The question of the morality of Euthanasia plagues me. Any thoughts would be very welcome.
The fact of death itself is not a point of contention but the question of when we die is. War, disease, accidents, capital punishment or a myriad of other circumstances may end our life before its natural course has run. There are two issues that are more contentious than the others, Abortion and Euthanasia. I would like to look at the question of euthanasia from a Kantian viewpoint, as least as I understand it.
In order to see the question from the view of Kant we need to have some understanding of the man himself. “Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the first of the major philosophers of modern times to spend his life as a professional teacher of the subject”. (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p305) Kant formulated one of the great systems of ethics. “Kant’s moral philosophy is sometimes called formalism, because he was looking for moral principles that are inherently right or wrong apart from any particular circumstances” (Titus, H.H. p364). I believe that one cannot separate Kant’s views of morals from his religious beliefs. Indeed, faith is an integral part of Kant’s critical philosophy. His statement, “‘The things of the world must be viewed as if they received their existence from a highest intelligence.’ In Kant’s view such belief if indispensible to morality”. (Durant, p538-539) We must bear this in mind when we try to view the question of Euthanasia from a Kantian perspective.
First, let us define what euthanasia is and then determine where Kant’s views affect the morality of the action. Euthanasia is the practice of ending life painlessly and has different aspects. “ The three most important of these are the distinction between active and passive euthanasia, voluntary and involuntary euthanasia and assisted and unassisted euthanasia.” (Hinman, L.M. p102) However I will discount involuntary euthanasia as a legitimate form of euthanasia since I strongly feel that any involuntary taking of an innocent human life against their wishes or without their consent is tantamount to murder. Now, let us try to apply Kant’s sanctity of life position, that being defined as “A philosophical position holding that life is valuable in and of itself, and that circumstances have little to no effect upon one’s innate worth. From this it usually follows that it would be immoral to end one’s own life prematurely, and that life ought to be one of the highest values.” (I found this definition by accident on the web with no attribution. It does seem to conform to Kant’s thoughts but stated in modern language.) Kant’s own words dealing with suicide: ” ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…..He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as a means, but must in all his actions be considered as an end to himself.” (Kant, p272)
C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General, says “In regard to selective Euthanasia, we must be concerned with what the next step is likely to be. Societies always tend to expand the number of conditions and groups targeted for this ‘special treatment’ or ‘final solution’ and I agree with the concerns about the impact of medically sanction suicide on the poor and handicapped” (Bender & Leone, p23) Remember, the Nazi gas chambers were not first used on the Jews and other minorities but were used as part of the “medical treatment” for the mentally ill and disabled. The official position of the Catholic Church on euthanasia, the Declaration on Euthanasia, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, says in part “it is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care…” (McCuen & Boucher, p45) Remember, Kant had a religious view that was part of his ethics. Lastly let us consider this statement by Paul Jewell, presented in a paper to the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics. Mr. Jewell states, regarding Kant, “[the] one argument [which] holds that the sanctity of life is an axiom, is self-evident, and hence needs no further justification. Kant declared suicide as ‘wholly opposed to the supreme principle of all duty’. It should be noted, though, that the sanctity of life in this context does not mean the sanctity of all life, but rather the sanctity of human life. The necessity of preserving the life of, say, all plants is not being asserted, nor would it be possible. It follows, then, that there must be a relevant difference between human life and plant life. The difference, clearly, is that humans are capable of making decisions, of being self-determining, of practicing autonomy. It is this difference that makes the debate about euthanasia possible, indeed makes possible all ethical considerations, as Kant readily admits. Autonomous decision making is the very stuff of ethics.” (Jewell)
Can we reconcile these modern statements with the 17th century views of Immanuel Kant? I believe we can by examining the common threads that run through all of them. The first and prime thread is the sanctity of life, the fact that life should not and indeed cannot be valued in relation to the requirements or desires of a society. Even ones own life, in some sense, is not their own but a part of the human Gestalt. We can infer from Kant’s definitions that society does not have the right to require or permit the taking of ones life for the convenience of that person or society. The idea which I’m sure will be the most likely to receive criticism, is that the belief, expressed by Kant and others, that human life is a gift and must be considered sacred.
The question of whether euthanasia is ethical or not will be debated for some time to come. However, I believe that if we take Kant’s point of view we must conclude that it is unethical and its use strikes a blow to human dignity.
Bender, David, and Bruno Leone. Euthanasia: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995. 23. Print
Durant, W & A. Rousseau and Revolution. Vol. 10. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster,
1967. 538-39. 11 vols. Print
Edwards, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Reprint ed. Vol. 4. New York:
Macmillan Publishing, 1967. 305. 8 vols. Print.Hinman, Lawrence M. Contemporary Moral Issues. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 2006. 102. Print.
Jewell, Paul. Rationality, euthanasia, and the sanctity of life. Adelaide, Australia: Australian Association for Professional and Applie, 2005. Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics 12th Annual Conference. Web. 17 Feb. 2010. .
Kant, Immanuel. Kant; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Chicago, IL: Great Books, Britannica, 1952. 572. Print.
McCuen, Gary E., and Therese Boucher. Terminating Life: Conflicting Values in Health Care. Hudson, WI: GEM Publications, 1985. 45. Print.
Titus, Harold H. Living Issues inPhilosophy. 5th ed. New York: D. Van Nostand, 1970.