggests that moral principles cannot be learned from experience and originate in the mind. Good will is an absolute moral value and a motivating force that demands a person to respect one’s moral duty and the moral law. Thus, the type of action explains whether it is inherently right or wrong, and the good action does not necessarily produce favorable outcomes.
The Kantian theorists would respond to the ethical issue of euthanasia differently from the utilitarian philosophers. Kant would classify physician-assisted suicide as murder due to the nature of the action, regardless of its positive consequences for the patient or the family. Kantian philosophy mentions that people do not have control over emotions, and an attempt to make others happy or satisfied by killing a terminally ill person out of sympathy is not morally justified (Lawhead 487). Any action that is done from duty, not a purpose, “for the sake of the moral law,” derives moral worth (Lawhead 488). Furthermore, according to Kantian ethics, “it is a duty to maintain one’s life,” which means that euthanasia is a suicide and a morally wrong procedure (Lawhead 486). Thus, true moral worth requires people to act according to their duties, not inclinations. Notably, if euthanasia is legal and it is a professional duty of a doctor to end a patient’s life, then the conflict of duties emerges, and the action might have moral worth.
Supportive Arguments for the Utilitarian Theory
I personally agree with the utilitarian theory because it provides flexibility and freedom to select appropriate options depending on the circumstances. Euthanasia is a debated issue because health conditions involving chronic pain require family and medical personnel to respect the patient’s will even if it involves suicide. Based on ethical hedonism, the consequences of maintaining the life of a terminally ill patient will involve a significant amount of pain and eventual death, which makes physician-assisted suicide permissible. In contrast, the Kantian pursuit of absolute moral worth can only exacerbate the person’s suffering and limit his/her right to a dignified death instead of unassisted suicide. Therefore, I believe that the utilitarian doctrine is appropriate for supporting the issue of euthanasia use because it prioritizes human happiness and well-being over the moral wrongness of physician-assisted suicide.
The topic of euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide, can be viewed through the lens of the utilitarian and the Kantian theories. The principle of utility relies on the link between value and happiness. The utilitarian approach established by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill addresses the ethical problem by addressing the consequences of the procedure and the circumstances. The deontological theory offered by Immanuel Kant prioritizes the moral law and associated moral duties but ignores the situation and the consequences. The analysis of both theories and arguments allows me to conclude that utilitarianism provides more freedom and flexibility regarding the use of euthanasia in comparison with the Kantian philosophy focusing on absolute moral duty. The utilitarian doctrine might support the option of dignified death because the high rates of attempted suicide among chronic pain patients suggest the significant amount of suffering for terminally ill people and their families.
Banovic, Bozidar, et al. “An Ethical Review of Euthanasia and Physician-assisted Suicide.” Iranian Journal of Public Health, vol. 46, no. 2, 2017, pp. 173–179.
Keown, John. Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy: An Argument Against Legalisation. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Lawhead, William. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. 7th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2019.
Pergolizzi, Joseph, et al. “The Risk of Suicide in Chronic Pain Patients.” Nursing and Palliative Care, vol. 3, no. 3, 2018, pp. 1–11.