Utilitarianism in the Modern World Strikes Again.

Euthanasia is the act of killing or allowing the death of another, typically to alleviate suffering of the person, due to the fact that they are hopelessly injured or ill. Euthanasia can be broken down into two subcategories: active and passive. Active euthanasia is illegal in most countries, including most of the United States. The legality of euthanasia has been deliberated upon in forty-four states, resulting in laws prohibiting active euthanasia at this time in all but one of those states. Oregon is the only state in the United States which currently has a specific law authorizing physician-assisted suicide, under the Death with Dignity Act (Nightingale Alliance). Physician-assisted suicide is also widely referred to as active euthanasia and/or mercy-killing. The etymology of euthanasia is from the Greek prefix eu meaning “good” and thanatos meaning “death” (Harper). But is euthanasia truly a “good death”?

No. Active euthanasia is not only widely illegal, it is morally wrong. It is defined as directly causing the death of another through an action. This can be clearly seen as immoral. Although situations may be deemed as hopeless, there is always the possibility of a cure, a miracle, or misdiagnosis. Because of euthanasia, these possibilities are taken away. But is the distinction between active and passive euthanasia really one that should be made?

Although active and passive euthanasia have been separated into different worlds, they are not all that very different. Active euthanasia is deemed morally wrong by many because it is an act of commission, while passive euthanasia is “merely” an act of omission. This is the very issue that James Rachels’ popular article, Active and Passive Euthanasia, addresses. He brings to light the question of whether idly standing by and watching someone die is equivalent to active taking part in their death. When the circumstances are stripped away, the matching agents become apparent:

In the first, Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening, while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things to look like an accident.

In the second, Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith, Jones sneaks in, planning to drown the child in his bath. However, just as he enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip and hit his head, and fall facedown in the water. Jones is delighted: he stands by, ready to push the child’s head back under if it is necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about the child drowns all by himself, “accidentally,” as Jones watches and does nothing.” (Rachels 225)

Clearly, issues involving the differentiation between active and passive euthanasia are well founded. Lines become blurred as in the given situation one may argue the act is very different, making Jones’ actions permissible while Smith’s remain impermissible. However, if one looks to the agent for moral truth, the actions are the same in both situations; thus, both Smith and Jones’ actions are reprehensible and impermissible.

Issues arise concerning the true motivation of those persons making the decision for euthanasia. Rachels’ brings this issue to the table through an instance where a baby born with Down’s syndrome is also born with intestinal obstructions that require operations if he is to live. In this situation – and this is not an isolated incident – the parents and the doctor will choose not to operate, allowing the infant die (Rachels 223-224). A high profile occurrence of this is the Terri Schiavo case. Mrs. Schiavo was profoundly handicapped, but not terminally ill. She had numerous family members willing and able to care for both physically and financially. But the decision was left to Michael Schiavo, Terri Schiavo’s husband. Mrs. Schiavo’s family members desperately pleaded with Mr. Schiavo to not “pull the plug” on her, but their pleas fell on deaf ears and Mrs. Schiavo’s feed tube was removed, essentially starving her to death (Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation). These are clearly instances of abuse of the right to the choice for euthanasia.

Instances such as we explored above are not isolated. They can be found readily throughout the past forty years. Not to mention that there are also countless cases of serious medical misdiagnosis. Just recently in the news, a man by the name of Zack Dunlap, involved in an all-terrain vehicle accident, was pronounced brain dead. Doctors suggested to Mr. Dunlap’s parents that he be removed from life support. His parents requested that he be left on life support until his organs could be harvested. As he was being prepared, Mr. Dunlap responded to pressure on his foot, then underneath his fingernail. Four months later Mr. Dunlap describes himself as feeling “pretty good,” and even claiming that while people thought that he was already gone he heard the doctor say “that he was dead” (Morales). If he had been taken off of life support, this miracle would never have occurred. This is only one of many reports of situations nearly identical to this circumstance occurring.

There are a wide range of difficulties defining what exactly is meant by voluntary and non-voluntary, as well. In voluntary decisions, a patient in such a difficult situation in life may be easily persuaded into decisions they would not normally make. A person may also be lonely or experiencing guilt from the burden they believe they are putting on their family members. Heavy medication and pain can also cause an altered state of mind and thought processes, resulting in the patient making a rash choice. In non-voluntary situations, the issues are only compounded because the decision is left to others to decide what the patient wishes.

Individuals may argue as to what makes a thing a person/human, however; I feel certain that individuals posess intrinsic value. Regardless of that fact, who is to say without a doubt what the criterion for a human may be? For arguments’ sake, we will list these criterions as what makes a person a person: biological properties, sentience, self- consciousness, rationality, capabilities. Must an individual meet all of these criteria to be deemed personhood? Or is it just one? Or maybe two? As we can see in the case of Zack Dunlap, doctors’ perceptions as to whether a person is sentient or not may be wrong horribly wrong, as well.

There are disagreements between individuals as what makes a life valuable. Those who argue that lives have no meaning, and are therefore dispensable. If this were true, suicide/genocide would be permissible, or even obligatory. This argument is valid, however; the premise that life is meaningless is questionable at best. This argument is not livable, for if this were true, there would be no funerals, memorial, or even sadness at death.

Some consequentialists argue that it is cruel to force the terminally ill to live. It is also cruel to force those terminally ill to make such a choice, or to force the family members of an individual in coma to make a decision for that person. Some also argue that euthanasia alleviates suffering for both the patient and the patient’s family and friends. Removing all possibility for a change for the good does no such thing.

Many non-consequentialists bring forth the fact that an individual has both the right to privacy and the right to die with dignity. We deny neither of these claims. Even so, in response to the former position, an individual has the right to privacy, as long as it does not hurt anyone. Ending a life certainly hurts many; no one can deny that fact. And to the latter position, making the choice for euthanasia will only take away the person’s privacy. Individuals will retain more privacy by not employing euthanasia. There are hundreds of news reports on those who have died as a result of physician-assisted and “pulling the plug.” Those instances are certainly no longer private affairs.



Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. November 2001. 28 March 2008 <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php>.

Morales, Natalie. MSNBC. 24 March 2008. 29 March 2008 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23768436/>.

Nightingale Alliance. Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide Opposition. 26 March 2008. 29 March 2008 <http://www.nightingalealliance.org/index.php>.

Ostheimer, John M. “The Polls: Changing Attitudes Toward Euthanasia.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 44.1 (1980): 123-128.

Rachels, James. “Active and Passive Euthansia.” Krogman, Michael. Introduction to Ethics. Mason, OH: Thompson, 2008. 223-227.

Sullivan, Thomas D. “Active and Passive Euthanasia: An Impertinent Distinction?” Krogman, Michael. Introduction to Ethics. Mason, OH: Thompson, 2008. 229-233.

Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation. The Official Website of The Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation. 29 March 2008. 29 March 2008 <http://www.terrisfight.org/index.php>.

Walton, Douglas. “Active and Passive Euthanasia.” Ethics 86.4 (1976): 343-349.

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~ by Mary Christa on October 27, 2008.

One Response to “Utilitarianism in the Modern World Strikes Again.”

  1. Good job! I think you pointed out all the flaws in euthanasia – the certain finality of death vrs pain and other medical conditions that for all we know are temporary; the inability of terminally ill people to make rational, reasonable decisions due to pain, medication, and emotional distress; the inability to truly know the motives of those encouraging family members to go ahead and die (“oh I’m in the will, gee, I didn’t know that!”), and perhaps most disturbing is the fact that taking someone’s life is playing God and taking away from the worth and value of human life. A good read.

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