PAPER TOPIC IV
Active v. Passive Euthanasia
Active vs. Passive Euthanasia:
Is There a Moral Difference?
James Rachels' Argument
"Killing is not in itself any worse than letting die;
in The New England Journal of Medicine
if my contention is right, it follows that active
euthanasia is not any worse than passive euthanasia."
- James Rachels, New England Journal of Medicine
Consider the following true story:
Matthew Donnelly was a physicist who had worked with X-rays for thirty years. Perhaps as a result of too much exposure, he contracted cancer and lost part of his jaw, his upper lip, his nose, and his left hand, as well as two fingers from his right hand. He was also left blind. Mr. Donnelly's physicians told him that he had about a year left to live, but he decided that he did not want to go on living in such a state. He was in constant pain - one writer said that "at its worst, he could be seen lying in bed with teeth clinched and beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead." Knowing that he was going to die eventually anyway, and wanting to escape his misery, Mr. Donnelly begged his three brothers to kill him. Two refused, but one did not. The youngest brother, 36-year-old Harold Donnelly, carried a .30 caliber pistol into the hospital and shot Matthew to death.
Many believe that what Harold did was wrong. What do you think? Do you agree? If so, on what moral grounds? If not, why not? What's the moral argument?
In the situation described above Harold could have let his brother die. As the doctors said his brother Matthew had about a year to live. Harold, however, chose not to wait. He shot and killed his brother. Was his decision justified?
On the basis of what fundamental moral principle might Harold's decision be justified or not? Some would argue that the principle which states that "each and every human life is precious, valuable and uniquely sacred" shows that Harold's decision was not justified: The intentional, deliberate killing of an innocent human being is always wrong.
What do you think? Do you agree?
Some believe there is an important distinction to be made between killing and letting die and that Harold, in acting as he did, failed to honor this distinction.
The Solicitor General of the United States, for an example, argued before the United States Supreme Court in the Nancy Cruzan case in 1984 "though government may not prevent a doctor from discontinuing life support if the patient insists, it may absolutely prevent him, in any and all circumstances, from prescribing lethal pills the patient requests, because in the former situation the doctor only omits to take action that could save life while in the latter he positively contributes to causing death."
And the American Medical Association has gone on record, stating that "the intentional termination of the life of one human being by another" is "contrary" to the policy of the AMA.
This, of course, is exactly what Harold did. He intentionally terminated the life of his brother by shooting him.
James Rachels, however, in his article in the reading for the course, pp. 650-53 on "Active and Passive Euthanasia," originally published in The New England Journal of Medicine (1975), is of the opinion that "killing is not in itself any worse than letting die" and he goes on to argue that "if [his] contention is right, it follows that active euthanasia is not any worse than passive euthanasia."
No worse? Really?
Drawing on the reading and your own sound reasoning and good judgment, make a case for or against James Rachels' argument in his NEJM article reprinted in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 650-53 and in a PDF FILE online that there is no morally relevant difference between killing and letting die, hence no morally relevant difference between active and passive euthanasia.
In giving your answer recall some of the cases we have already discussed - at least to some extent - in class. Here I am thinking about the handouts on "Baby Theresa" , "John on a Botany Expedition in the Amazon" and Michael Levin's "The Case for Torture", and Peter Singer's "The Shallow Pond and Envelope Cases" as well as "The Trolley Problem Case" and "John: The Mad Transplant Doctor" and "John and Alice in Sumatra" to choose seven examples that we discussed in class.
What is your view of some or any of these cases and Harold Donnelly's Decision. Do any of the cases help you to understand Harold's decision or serve as model for the sorts of moral considerations that might be relevant in Harold's case?
What principle best captures your judgment of how these cases should be decided, think of several strong objections to your arguments and your defense of principle, and respond to them.
Judith Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" [Brandeis Access Only] and Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral" [Brandeis Access Only] may help provide some insight into how philosophers argue for and against contemporary moral issues. Or you may find the different positions taken by Onora O'Neill in her "Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems" and by Peter Singer in his Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality" [Brandeis Access Only] provides some insight into how philosophers apply diffferent moral theories to moral problems.
You may wish to take a peek, too, at John Harris' Survival Lottery in the main text for the course, pp. 645-49 since the Survival Lottery appears to raise some of the same concerns raised by Harold's decision to kill his brother.
In defending your position, offer what you believe are the most principled arguments you can make. In thinking of objections to your opinion, think of the best possible objections that someone on the other side might be able to come up with, i.e., give yourself a hard time.
If you can respond to the other side at its strongest rather than at its weakest point, that can only help to strengthen your own opinion and make it that much more persuasive.
GUIDES TO READING AND WRITING PHILOSOPHY
READING: PART FOUR
WHY BE MORAL?
- Joel Feinberg, "Psychological Egoism"
- James Rachels, "Ethical Egoism"
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 476-495.
- Russ Shafer Landau, "Ethical Subjectivism"
the complete text of Shafer-Landau's article can also be
found ONLINE on Shafer-Landau's Home Page.
- Mary Midgley, "Trying Out One's New Sword"
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 476-495. For a brief overview of psychological egoism and ethical
egoism, see Russ Shafer Landau's entries on
and "Ethical Egoism"
in the Stanford Encyclopedia and Chris Gowans' entry
for an overview on "Moral Relativism"
UTILITARIANISM: FOR AND AGAINST
- "John in the Amazon"
Class Handout and ONLINE
- Michael Levin , "The Case for Torture"
Class Handout and ONLINE
- "The Case of the Speluncaean Explorers"
Class Handout and ONLINE
- John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) , Utilitarianism, Chapters One and Two in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 594-607
Full text of Mill's Utilitarianism Online.
For an Overview of Utilitarianism see Walter Sinot-Armstrong's entry on "Consequentialism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and for an
Overview of John Stuart Mill's special brand of utilitarianism,
see Fred Wilson's entry on Mill's "Moral Philosophy"
also in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) , The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 579-593
Full text of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Online. And for an
Overview of Kant's Theory of Morality, see Richard Johnson's entry on "Kant's Moral Philosophy" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
DOES MORALITY DEPEND ON RELIGION?
- Philip L. Quinn , "God and Morality"
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 564-579
For an Overview and Critique of Quinn's divine command theory of morality, see the entry on "The Dviine Command Theory of Morality" in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Aristotle (384-322 BCE) , Nichomachean Ethics
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 525-541
Full text of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics Online. and
for an Overview of virtue theories, see Rosalind Hursthouse's entry on "Virtue Ethics" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
THE IDEA OF A SOCIAL CONTRACT
- Thomas Hobbes(1588-1679) , The Leviathan (selections) in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 541-554
Full text of Hobbes' Leviathan Online and for an
Overview of Hobbes' view, see Sharon Lloyd's entry on "Hobbes's Moral and Political Philosophy" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- "A Prisoner's Dilemma" (Class Handout) see, too, the Interactive Version of The Prisoner's Dilemma Online on the BBC's Web Site. [Shockwave Required]
- John Rawls (1921-2003) , A Theory of Justice (selections)
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 554-564 see also
John Rawls's article "Justice as Fariness" [Brandeis Access Only] which lays out an early version of the theory and for an
Overview of more recent social contract theories, see Fred D'Agostino's entry on "Contemporary Approaches to Social Contract Theory" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
APPLIED AND PRACTICAL ETHICS
(a) World Hunger and Famine Relief
- Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence and Morality" in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 631-639
Full text of Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality" [Brandeis Access Only]
Originally published in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 76, No. 4. (Oct., 1967), pp. 460-475. See also a further discussion: "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" is available Online
Originally published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (September 5, 1999)..
- Onora O'Neill , "Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems"
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 639-645 see, too, the STUDY GUIDE online for THE FINAL EXAM for the Intro class taught at Harvard University in the Summer.
(b) Abortion For and Against
- Judith Thomson, " In Defense of Abortion," in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 667-677 and also in
Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Autumn, 1971)
ONLINE: CLICK HERE [Brandeis Access Only]
- Don Marquis , "The Argument That Abortion is Wrong" in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 677-687
Full text of Marquis's article"Why Abortion Is Immoral" [Brandeis Access Only] , laying out an early version of Marquis's argument
(c) Do Animals Have Rights?
- Peter Singer, "All Animals Are Equal"
in REASON AND RESPONSIBILITY, pp. 654-666
ETHICS: HANDOUTS AND LINKS
- MILL AND UTILITARIANISM
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (1)
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (2)
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (3)
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (4)
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (5)
- Stephen Darwell's SIX LECTURES ON KANT'S "METAPHYSICS OF MORALS" (6)
- KANTIAN ETHICS
- ARISTOTLE AND VIRTUE ETHICS
- SINGER'S "FAMINE, AFFLUENCE, AND MORALITY" Online (Brandeis Access Only).
- Peter Singer Page
- "THE SINGER SOLUTION TO WORLD POVERTY"
- Garrett Hardin, "Life Boat Ethics The Case Against Helping the Poor"
September 1974, pp.38-43, 124-126.
- William Aiken, "The 'Carrying Capacity' Equivocation: A Reply to Garrett Hardin,"
Social Theory and Practice, v.6(1), Spring 1980, pp.1-11.
- A Visual Display from Paris "Six Billion Human Beings
- Amartya Sen, "Population: Delusion and Reality,"September 22, 1994
from his lecture before the United Nations on April 18, 1994
- Amartya Sen, "Public Action to Remedy Hunger," The Tanco Memorial Lecture, August 2, 1990. London.
- Amartya Sen, "Hunger: Old Torments and New Blunders," The Little Magazine,Volume 2.
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