The topic of euthanasia is one that evokes an extensive and complex range of reactions. These range from outright moral indignation at the very suggestion that the taking of another human life could be legitimized, to arguments that provide rational reasons and justifications for the need for the legalization of euthanasia. Another variable that has to be taken into account is the social and cultural relativity about euthanasia. While Western views about euthanasia are similar in many respects there are many cultures where euthanasia is found to be more acceptable as, for example, a means of ending suffering. This also applies to different periods in history, for example, "…in Greek and Roman times such practices as infanticide, and suicide and euthanasia was widely accepted" (Tait).
This paper will also refer to the important difference between active and passive euthanasia. However, the central Western view of the problem of euthanasia is colored by religion and ethical standpoints and the view that all life is sacred. As Kuhse ( 1992) states, "Judaism and the rise of Christianity contributed greatly to the general feeling that human life has sanctity and must not deliberately be taken " (Kuhse, Helga 1992).The sanctity of life is of cardinal importance in the main Western religions and must therefore be taken into account when discussing the ethical and moral assessment of euthanasia.
The various changes in modern Western thought and philosophy also play a role in this discussion and one has to take into account the major shift in Western thought from a traditional religious perspective to the modern secular viewpoint and how this impacts on the debate about euthanasia. This change is evident for instance in the defense of euthanasia by the humanist Thomas Moore (1478-1535) in his famous work Utopia (The St. Thomas More Collection at the Boston College Law Library). This was to lead to various utilitarian approaches to euthanasia.
All of the above aspects will be referred to as background to the present discussion. The central thesis that will be suggested in this paper is that there can be no real grounds of the legitimization or acceptance of euthanasia, except in cases of the most extreme suffering and illness.
Definitions of this term often affect the way that it is perceived. A common understanding of euthanasia is that it is the practice of "mercifully ending a person's life in order to release the person from an incurable disease, intolerable suffering, or undignified death" (Euthanasia). This is in line with the Greek origins of the term which means "good death" (Euthanasia). This also refers to the difference between active and passive euthanasia. While passive euthanasia does not involve taking any direct actions that would terminate life, active euthanasia on the other hand is more contentious and refers to the active or intentional ending of a person's life; for example, when a doctor decides to take a patient off life support.
3. The debate
There are two extreme opposites in this debate. The argument against euthanasia rests mainly on the view that life is sacred and that euthanasia is tantamount to murder. This view if countered by modern secularists who refer to the rights of the individual and the right of personal choice.
The utilitarian approach to this issue revolves around the justification of the end results. Formal or classical utilitarianism is teleological in that it asserts that "…the outcome of an action determines whether the action is right or wrong" (Explain how Utilitarianism might be applied to the issue of euthanasia). Therefore, the ethical question of euthanasia for the strict utilitarian thinker is completely dependent on whether the outcomes or results of the actions are seen to be positive or negative or for the greater good.
A different perspective and one that relates more to the moral and ethical religious view can be found in the influential philosophical writings of Emmanuel Kant. Kant refers to moral absolutes which are guidelines for rational thought and action. These are also referred to as categorical imperatives. In terms of this theory one could argue that euthanasia goes against the moral absolutes of the universe. In contrast to the utilitarian approach, Kant is concerned with the moral and ethical values of the action itself and not the consequences or the ends. This is an important standpoint that has influenced much of Western thought on moral dilemmas like euthanasia.
Kant's view is therefore non-consequentialist in nature and the non-consequentialism forms an important part of the debate on the opposition to euthanasia. In other words, this view places the emphasis on the actions and meaning of euthanasia itself and questions any acceptance of euthanasia that refers only to its outcomes or consequences. Kant therefore believes that voluntary euthanasia "…conflicts with an inviolable duty to oneself" (Kant on Euthanasia). Put in another way, Kant is referring to the non-consequentialist view that "…something other than an action's consequences determine its moral value" (Kant on Euthanasia, 2008).
This stance towards euthanasia also relates to deontological ethics, which refers to the moral duty that an individual has towards himself and others and which prescribes certain actions. For Kant this sense of duty is the foundation of moral actions. Therefore, to act morally is to act out of a sense of moral duty and not only according to the outcomes or results of these actions. Kant rejects the view that it is acceptable to treat other individuals in terms of end results that are dictated by our own sense of self-interest.
This view leads to the more religious perspective on euthanasia in the Western world and to the dictum that is morally wrong to take another life in any circumstances. As Khuse (1992) succinctly states, "To take an innocent human life is, in these traditions, to usurp the right of God to give and take life. It has also been seen by influential Christian writers as a violation of natural law" (Kuhse, 1992). In religious terms taking of life in any form runs counter to the ethics and Law of the Church and contradict the essential relationship between man and God. The long history of the euthanasia debate is therefore characterized by its condemnation under Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the implementation of this view into social law (Tait)
4. Discussion and viewpoint
There are any sides to the argument and debate about this topic. On the one hand euthanasia is seen as a way of ending unnecessary suffering and pain. The end towards which euthanasia is directed therefore justifies the means. On the other hand there are very strong ethical and moral stances that refers to the sanctity of life and which reject the utilitarian 'ends justifies the means' philosophy. In essence, this issue revolves around the complex question of meaning and value of human life and the value that we place on life. This is the reason for the often heated debate on this topic.
On the one hand one must acknowledge that the 'right to die' view incorporates the important aspect of human choice and personal freedom. This is a particularly secular viewpoint that tends to disregard to the moral imperatives that are found in the religious views, which stress that all life is sacred. Therefore, the secular and utilitarian implications of any form of life-taking, including euthanasia, are contrasted with religious teachings that emphasize sanctity of life and the relationship between the individual human life and God. This in turn means that in order to understand the question of euthanasia and its legal acceptance in society one has to take into account the broader philosophical and theological issues that influence this issue.
Taking the above perspectives and viewpoints into account that stance towards euthanasia that in my view should be taken tends towards the sanctity of life. This refers to the view that
Life is a precious and mysterious phenomenon and we do not have the right as either individuals or physicians to determine when life should end. This point-of-view should be referred to in any argument about assisted suicide, as it is the cardinal reason why such legalization can never occur. While there are many clever and ingenious arguments for legalization of assisted suicide, there is no argument that can overcome the fact that life is unique and sacred. If we accept this view of life then the legalization of assisted suicide would in effect be nothing less than a legalization of killing or murder ( Pipe).
The above quotation is cited at length as it includes many salient points. While there are many arguments that can be put forward to show why euthanasia is necessary in certain circumstance, yet to advocate voluntary or assisted euthanasia is tantamount to morally condoning suicide or murder. In other words, all the arguments in favor of euthanasia exclude the ethical or moral view that all life and human life is sacred and that we do not have the moral right to exterminate another life -- except in the…