Two hundred years ago, to question the absolute worth of human life was an unforgivable offense. Individuals, who attempted to suicide, were often punished in courts, and even sent to work camps. Those who were successful were often buried with stakes in their hearts, and the state confiscated their property rather than dispersing it to their relatives. If taking one’s own life were so serious, asking a doctor to help one commit suicide would have been unthinkable. Although our society is certainly more liberal today, physician assisted suicide remains a perplexing question, both legally and morally. In this paper, I will argue for the moral permissibility of euthanasia. First, I will deal with the moral permissibility of assisted suicide as a principle, and then I shall explore the distinction between active and passive euthanasia. Finally, I will conclude with a short discussion of the legality of assisted suicide. In the interests of brevity, I shall consider voluntary euthanasia only for individuals who are terminally ill and suffering from unmanageable pain. All arguments will be evaluated from a utilitarian and deontological perspective.
The first argument for euthanasia is a utilitarian one. “Actions,” according to the utilitarian John Stuart Mill, “are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce pain or the reverse of happiness.” If we were to apply a hedonistic calculus to the case of a terminally ill patient suffering from severe, untreatable pain, we would see that the happiness is maximized and pain minimized by euthanasia. The sort of pain caused by an advanced, terminal illness would clearly score a negative value, perhaps a negative seven. The level of pain and the progression of the disease would also render the person unable to enjoy the activities that made his life pleasurable, so there could be no higher intellectual or emotional pleasures to balance the physical pain. At best, the person continues to suffer at the negative seven; if his illness has not reached its climax, his suffering may increase. In contrast, his death will create a value of zero, and thus misery is reduced. Moreover, his family and friends will be spared the pain of watching him suffer through a prolonged illness. Hospital space and resources will be free for patients with more treatable conditions. (Lest such concerns sound callous, it is important to recognize that utilitarianism requires us to evaluate all possible effects and how they would contribute to or detract from everyone’s happiness.)
Furthermore, in the case of voluntary euthanasia, traditional utilitarian justifications against killing do not apply. As Singer rightfully points out, the reason that randomly killing innocent people is morally wrong for a rule utilitarian is that people would suffer considerable anxiety from knowing that their life could be terminated at any point in time. Euthanasia, however, is not an arbitrary action but one, which occurs only at the request of a suffering patient. Thus, no one would live in fear that their lives would be taken from them.
Finally, to satisfactorily evaluate assisted suicide from a utilitarian perspective, one must consider the objection that perhaps a sudden cure for an individual’s illness could be discovered. That this possibility does indeed exist is not a viable reason for dismissing euthanasia. Firstly, Mill acknowledges that we cannot always know with certainty the outcome of our actions, and thus we must instead look at the probability of each potential outcome. Medical science, today, is a detailed, painstaking process, which is not given to the discovery of unexpected cures. Specialists could reasonably know when a cure was in development and when a promising new drug would arrive on the market. That the cure for one particular person’s particular illness would be discovered within the few additional months, which he would have lived, is...