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To most people, human life is precious and sacred and thus they protect it by any means necessary. This fact is evidenced by the inclusion of the right to life and other rights that support it, which exist under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms and most constitutions across the world.
Although the importance of life is often non-debatable, various circumstances make its protection a disputable issue. Some of the main controversial life-protection instances revolve around medical conditions such as terminal illnesses and circumstances that cause great pain to individuals. Euthanasia involves intentional ending of life with the aim of terminating suffering for such individuals and it has often ignited controversy amongst disparate subscribers to different moral theories.
This paper explores three main theories with the aim of establishing whether it is possible for people to be mistaken regarding the value of their lives. It also explains the moral dilemma that each theory creates with a view of establishing the side that fully addresses the issue at hand. The theories of choice for this discussion are the utilitarianism, deontology, and the virtue theory.
The utilitarian theory, which is credited to John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, centers on the issue of morality from a comparative point of view. Essentially, the theory “describes a moral act as one that causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people” (Safer-Landau, 2007, p.35).
This aspect means that the theory operates using a comparison of options rather than singular evaluation of individual actions. One of the main elements of the theory is that it focuses on pain and pleasure. According to Bentham, moral behavior reduces pain and increases pleasure for an individual.
For instance, Bentham expresses the view that a person has the right to set his own house on fire if it brings him or her more pleasure than pain (Mosser, 2013). Secondly, morality focuses on the will of the majority. This provision serves to prevent destructive behaviors such as murder and theft, which cause pleasure to an individual and harm to a community (Safer-Landau, 2007).
Therefore, according to the earlier example, a person also has to consider the way his or her actions affect others before setting a house on fire. Thirdly, the theory focuses on the result of a said behavior rather than the intention in the determination of morality. Therefore, certain behaviors might fall on the immoral end of the scale, regardless of the intention behind them being essentially good. A good example of such a situation is one where a person steals in order to feed his or her family.
The application of the theory to the issue of euthanasia often results in a moral dilemma and offers no plausible resolution to the question at hand. On one hand, the theory makes it clear that an individual has the right to take his or her own life at will as long as he or she does not interfere with the lives of others in the process.
On the other hand, the theory suggests that taking “one’s life is only moral if the result is the greatest pleasure for the greatest number” (Safer-Landau, 2007, p.44). The dilemma in this theory arises when considering whether the consideration of the morality of the procedure should be according to the patient on the receiving end or family and doctors forming the majority.
The theory creates the impression that one’s right to life is dependent on the happiness of others, thus resulting in questions on the validity of morality of the concept. According to a YouTube video on the matter titled ‘Right to die, assisted suicide, euthanasia Part 15’, one of the issues that patient raise is the right to die with dignity without being a burden to their families or creating anguish to loved ones.
It also points out that even though the process seems selfish; it is also selfish for a family to allow one of its own to suffer such pain for personal satisfaction. This theory thus provides no resolution to the question of whether one should place value on his or her life based on personal perceptions or that of others.
Deontology, unlike utilitarianism, focuses on a person’s intention for the performance of certain actions with regard to the rule governing such actions. According to Immanuel Kant, who the main proponent of the theory, actions are only moral if they originate from a point of obligation or duty as per the rules to which a society prescribes (Mosser, 2013). Kant explains that human beings are not inherently moral and that most voluntary acts come from a place of self-gratification.
Therefore, for actions to be moral, the intention must be the fulfillment of a duty. To him, morality is a requirement and not a goal requiring people to strive for in order to attain (Shafer-Landau, 2007). He gives two qualifications for moral actions, viz. such actions should possess universal acceptance and they should comply with principles of humanity such as dignity and respect. In essence, one should treat others the way he or she would have them treat him or her.
Although this theory is not universal in terms of application, it provides a partial answer to the question at hand. The theory provides a solution for a doctor that makes a decision on whether performing euthanasia is moral. Leon Kass, author of Neither for love nor money, supports this theory by insisting that doctors have a duty to protect life to the end, and thus they should place their duty before love and monetary gain.
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In Kass’ view, medical codes of ethics exist to eliminate personal prejudices that doctors develop as individuals in the performance of their duties, including subjective notions of love and monetary gain (Kass, 1989).
He states further that a doctor’s ethical duty is that which the code of ethics dictates and that adherence to the code allows for objectivity when making difficult decisions such as those regarding euthanasia (Kass, 1989). However, the theory operates on the presumption that morality in behavior only pertains to actions involving decisions made by others on a public interest basis.
It overlooks the possibility of morality existing in matters of personal interest such as a patient opting for euthanasia for personal gain. Although most laws prohibit suicide, some states such as Washington, Virginia, and Montana, and countries such as Belgium and Switzerland support euthanasia as a legal means to end life, thus making it part of the duties of doctors in those areas to assist their patients accomplish it.
According to a multimedia file titled The last chapter-end of life decisions by West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2010, individuals battling terminal illnesses have the right to opt out of their suffering through euthanasia as long as they understand their options and consider legal processes in order to prevent moral dilemmas for their families and doctors.
The virtue theory
This theory essentially suggests that morality in behavior has a connection to a person’s character. According to Aristotle, who is one of the famous proponents of the theory, a virtuous person is one with admirable characteristics and displays such characteristics in a balanced manner (Mosser, 2013).
For instance, although courage is an admirable characteristic in any individual, the amount with which a person chooses to display it determines whether the person is virtuous and thus moral. In his opinion, a virtuous person is one who utilizes moral wisdom to achieve what he refers to as the “golden mean”, which is a balance between displaying too much and too little of a specific characteristic (Shafer-Landau, 2007).
For instance, a person who displays too much courage in a battlefield by running into enemy lines is as doomed as one who displays little courage by hiding from the enemy. In this scenario, a virtuous person knows when to charge and when to hide in order to achieve victory in the end.
In applying the theory to the issue of morality of euthanasia with regard to the value of life, the theory suggests the application of moral wisdom and excellence. Although the theory entails a look at both the intention and the result of actions by doctors, patients, and family, the presence of relativism in its explanation creates a dilemma regarding what constitutes the right amount of care.
For instance, it is difficult to determine whether making a decision to perform euthanasia constitutes too much of a virtue, too little, or qualifies as the golden medium.
Analysis of the theories
An analysis of the three theories paints deontology as the best theory, even though it also possesses limitations. Unlike utilitarianism and the virtue theory, deontology does not entirely result in a moral dilemma, which does not help in the determination of an answer to the question at hand.
Although the utilitarian theory supports the right of an individual to determine the value of his or her own life, it also pegs that right on the freedom to choose of the majority to determine whether such evaluation is right. Essentially, although the theory gives an individual the right to determine whether to live or die, the morality of such a decision rides on whether such death provides pleasure for family, friends, and sometimes doctors, instead on focusing on alleviation of suffering.
The virtue theory also exhibits relativism on the concept of what constitutes morality as the right amount of virtue depends on the person exercising it. There is no universally acceptable measure of virtue that qualifies as the golden mean. In this sense, it creates a dilemma as to whether euthanasia lacks morality in its practice and whether the decision by a patient, doctor, and family to perform euthanasia is an indication of poor character for the individuals involved.
Although deontology fails in the explanation as to whether an individual has a duty to protect his or her own life, it explains the duty of doctors to protect the lives of patients by any means legally available, thus portraying the execution of euthanasia as an immoral act for medical professionals. In this way, it provides a partial answer to the question and a means through which to establish morality.
A comparison of the three theories proves deontology as the best theory to use in the determination of the morality of practicing euthanasia with regard to the establishment of the value of life. Although the theory does not explain whether an individual has a duty to protect his or her own life by any means necessary, it establishes the fundamental rules that doctors should follow on the matter.
Kass, L. (1989). Neither for love nor money: why doctors must not kill. Public Interest, 94, 25-46.
Mosser, K. (2013). Understanding philosophy. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.
Right to die, assisted suicide, euthanasia part 15 [Video file]. Web.
Shafer-Landau, R. (2007). Ethical Theory: An Anthology. New Jersey, NJ: Blackwell. West Virginia Public Broadcasting: The Last Chapter-end of life decisions [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jKUZ8lS9b4