How can we judge if Euthanasia is morally right?

I saw a program the other day on British TV about people traveling to Switzerland to end their lives. Personally I believe we live in dignity and dying with dignity is simply not possible and before that time of confusion and fear comes one must live authentically, in the moment, and act morally as far as we are able.  However the plight of those who feel the need to travel to a foreign land, to a grubby garage, and to choke down a poison drink to end their lives struck me as an issue we should think about from a moral perspective.

From a Utilitarian perspective euthanasia is acceptable as it minimises pain and looks at the balance of happiness and pleasure that will be gained from the situation. Considering this balance will be seen as a good way of deciding whether or not to allow someone to take their own life, as it allows not only the individual’s express desire to end their life, but also considers the others involved in the situation. It is also likely that a Utilitarian will say that, in the end, it is better to allow someone’s suffering to end painlessly than allow it to continue where there it little or no quality of life remaining.

On the other hand, Utilitarianism also tries to assess the consequences of each action so that the most advantageous overall can be chosen. This is likely to be a very difficult thing to do when death is involved, as there is no way of telling what they (the deceased) might be capable of in the future or how their death may affect others. Though it is good that the consequences are considered, it is much harder to consider long term effects or future consequences, and also to gauge just who particular consequences are good for.

Moral Choices

It could be said that euthanasia allows a person’s dignity to be preserved along with their autonomy and quality of life, however because the majority outweighs the minority in utilitarianism there are no guarantees that this will be so. Whilst it is important to consider the feelings of others, the patient themselves will ultimately have little real say and may consequently be forced into a decision – either through the preservation of the life they wished to end, or being forced into assisted suicide because that is what is better for the majority.

In contrast, an ethical theory such as Situation Ethics may be a better way of approaching euthanasia. This looks instead at the most loving thing to do in any given situation, regardless of law. Though it too considers the opinions of others, it is much more likely to look to the wishes of the patient and the most loving thing to do for them.

In conclusion then the best course of action when relating to euthanasia is to look to a relative moral theory so that each situation can be judged on its own merits rather than dictated by universal laws and maxims. However, though utilitarianism could be seen as a fair and democratic way of making such a moral decision, it also leaves way for the tyranny of the majority to take place, where the wishes of the individual are outweighed by that of the majority. Therefore, Situation Ethics or another such relativist theory could perhaps be a better choice of option, as this looks not at the quantity but at the quality and love involved in each given situation, ensuring that the wishes of the patient are taken into account and adhered to.

Is voluntary euthanasia an absolute or relative moral question?

Relative morality refers to an ethical code that is dependent upon the situation in question and peoples varied beliefs and cultures. It allows maxims that do not have to be made universally true, unlike those within absolute morality. Whilst ethical theories such as Natural Law and most Christian Ethics (and other religions derived from Judaism) are often absolute, with universal laws, Situation Ethics, and in particular Act Utilitarianism, tend more towards the relative end of the scale.

Act Utilitarianism is used to judge every situation individually and without regards to the wider view of community. Within this premise the path of action that would bring about the greatest good to the most number of people in that specific situation would be followed -allowing every action to be judged within its own circumstances and merits and thus creating a flexible ethical theory for how to deal with everyday situations.

Situation Ethics looks at what is the most loving thing to do in any given situation. It looks to the teachings of Jesus to decide what actions must be taken and states that there is no absolute moral law save for love. This love is all-deciding and is always the right course of action even if this goes against scripture or the specific laws of a culture or country. Every situation is also treated separately so that the reason of love can be applied individually.

If we apply these general rules to a situation such as voluntary euthanasia we can see how different conclusions can be drawn.

The term voluntary euthanasia refers to a form of assisted suicide where an individual asks for assistance in ending their own life, for example, when their quality of life has fallen so low (or is predicted to decline) they see death as a better option that continuing to live, but perhaps lack the physical means to perform the act themselves. They may choose instead to ask for help from a doctor or a family member. This is illegal in this country (the UK) but permitted under strict criteria in places such as Switzerland and the Netherlands. This can mean that people will travel abroad to seek help for an act that is against the law here.
Someone following Act Utilitarianism (or Situation Ethics) will look at each individual case and decide based on those key factors present within the specific case what the best course of action is to take. An Act Utilitarian will be seeking to bring about the most utility for the greatest number, so will not only take into account the happiness of the patient but also everyone else involved, including family members, friends and the doctors and other medical staff concerned. Taking this into account, the patients themselves are of little importance in the decision when following Act Utilitarianism, which is in every case, is concerned with the majority as opposed to the minority standpoint.

If, for example, a young mother with a family decided that she wished for assistance to end her life and her suffering after being diagnosed with cancer, it is very unlikely that an Act Utilitarian would permit this. Not only would her family suffer greatly in her sudden passing, but it would also put a strain on the doctors who would have to perform the euthanasia – perhaps going outside the law to perform the act. However, if it were a terminally ill old man it is likely that he would be allowed to die, as he would have fewer family members and this death would be less against the norms of nature due to his age. The hospital budget, too, would be being forced to spend a great deal on his health care – money that could help far more people if put to a better use, as well as saving medical resources for others.
Someone taking a Situation Ethics perspective will already believe that all life is sacred and a gift from God. Murder will be considered wrong in most situations, but again if it can be shown as the most loving thing to do then that is finally decided as the right decision, regardless of legality. If a patient then was in so much pain that they no longer wanted to live, the most loving thing to do would (most likely) be to allow them to die a quick and painless death rather than continue on in suffering. Similarly to utilitarianism, the views of others involved will also be taken into account, though there is much less chance of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ circumstance taking place. Overall then whereas Act Utilitarianism and Situational Ethics are both case based the focus differs in where the utility lies whether for the individual or in the majority as in Act Utilitarianism.