Active and Passive Euthanasia
Euthanasia is the termination of a terminally ill person’s life in order to relieve patients of their severe and untreatable pain. It is further broken down into two types: active and passive. In this paper, I will be focusing on active euthanasia and will argue that it is morally justifiable for a physician to alleviate agony for a patient and their family via direct action. Active euthanasia is morally permissible when a patient explicitly states their consent due to the fact that prolonging their death would cause more suffering and pain. To deny a suffering patient their wishes would be forcing them to further endure physical and emotional misery, which is inhumane according to utilitarianism.
Reason One: The utilitarianism moral theory states that when faced with conflicting moral decisions, the best course of action is the one that maximizes happiness for the greatest amount of people. While it technically applies to both forms of euthanasia in that both forms reduce pain, I will be focusing on arguing active because under utilitarianism, you are required to do what maximizes the reduction of suffering, which active does more efficiently. Passive euthanasia still has situations where the patient experiences prolonged suffering despite the fact that they are allowed to eventually pass, demonstrating that active euthanasia would be a better alternative. John Stuart Mill asserts that basis of the theory is that, pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends (Mill 119). Active euthanasia provides a means for a patient and their family to have freedom from pain, proving that is it is the right course of action. Inevitably, the wish for active euthanasia would have to be carefully considered and meet several criteria in order to be acted upon. For example, the patient would need to be terminally ill to the point where further treatment would not help and they would need to be mentally competent to comprehend when consenting. However, in certain instances when the brain is compromised because patient is brain dead, the family should be able to decide since they are essentially dead but stuck in a miserable state, leaving their loved ones with no closure. A common argument is that if a person chooses to end their life, their families will have to deal with the pain of losing somebody they love. However, if the individual has reached the point where they have decided they desire active euthanasia, it is assumed that they are at the point of debilitation and unbearable pain due to a terminal illness. This would mean that the family would be witnessing this, which does not promote happiness for any party involved. Yes, the passing of the individual would cause unhappiness amongst loved ones for a specific amount of time, but at least they have the satisfaction of knowing that they are released from unnecessary suffering. This would lead to happiness for the family, and ultimately happiness for the patient if the patient knows that they no longer have to point their family through this hardship. Yes, if a family is unhappy just for one person’s happiness it would not be permissible. However, according to rule utilitarianism, as a general rule, it would be better to allow active euthanasia than not. It is not about a specific situation, it is about ensuring the maximum utility. If you generally follow the rule of allowing for patients to be relieved of pain, it will lead to the maximum reduction of suffering for the patients.
Reason two: The second reason that I will use to defend active euthanasia is one employed by James Rachels. A common argument against active euthanasia is that it is morally akin to murder, and murder is considered a great evil. If a doctor actively injects something into a patient that leads to their death, they are killing them and committing an immoral act. Rachels opposes this argument by stating that if a patient has already decided that they desire active euthanasia, it has also been decided that in this instance death is no greater an evil than the patient’s continued existence (Rachels). If a patient is incapable of being able to do everyday tasks without a great amount of effort and difficulty and/or feeling any type of pleasure or happiness, death can no longer be seen as an evil.
Another reason that killing is deemed as immoral is because it deprives a person of a future. However, in the case of active euthanasia, the patient essentially feels as if they have no valuable future if they cannot do anything without suffering. Another major component is motive. When a person is killed against their own will, the motive is immoral. The murderer is killing because of their own personal gain, and using the other person as a mere means to an end. In regards to active euthanasia, the motive is entirely different. The doctor has consent from the patient, and the patient is aware of what is going to happen to them. They are not involuntarily being deprived of a future. It was their decision, which invalidates the sentiment that killing is immoral.
Objection: The primary objection to active euthanasia is Immanuel Kant’s moral theory. Kantianism judges morality of an action based on rules and is grounded in pure reason. According to this theory, right actions do not depend on consequences and have no exceptions. Kant says that the only correct actions, are those that can serve as universal laws because they are applicable without exception to every person at any time (Kant 102). When applied to active euthanasia, Kantianism would argue that it is immoral because under the categorical imperative, allowing for the ending of a person’s life would make murder okay in all circumstances. Allowing for murder to be okay in this case means that it would have to be okay in every single case. The maxim would be that ending somebody else’s life is morally permissible and if universalized, everyone can end another person’s life.
Response to Objection: Kantianism’s rigidness and failure to look at exceptions can be seen as a major weakness of the moral theory, especially in regards to something like active euthanasia. To simply disregard special circumstances such as when a person would be more in pain alive than dead is inhumane in itself. Morality should not merely be grounded in impartial reason, morality should also take aspects such as emotions and personal relationships into consideration. The consequences in this instance outweighs your moral duty not to kill. Not only does the family and the patient have to suffer through the intolerable pain, but they could also have to deal with economic hardships as the costs of the care would continue to increase. Completely disregarding human emotion is impractical in cases such as these. Keeping people alive when they physically cannot survive it can be seen as an indirect form of torture, and if made a universal maxim, would be immoral.
Conclusion: Active euthanasia is a tricky argument to settle, however on the basis of a person’s rights to their and a good quality of life, allowing them to peacefully pass as they wish should be considered as morally acceptable. A patient’s pain can be unrelenting to the point that it overpowers their ability to think of anything else. If the rest of their life would consist of nothing but excruciating physical and emotional suffering to them and their loved ones, then to them, death would be a welcomed release.