Ethics in Practice – Case Study Analysis
Peter, a 32 year old, suffered horrific injuries as the result of the collapse of a bridge over which he was driving his car. He has been classified as being in a persistent vegetative state for the past five years.
Although Peter’s brain stem is still
functioning, his heart is beating and he can breathe spontaneously, he is dependent on oral feeding for the continuation of his life. The doctors in charge of his case have come to the decision that Peter’s life is no longer of value to him and have requested that they be allowed to withdraw his food supply. It is legal for doctors to withdraw medical support, however, feeding a patient is regarded as part of palliative care and not a medical treatment. Peter’s parents have taken the case to court in order to prevent his doctors from withdrawing his feeding tubes. What decision would you advise the judges to make in this case?
The debate over whether to withdraw Peter’s food supply in the above case arises from the conflicting values of his parents and his doctors. Peter’s perspective is central to evaluating the case; the withdrawal of his feeding tubes violates his right to life. The constraint of Peter’s role is that being in a persistent vegetative state, he is unable to exercise his autonomy and indicate what value he believes should be placed on his life.
As Peter is unable to express his judgement, and we don’t know if he has expressed an opinion prior to this event, his parents take on the role of representing his interests. His parents are required to use their knowledge of Peter’s values to decide his best interests1. Their decision that Peter’s life should be prolonged can be argued for using Utilitarianism, Deontology, and virtue ethics.
In a general sense, Utilitarianism
prevents the ending of human life if so doing fails to optimise the goods the position holds to be valuable. If one takes Peter’s loved ones to be the applicable society, and the valued goods to be continuation of hope, or prevention of grief, then such a moral 1
Brock, Dan W., ‘Life-Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia: Ethical Aspects’, in Stephen G. Post (ed.), Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004), Vol. 3, p. 1412
theory would prohibit the withdrawal of his feeding tubes. In terms of Aristotelian ethics, the determination to sustain Peter’s life entails virtues of courage, loyalty and caring, thus this moral theory can support his parents’ decision.
Morality as right acts and intentions can also support this decision. Deontology leads to a fundamental moral duty not to deliberately end an innocent human’s life, a duty to respect the intrinsic value of human life. This duty follows from Kant’s practical imperative that humans must always be treated as means in themselves, never as ends alone. The intrinsic value of human life is also supported by the concept that a right to life is the foundation of all other rights. Rights and duties are complementary within deontology as our being dutiful upholds the rights of others, and our rights result from others’ performance of their duty. Humans have a right not to be killed, as so doing denies them their future. Peter’s parents’ decision upholds their duty to respect the intrinsic value of human life, and upholds Peter’s right not to be killed. The stance the Peter’s parents take can be defended by all of the moral theories outlined, especially if we know that Peter is not in pain.
The position that Peter’s doctors have taken on can also be argued for through all of these moral theories. His doctors are able to draw on their experience as well as their knowledge and training to assess Peter’s case. Their perspective is in keeping with Aristotelian ethics as the virtues of judgement and resoluteness are employed. Importantly, his doctors use phronesis, practical wisdom, which is a central value in Aristotle’s account2. The...
Bibliography: Penguin Books, 1976)
Brock, Dan W., ‘Life-Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia: Ethical Aspects’, in
Stephen G. Post (ed.), Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan
Reference, 2004), Vol
Contemporary Moral Issues: Diversity and Consensus, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Person/Prentice Hall, 2006), pp
Walker, Margaret Urban, ‘What does the Different Voice Say? Gilligan’s Women and
Moral Philosophy’, in Moral Contexts (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003,
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