Active and Passive Euthanasia
Euthanasia has often been described as mercy killing. The concept has been debated, with scholars trying to both justify and denounce euthanasia as morally right or wrong accordingly. Rachels (1986) reveals that there are two major categories of euthanasia. These are active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia involves the enhancement of death as a show of mercy, while passive euthanasia is letting a person die without trying to help them.
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This essay looks at the concept of euthanasia and analyses the two categories of euthanasia using a case study. The paper will use different arguments to show that there is no bare moral difference between passive and active euthanasia; instead, the differences are brought about by other factors, such and whether the victim expressed their informed consent and the intentions of the person who administered the death.
The issue of morality is one of the things that have to be mentioned when discussing the concept of euthanasia. The case study referred to is about two men in a similar situation. Smith has a 6-year-old cousin, who stands to gain a lot if his nephew dies. Therefore, he drowns the baby and stages it to appear as if the child drowned on his own by mistake. Jones, on the other hand, is also in a similar predicament. However, as he goes to drown his cousin, the baby hits its head on the tub and sinks into the water. Jones then waits for the baby to drown. At this juncture, it suffices to mention that the two case studies prove that there is no intrinsic moral difference between active and passive euthanasia.
Rachels (1986) explains that active euthanasia is the act of using equipment, products, or items to end the life of someone, even if it is to help the person. A classical case that can be used in these scenarios is that of a patient who is terminally ill and dying. The patient then asks the doctor to administer an overdose of morphine so that they can die. In this instance, both the patient and the doctor know that there is no cure for the condition the patient is suffering from, and soon the patient will succumb to the illness. If the doctor decides to administer the morphine, then he or she is considered to have killed the patient out of mercy. Several debates have been raised about the morality of such an act. Paterson (2012) argues that killing a person, whether it is for their own good or not, is still immoral.
However, as Tulloch (2005) reveals, a person of sound mind should be able to decide how they live and how they will die. Additionally, still under active euthanasia, a person’s family can decide whether the person should be ‘killed’ or not, especially if the person cannot make the decision himself or herself and did not leave specific actions on what should be done in such situations. This angle of active euthanasia has also been met with a lot of criticism. First, it has been suggested that the emotional state of the family might not be the right one for such decision-making (Dowbiggin, 2005). Paterson (2012) also adds that giving the family members the power to end the life of their loved one is morally wrong.
On the other hand, passive euthanasia is the act of letting someone die naturally by, for example, not giving them medication to manage their symptoms (Tulloch, 2005). For example, a man has diabetes, which affects his kidneys. He has been going on dialysis for a long time, but his condition is getting worse. Both the doctor and the patient know that he is dying. The patient gives the doctor the consent to discontinue the medication to allow him to die. Again, debates have erupted over the morality of such an act; that is, whether the doctors should stop the treatment as per the request of the old man.
Dowbiggin (2005) argues that if the man is in his right mind, then the doctors should do as he says because continued treatment will not heal the man, but prolong his death. Thus, the man will die of natural causes (the illness) and not by the hand of the doctor. The second scenario, where the family of the patient decides whether their loved one should get passive euthanasia, has also been debated. Like in active euthanasia, this situation is only possible legally if the patient is not of the right mind to make their decisions and if the patient did not dictate what should be done in such situations.
It suffices to mention that many believe that passive euthanasia is morally right compared to active euthanasia. The difference is placed on the act of enhancing death, even if death is inevitable in the situation presented. In the case study provided, Smith represents the active euthanasia concept, while Jones represents the passive euthanasia concept.
The first point that can be made to support the thesis that there is no intrinsic moral difference between active and passive euthanasia revolves around the idea of consent. Tulloch (2005) defines consent as agreement or willingness. In both scenarios, there was no consent to death. Smith did not ask his cousin whether he could drown him, and neither did Jones. At this level, it does not matter that one did the drowning while the other one watched a baby drown. The main focus is put on the intention; consent was not sought because the intention was morally wrong. In the same breath, age has to be considered when discussing consent.
People who are considered grownups can make decisions for children, particularly if they are related. Thus, the children in the case study cannot be considered to have the right mind to accept voluntary death, regardless of whether they were sick or not. This realization brings a different angle to the picture. Smith and Jones can be perceived to have made the decisions for the babies. As mentioned, critics have explained that it is morally right for people to make such decisions on behalf of their loved ones if the loved ones are not mentally able to do so themselves. However, it can be argued that the children were not sick.
Additionally, the fighting for their lives that occurred during the drowning clearly shows that they did not want to die. Looking at both situations from a moral perspective, they were both morally wrong acts. It is interesting to note that the character who made the actual killing (Smith) can be persecuted by the law for murder, while Jones might just get away with it because he did not facilitate the killing himself.
A second point that can be cited is the intention. Paterson (2012) argues that intentions play a big role in determining whether an act is morally right or wrong. In the case of Smith and Jones, the activities done had evil intentions; thus, both were morally wrong. The two wanted their cousins dead so that they could benefit—this portrayed selfishness, a trait that is associated with immorality. An example can be cited to emphasize the impact of intentions. A very wealthy man just told his wife that he had a life insurance cover of US$5 million. It meant that if the man were to die, then the wife would receive the US$5 million from the insurance policy.
The man was a miser, despite being very wealthy. He also had three kids from his previous relationship. The woman knew that if the man died, his wealth would have to be divided among the entire family. However, the life insurance cover would be given to her only. The woman decided to poison her husband, get the money, and start her life afresh. In this scenario, the woman murdered her husband for money and could be convicted by the law. The same can be applied to the Smith/Jones case as their intentions were not good. The concept of intention clearly shows that the method of death in the two cases does not matter because the intentions were similar. Thus, a moral difference between the two actions cannot be established based on the actions themselves (intrinsic), but by other factors.
It suffices to mention that arguments can be made on the premise that there is no intrinsic moral difference between active and passive euthanasia. Indeed, it can be argued that one person can be guiltier of a crime as compared to another person. The action is always considered worse than just the thought or lack of action. The main reason is that legally speaking, only the action can be easily proven. The lack of action can be blamed on several factors that can actually result to non-response. In addition, there are some critics that have argued that thoughts can change. Therefore, the thought of killing someone can change, making the thinker less likely to commit the crime.
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In conclusion, the debate on whether mercy killing is right or wrong has been going on for decades. Different scholars have given reasons why the concept is morally right or wrong. In the case study provided, Smith drowns his six-year-old cousin for selfish gains. On the other hand, Jones watches as his six-year-old cousin drowns and does not try to help for selfish gains. However, the different actions do not show any difference in mortality, and one character is not morally right compared to the other. Other factors have an enormous role when analyzing the actions as morally right or wrong. For example, consent and intentions have to be used to determine morality.
The intention of a doctor to give a lethal injection to help a dying patient is more positive than that of a woman giving her husband a lethal injection to get him out of the way so that she can control their company. Thus, there really is no bare moral difference between passive and active euthanasia.
Dowbiggin, I. (2005). A concise history of euthanasia: Life, death, God and medicine. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield. Web.
Paterson, C. (2012). Assisted suicide and euthanasia: A natural law ethics approach. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing. Web.
Rachels, J. (1986). The end of life: Euthanasia and morality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Web.
Tulloch, G. (2005). Euthanasia, choice and death. Edinburg, UK: Edinburg University Press. Web.