Euthanasia: Kantianism vs Utilitarianism
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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 people occurs when the person is dead. The reason being that the people who care for the person are both happy and unhappy regardless of whether the person is dead or alive, but the person will only be happy if he/she is dead. Therefore, since euthanasia meets the moral standards set by Utilitarianism, it would support the act of euthanasia as a morally sound action.
Unlike Utilitarianism however, Kantianism states that ethics is a purely a priori discipline, thus, independent of experience, and that ethical rules can only be found through pure reason. Also contrary to Utilitarianism, Kantianism asserts that the moral worth of an action should be judged on its motive and the action itself, and not on its consequences. Based on these ideas, Kantianism propose that an action is good only if it performed out a ‘good will’; which is the only thing that is good, in and of itself. To act out of a ‘good will’, one must act in accordance with a categorical imperative. According to Kant there is only one categorical imperative, which is to “act only on that maxim in which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 528); and can also be formulated as “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 532).
Essentially, the categorical imperative states that your actions must not result in a practical contradiction, which can be determined by conceptualizing all other people performing the same act. To illustrate, if I were to make a promise with no intentions of keeping it, and I imagine all other people doing the same, then very idea of a promise would cease to have meaning, and thus, my action would give rise to a practical contradiction, and consequently, be immoral. Finally, the categorical imperative is an unconditional ought, which means that an action must be performed solely out of duty to the categorical imperative, without any ulterior motive, in order for it to be a moral action.
Thus, with regard to euthanasia, Kantians would reject the act of euthanasia as a morally good action based on their reasoning that an action is good only if it acts in accordance with a categorical imperative. Taking the categorical imperative in terms of being able to act in ways that can, without contradiction, become a universal law, if one were to universalize killing another person – which is the fundamental act in euthanasia – this would result in a practical contradiction. That practical contradiction being if everyone were to kill one another, then there would be no people left in this world, and as a consequence, the very idea of murder would lose its meaning. Also, if one were to formulate the categorical imperative in terms of treating others (including oneself) as ends rather than means, euthanasia would violate the categorical imperative, in that the person is treated as a means by killing himself, to reach the end goal of eliminating the pain. Therefore, since euthanasia does not meet the moral standards set out by Kantianism, it would not support the act of euthanasia as a morally sound action.
However, as I stated in my thesis, I believe that Utilitarianism, and Kantianism do not provide an adequate resolution to the issue of euthanasia, because of the significant flaws in their reasoning. With Utilitarianism, the significant flaw in their position lies in the fact that it is built on the false assumption that the consequences of actions can be predicted, when in actuality they cannot. For example, it is possible that the person, who underwent euthanasia because of the pain he/she suffered, could’ve been misdiagnosed and fully recovered shortly after. Also, inspired by his/her new life, the individual went on to form a charity that raised money for research in pain treatment, thereby increasing the happiness for a great many. Thus, under the utilitarian system, keeping the person alive in this scenario would have been the morally justified act, whereas killing the person would not have been.
With Kantianism, the significant flaw in their position lies in the fact that they make an absolute, immutable statement – do not murder – without any consideration for the context in which murder takes place. It is unreasonable, and bordering on foolish, to claim to adequately resolve special cases of murder such as euthanasia through a simple, general statement without taking into consideration its context. Though it is indeed reasonable that deliberately killing another for the sake of harming them is an immoral act, in euthanasia, a person is killed by another only by their own consent, and for the most part, with a good motive. When a person is suffering tremendously and is most likely going to die anyways, it does not at all seem unreasonable to kill him. In fact, killing the person would seem to be the most humane act one can perform, and in not killing the person, and keeping him/her alive in such a state of pain and agony, would be like an indirect form of torture; which in Kantianism is not a moral act.
Thus, for these reasons, the positions of Utilitarianism and Kantianism on euthanasia are inadequate in resolving the issue of euthanasia, and euthanasia still remains as a significant social-ethical problem in our contemporary society.
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.