The Topic of Euthanasia

The term 'euthanasia' (or 'mercy killing') comes from the Greek word meaning 'good death.' Such dying, with the assistance of others, can be either active or passive. It can be voluntary or non-voluntary.


Greek and Roman Times

The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers thought suicide and euthanasia an acceptable option whenever one no longer cared for life. The most famous statement of this attitude is by Epictetus: "If the room is smoky, if only moderately, I will stay; if there is too much smoke I will go. Remember this, keep a firm hold on it, the door is always open."
Christian Perspectives

The early Church was opposed the killing of humans in every context. Infanticide was prohibited, for it was thought that all who are born of woman, no matter how monstrous or miserable, have immortal souls. Suicide was forbidden because one's life was viewed as a trust from God, and only God has the right to take it. And, finally, Natural Law seemed to prohibit euthanasia since it went against self-preservation.
Modern Secular Perspectives (from James Rachels,"Euthanasia")

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers began to move away from the idea that morality requires a religious foundation. Although most were still theists, and God still held a prominent place in their understanding of the universe, they did not think that right and wrong consisted in following God's commandments, and they did not look to the Church as a primary source of moral guidance. Instead, human reason and the individual conscience were regarded as the sources of moral insight. This did not mean, however, that these thinkers abandoned all traditional moral views. Although they were revolutionary in their ideas concerning the sources of morality, often they were not so radical in their particular moral opinions. The most famous German philosophers, Kant (1724-1804) and Hegel (1770-1831), held that moral truths are known through the use of reason alone; but when they exercised their reason on such matters as suicide and euthanasia, they discovered that the Church had been right all along. A notable exception to this way of thinking was the greatest British philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), who argued vigorously that one has the right to end one's life when he or she pleases. Hume, who was a skeptic about religion, particularly tried to refute theological arguments to the contrary.

It is one thing for a philosopher to argue that morality is separate from religion, or that the basis of morality is not necessarily religious, but it is quite a different matter for those ideas to affect popular thinking. In spite of the growing secularization of philosophical thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the popular mind, ethics was still very much tied to religion. The Protestant Reformation had created many churches where before there had been the one Church; and for Protestants the authority of the Church had been replaced by the individual believer's direct relationship with God. But still, people's moral duties were conceived as the outgrowth of their religious beliefs, and the purpose of the moral life was still thought to be the service of God. Then in the nineteenth century a remarkable thing happened: a philosophical movement, utilitarianism, not only captured the imaginations of philosophers but revolutionized popular thinking as well.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued that the purpose of morality is not the service of God or obedience to abstract moral rules, but the promotion of the greatest possible happiness for creatures on earth. What we ought to do is calculate how our actions, laws, and social policies will actually affect people (and other animals, too). Will they result in people being made happier, in people having better lives? Or will they result in people being made more miserable? According to Bentham, our decisions should be made on that basis, and only on that basis.

But Bentham did not stop when he had articulated this as a theoretical idea. He was concerned with bringing about social change and not merely with voicing a philosophy. Bentham became the leader of a group of philosophers, economists, and politicians who sought to reform the laws and institutions of England along utilitarian lines, and the social and intellectual life of people in the English-speaking countries has not been the same since. Bentham argued, for example, that in order to maximize happiness, the law should not seek to enforce abstract moral rules or meddle in the private affairs of citizens. What consenting adults do in private is strictly their own business, and the law has no right to interfere. The law should concern itself with people's behavior only when they may do harm to others. This idea, now so familiar a part of liberal ideology, was radically new when the Benthamites first urged it on their fellow Englishmen.

The implications for euthanasia were obvious. For the utilitarians, the question was simply this: Does it increase or decrease human happiness to provide a quick, painless death for those who are dying in agony? Clearly, they reasoned, the only consequences of such actions will be to decrease the amount of misery in the world; therefore, euthanasia must be morally right. Moreover, as Bentham's famous follower John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put it, the individual is sovereign over his own body and mind; where one's own interests are concerned, there is no other authority. Therefore, if one wants to die quickly rather than linger in pain, that is strictly a personal affair, and the government has no business intruding. Indeed, Bentham himself requested euthanasia in his last moments.

The Nazi Era (involuntary euthanasia)

Contemporary concerns with the practice of euthanasia recall the 1930s Nazi campaign to 'eliminate' the 'unhealthy' members of society through euthanasia. At first the physically and mentally handicapped were targeted. Later the elderly were suggested as candidates, but since many Nazis themselves objected to this treatment of their own families, the campaign was limited to the handicapped. Many today fear that if euthanasia were to become a public policy, a slippery slope would eventually lead to temptations to euthanize the poor, the lonely elderly and even minorities.
Medical Advances in the 1960s and 70s

That we have such fears about abusing euthanasia is due largely to the fact that medical technology can now blur the distinction between prolonging life and prolonging death. Many cases of patients suffering terrible pain without the hope of recovery (but sustainable nonetheless) have caused our society to develop a 'perplexed conscience' with regard to the issue of 'mercy killing.'


The categories for which euthanasia is often considered include the very young (babies born prematurely who are suffering from a variety of fatal complications), severe trauma victims whose suffering cannot be alleviated and whose death is certain, the very old who have severe medical complications, and those who are suffering from the last stages of an incurable disease.

Contemporary Discussions

The current debate over 'euthanasia' focuses on the permissibility of doctors to actively assist in the death of their patients. There are philosophical and legal arguments on both sides of this issue.

HomePage for Academic Dialogue on Applied Ethics HomePage for An Ethics Committee's Perspective on Euthanasia

Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College