Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 E - Euthanasia

Euthanasia: Etymologically, from the Greek: A good death. Used in a modern medical sense for helping someone to die, in order to avoid the pain and misery related to some incurable disease, malfunction or unbearable situation.

Unless one's religion forbids it, there is quite a lot to be said for euthanasia, because there are quite a few mortal diseases, such as many forms of cancer, which are very painful or very degrading, and may take a lot of time to die from.

There are, though, quite a number of problems related to euthanasia. I treat some, and start with a mistaken and perverted notion of euthanasia.

1. Euthanasia under national socialism: Hitler abused the term 'euthanasia' as a rhetorical move to sanction the murder of mentally ill and otherwise handicapped people, rather like he abused the classical brief expression for justice - 'to each his own' in German 'Jedem das Seine' - as a cynical justification for mass murder and terrorism in concentration camps.

The reason to start with this abuse of the term and the idea is that some religious opponents of euthanasia, notably some Catholics, have pretended that all ideas and practices of euthanasia are on a par with Hitler's abuse of it. This is simply dishonest. (See also: religion)

2. Religious objections to euthanasia: If your religion forbids euthanasia - and e.g. Catholicism forbids both suicide and euthanasia - it seems fair, if perhaps horrible, if the faithful of that religion refuse to commit or refuse to help others commit euthanasia.

This seems to be implied by the freedom of religion or the freedom of conscience. However, by the same token, religious people have no right to deny non-religious people who desire to avoid a painful death to commit euthanasia, or to help qualified medical people who do not belong to their religion to help them die in a less painful or degrading way than without help.

3. Legal problems with euthanasia: There is a fundamental problem with helping someone else to commit euthanasia, and that is that it easily falls under the legal definition of 'murder', which is forbidden by civilized law, and rightly so.

The solution is fairly obvious in principle: Rewrite the law so that euthanasia becomes possible and does not necessarily become a murder, in the legal sense, but a permissible medical practice in some circumstances.

The problems here, though, are considerable if not insurmountable, for it is obvious that if euthanasia becomes permissible in principle, that right may be abused, also by qualified medical people, and what may be styled 'euthanasia' nevertheless may be murder (see euthanasia under national socialism).

Furthermore, while there may be no problem in ethical principle with a sane 80-year old who has a painful and mortal form of cancer, and desires to be saved from a painful and horrible and slow process of dying, there are quite a few cases that are less clear: What if the person is demented, and has left no last will in which he declares he is in favor of euthanasia? Or what if it is not an 80-year old, but a neonate with an incurable and very painful form of skin cancer that will end in death, but in a few years, and after great suffering? Or what if it concerns a person with a horrible and painful or degrading disease, such as serious epilepsy, that is not directly life-threatening, but that involves conditions of living that the patient finds unbearable? Or what about persons who are sane and not mortally ill but who desire to cease living, because they have nothing to live for?

These are serious legal problems, and there are more like the ones stated - but it seems to me they can be mostly solved, and even if some of these are difficult to solve, this does not constitute an argument against euthanasia in principle, if based on the consent and desire of sane adults, who do have some incurable and painful disease.

Besides, there is a related point that I deal with next.

4. Medical practices surrounding death
: That people may die in slow and horrible and predictable ways has been known to medical science for a very long time, and for a very long time part of the medical answer has been more or less the same: One gives the patient pain-killers - morphine, for example - to dull the pain, and indeed eventually in such quantities (since strong pain-killers tend to be addictive, so that for the same effect more and more of it must be administered) that the patient dies in fact from the medically provided pain-killers before he dies from the disease.

This practice is and has been common, and helps medical people and their patients and family to avoid a trial and verdict of murder while helping their dying patients to escape greater  misery. The fact, and the - legal - problem, is that this is in fact a kind of euthanasia, in that a doctor may know that what he prescribes for a patient will kill the patient - and know that when he does not prescribe it, the patient will also die, but more slowly and with much more pain. 

5. Euthanasia and ethics: There also is a strong positive argument for euthanasia, in some cases at least: That there are, in medicine, ways to help someone die in a fairly painless way, and that in some cases it would amount to willfull cruelty not to help someone in this way, simply because the alternatives may be, and quite often are, quite stark and clear for medical people: Either you help someone to die relatively painlessly and decently or you do not and the person will die somewhat later after a time of great and constant pain, that could have been avoided.

This is, in part at least, the case outlined in the previous section, and it seems to me that, in ethical principle, if it is a moral duty to help persons to avoid or mimimize pain and misery, that it may well be a moral duty to help them with such medicines as effectively will kill them.

6. Euthanasia and suicide: There also is a notion that people should have the right to kill themselves by painless medical means, which presently do exist, simply as a kind of human right.

This also seems to me to be correct in principle, at least for those - of which I am one - who believe that human beings do have the practical right and should have the moral right to commit suicide if they do not want to live anymore. One example might be someone who is ill and cannot take care of himself, and lost all his family, and does not know what to live for, and is otherwise sane. Another and more radical example is someone who is paraplegic from the neck down, without any realistic medical hope for a cure, but who may have 20 more years to live that way, tied to a bed, dependent on others, and with no way of doing anything interesting, useful or pleasant, possibly also in considerable pain.

The basic argument is as outlined in the previous section: The medical means exist, and the alternative, at least in some cases, merely amounts to the prolongement of suffering.

One problem here is that some people who are incurably but not mortally ill may want to live as long as they can, and may also want not want to be pressurized into what others might style as 'euthanasia', but what may be in fact a means to save money and trouble.

It would seem to me that in the last case, in a civilized society, and for sane persons, it should be a matter of personal choice, and it is the moral duty of the healthy members of the society to help such persons, if they can, whatever their personal choice. Some may be able to live with a disease others may find unbearable, and it seems not ethical if others impose their own point of view or their own interests on such persons, and especially not if this happens because the healthy, strong or powerful find it cheaper, more convenient or more pleasant for themselves if the ill, weak or powerless do not live if they wish and can.


See also: Suicide


 Original: Mar 17, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top