Euthanasia: Kantianism vs Utilitarianism

Topics: Morality, Immanuel Kant, Ethics Pages: 5 (1611 words) Published: April 9, 2004
The deliberate act of ending another's life, given his or her consent, is formally referred to as euthanasia. At present, euthanasia is one of the most controversial social-ethical issues that we face, in that it deals with a sensitive subject matter where there is much uncertainty as to what position one ought to take. Deliberately killing another person is presumed by most rational people as a fundamental evil act. However, when that person gives his or her consent to do so, this seems to give rise to an exceptional case. This can be illustrated in the most common case of euthanasia, where the person who is willing to die suffers from an illness that causes great pain, and will result in his or her demise in the not-so-distant future. In this case, killing the person would seem to be the most humane and reasonable thing to do, whereas keeping the person alive would be akin to torture; which is also presumed to be a fundamental evil act. But euthanasia, in essence, is murder, and this might lead one to ask whether there can ever be an exception to murder? And if one were to make an exception in this case, what would then prevent us from making exceptions in other cases? In the worst case scenario, would this not leave an opening for cold-blooded murders to kill people without their consent, and make false claims that they did have their consent?

There are a variety of positions, based on the numerous ethical theories that have been developed, that one can take in order to resolve the issue of euthanasia; but the positions I will be looking at in particular, are the positions based on John Stuart Mill's 'Utilitarianism' ethical theory, and Immanuel Kant's 'Categorical Imperative' ethical theory. According to Utilitarianism, euthanasia can be morally justified, whereas according to Kantianism, euthanasia is not morally justifiable; but I will argue that neither position provides an adequate resolution to the issue, due to the significant flaws that are inherent in the reasoning that led to their particular positions.

According to Utilitarianism, ethics is primarily an empirical science; essentially implying that the moral standard must be based on human experiences, and not abstract principles that are largely impractical. Hence, based on an understanding of human experience Utilitarianism proposes that the ultimate end of every human action is simply pleasure, and the absence of pain. This fundamental idea then forms the basis for Utilitarianism's Greatest Happiness Principle which states, "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure" (Mill, 7). Also, Utilitarianism asserts that actions are judged as moral solely based on their consequences, and not on their motives. So, if a person acts out of good intentions, but does not produce beneficial results, then his action does not qualify as a moral action. Finally, Utilitarianism asserts that an action is good only if it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, an action that slightly increases your own pleasure, but in turn, dramatically decreases the pleasure of other, according to Utilitarianism is not moral action.

Thus, in the context of the case mentioned in the introduction, the Utilitarian position on euthanasia would go something as follows: With respect to the individual who is willing to die, he/she would simply be happiest dead, and unhappiest alive. With respect to the people who care for the individual, they would be happy that he/she is alive, but unhappy at the same time because he/she is in great pain; or if the individual underwent euthanasia, happy because he/she is no longer in pain, but unhappy because he/she is dead. So, in applying the Utilitarian principle to this case, the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of...

Cited: Mill, J.S. (1984). Excerpts from Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, 1, 4-42. London: Dent.
Kant, I. (1956). Excerpts from Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton, 61-62, 64-67, 74, 80-92, 95-107. London: Unwin Hyman. Reprinted in E. Sober, Core Question in Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 520-540. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001.
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