The Right to Choose Death?
A moral argument for the permissibility of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
Jun 1, 1997
32 Min read time
Do people have a right to choose death? More particularly, are euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide morally permissible? To clarify terms: Euthanasia involves a death that is intended to benefit the person who dies, and requires a final act by some other person (for example, a doctor); physician-assisted suicide, which requires a final act by the patient, can also be undertaken for the good of that patient, and I will confine my attention to cases in which it is. The essential point is that both involve intentionally ending a human life: In voluntary euthanasia, the patient and doctor both intend the death; in physician-assisted suicide, the patient intends the death and the doctor may.1 But how, some ask, can we ever permit people to intentionally end human lives (even their own lives) without degrading human life? How, others ask, can we simply prevent people from deciding when to end their own lives without denying people the autonomy so essential to the value of a human life? As this pair of questions suggests, the debate about the right to choose death may appear to present a stand-off between people who endorse life’s intrinsic value, and those who think life’s value depends on the interests, judgments, and choices of the person whose life it is.
This picture of irreconcilable moral conflict is, I believe, too despairing about the powers of moral argument. To make headway, however, we may need to pay closer attention to the complexities of cases and the specific moral terrain they occupy: to think about people on medication, being treated by physicians, sometimes relying on technical means to stay alive, trying to decide how to live out what remains of their lives. I will explore this terrain in moral, not legal, terms: I will be asking you to consult your moral judgments about cases, and follow out the implications of those judgments. Though this moral argument bears on constitutional argument and on appropriate legislation, I will not propose laws or rules for judges, doctors, or hospital administrators to consult, or worry about slippery slopes created by legally hard cases. The moral landscape affords firmer footing, and does not, I will suggest, permit a blanket ban on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: Though both involve intentionally ending human lives, both are sometimes morally permissible. I will conclude by discussing a different argument for such permissibility offered by a distinguished group of moral philosophers in a recent amicus brief to the Supreme Court.
I. Logical Troubles?
Before getting to the issue of moral permissibility, we need to overcome a preliminary hurdle. I said that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are intended to benefit the patient. Some may object that these ideas make no sense. How is it possible for death to benefit the person who dies? Death eliminates the person—how can we produce a benefit if we eliminate the potential beneficiary?
To see how, consider the parallel question about death as a harm: Can a person be harmed by her own death even though death means that she is no longer around to suffer the harm? Suppose Schubert’s life would have included even greater musical achievement had he not died so young. Because musical achievement is an important good, Schubert had a less good life overall than he would have had if he lived longer. But living a less good life is a harm. By excluding those achievements, then, Schubert’s death harmed him: it prevented the better life. Now come back to the original concern about how death might be a benefit. Suppose a person’s life would go on containing only misery and pain with no compensating goods. That person will be better off living a shorter life containing fewer such uncompensated-for bad things rather than a longer one containing more of them. But living a better life is a benefit. By interfering with the important bads, the person’s death benefits him: it prevents the worse life.
It is possible, in short, to benefit a person by ending his life. The concept of euthanasia is, therefore, at least not simply logically confused; similarly for the idea that physician-assisted suicide may be aimed at the good of the patient. But conceptual coherence does not imply moral permissibility. So let’s turn now to the moral question: Is it ever morally permissible to benefit a person by hastening his death, even when he requests it?
II. A Right to Choose
Suppose a doctor is treating a terminally ill patient in severe pain. Suppose, too, that the pain can only be managed with morphine, but that giving the morphine is certain to hasten the patient’s death. With the patient’s consent, the doctor may nevertheless give the morphine. Why so? Because, in this particular case, the greater good for the patient is relief of pain, and the lesser evil is loss of life: after all, the patient is terminally ill, and in severe pain, so life would end soon anyway and is not of very good quality. So the patient is overall benefited by having a shorter pain-free life rather than a longer, even more painful life. (Notice that this could be true even if the morphine put the patient in a deep unconscious state from which he never awoke, so that he never consciously experienced pain-free time.)
In giving morphine to produce pain relief, the doctor foresees with certainty (let’s assume) that the patient will die soon. Still, death is a side-effect of the medication, not the doctor’s goal or reason for giving it: the doctor, that is, is not intending the patient’s death, and would give the medication even if he thought death would not result. (If I have a drink to soothe my nerves and foresee a hangover, it does not follow that I intend the hangover.) Because the intended death is not present, we don’t yet have a case of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. At the same time, in giving morphine for pain relief, the doctor is not simply letting the patient die as the disease runs its course; he administers a drug which causes death. So I think this should be understood as a case of killing, even though the doctor does not intend the death. (In other cases we have no trouble seeing that it is possible to kill without intending death: consider a driver who runs someone over while speeding.)
Now suppose the morphine loses its power to reduce the intensity of the patient’s pain, but that administering it would still shorten the patient’s life and thus limit the duration of his pain. Suppose, too, that the patient requests the morphine; fully aware of its effects, he wants to take it so that it will end his pain by killing him. In short, we now have a case of morphine for death rather than morphine for pain relief. Is it still morally permissible to give the morphine? Some people say that we may not kill in this case. They do not deny that relief of pain is still the greater good and death the lesser evil: they know that the consequences are essentially the same as in the case of morphine for pain relief. The problem, they say, lies in a difference of intent. In the case of giving morphine for pain relief, we intend the pain relief, and merely foresee the death; but in the case of giving morphine for death, we intend the death (which is the lesser evil): we would not give the morphine if we did not expect the death. But some people think it is impermissible to act with the intent to produce an evil. They support what is called the Doctrine of Double Effect, according to which there is a large moral difference between acting with the foresight that one’s conduct will have some evil consequence and acting with the intent to produce that same evil (even as part of or means to a greater good). So whereas killing the patient by giving morphine for pain relief is permissible, killing the patient by giving morphine for death is impermissible.
The distinction between intending an evil and merely foreseeing it sometimes makes a moral difference. But does it provide a reason to refrain from performing euthanasia or assisting in suicide? I think not. On many occasions already, doctors (with a patient’s consent) intend the lesser evil to a person in order to produce his own greater good. For example, a doctor may intentionally amputate a healthy leg (the lesser evil) in order to get at and remove a cancerous tumor, thereby saving the patient’s life (the greater good). Or, he may intentionally cause blindness in a patient if seeing would somehow, for example, destroy the patient’s brain, or cause him to die. Furthermore, he may intentionally cause someone pain, thereby acting contrary to a duty to relieve suffering, if this helps to save the person’s life. The duty to save life sometimes just outweighs the other duty. Why then is it impermissible for doctors to intend death when it is the lesser evil, in order to produce the greater good of no pain; why is it morally wrong to benefit the patient by giving her a shorter, less painful life rather than having her endure a longer, more painful one? Recall that in the case of morphine for pain relief, it was assumed that death would be the lesser evil and pain relief the greater good. That was one reason we could give the morphine. Why is it wrong, then, for doctors sometimes to act against a duty to preserve life in order to relieve pain, just as they could sometimes act against a duty not to intend pain in order to save a life?
To summarize, I have constructed a three-step argument for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Assuming patient consent:
1. We may permissibly cause death as a side effect if it relieves pain, because sometimes death is a lesser evil and pain relief a greater good.
2. We may permissibly intend other lesser evils to the patient, for the sake of her greater good.
3. Therefore, when death is a lesser evil, it is sometimes permissible for us to intend death in order to stop pain.
Thus, suppose we accept that it is sometimes permissible to knowingly shorten a life by giving pain-relieving medication, and agree, too, that it is sometimes permissible for a doctor to intend a lesser evil in order to produce a greater good. How, then, can it be wrong to intentionally shorten a life when that will produce the greater good?2
I don’t expect that everyone will immediately find this argument compelling. I suspect that many—including some who are inclined to agree with the conclusion—will feel that death is different, so to speak. While they agree that we may intend pain, if it is a lesser evil, in order to save a life, they think it is impermissible to intentionally hasten death in order to relieve pain. I will address this concern later. But first I want to add another set of considerations that support euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
III. An Argument for Duty
According to the three-step argument, a doctor is permitted to give morphine for pain relief, even though he knows it will expedite the patient’s death, if death is the lesser evil. But I think we can say more. Suppose, as I have stipulated, that giving morphine is the only way for a doctor to relieve a patient’s suffering. A doctor, I assume, has a duty to relieve suffering. I conclude that the doctor has a duty to relieve suffering by giving the morphine, if the patient requests this. He cannot refuse to give the morphine on the ground that he will be a killer if he does.
If doctors have a duty to relieve pain, and even being a killer does not override this duty when the patient requests morphine for pain relief, then perhaps they also have a duty, not merely a permission, to kill their patients, or aid in their being killed, intending their deaths in order to relieve suffering. Now we have a new argument. Assuming patient consent:
1. There is a duty to treat pain even if it foreseeably makes one a killer, when death is the lesser evil and no pain is the greater good.
2. There is a duty to intend the other lesser evils (e.g., amputation) for a patient’s own greater good.
3. There is a duty to kill the patient, or assist in his being killed, intending his death when this is the lesser evil and pain relief the greater good.
I think this argument, too, is compelling, but will concentrate here on the case for permissibility.
IV. Is Killing Special?
As I indicated earlier, a natural rejoinder to the three-step argument for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is to emphasize that “death is different.” But how precisely is it different, and why is the difference morally important?
Perhaps it will be said, simply, that the doctor who intends the death of his patient is killing. Even if intending a lesser evil for a greater good is often permissible, it might be condemned when it involves killing. Killing, it might be said, is not on a par with other lesser evils.
But this does not suffice to upset the three-step argument. For giving a lethal injection of morphine to relieve pain also involves killing, and we approve of giving the morphine. To be sure, a patient’s right to life includes a right not to be killed. But that right gives us a protected option whether to live or die, an option with which others cannot legitimately interfere; it does not give one a duty to live. If a patient decides to die, he is waiving his right to live. By waiving his right, he releases others (perhaps a specific other person) from a duty not to kill him, at least insofar as that duty stems from his right to live.3 The duty not to kill him may also stem from their duty not to harm him, even if he so wishes; but I have stipulated that the doctor is to kill only when death is the lesser evil.
A more compelling version of the objection is, however, waiting in the wings. This one points not merely to the fact of killing, but to intentional killing. It claims that there is something distinctive about intending death, and that this distinction makes a large moral difference. In particular, acting with the intention to bring about death as a lesser evil requires that we treat ourselves or other persons as available to be used for achieving certain goods—in particular, the reduction of suffering. In euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, we intentionally terminate a being with a rational nature—a being that judges, aims at goals, and evaluates how to act.4 We have no such intention to use a person as a mere means when we aim at such lesser evils as destruction of a leg. Indeed, one of the things that seems odd about killing someone only if he is capable of voluntarily deciding in a reasonable way to end his life is that one is thereby ensuring that what is destroyed is a reasoning, thinking being, and therefore a being of great worth. This will not be so if the person is unconscious or vegetative or otherwise no longer functioning as a rational being. Obviously, people take control of their lives and devote their rational natures to the pursuit of certain goals within those lives; but, it is claimed, when this is appropriate, they do not aim to interfere with or destroy their personhood but set it in one direction or another.
The idea that there are limits on what we may do to ourselves as persons derives from Immanuel Kant. In his moral writings, Kant said that rational humanity, as embodied in ourselves and others, is—and should be treated as—an end in itself, and not a mere means to happiness or other goals. The fact that one is a judging, aiming, evaluating rational agent has worth in itself. To have this value as a person is more like an honor to us (Kant called it “dignity") than a benefit that answers to some interest of ours. Thus my life may have worth, even if my life is not a benefit to me (and my death would benefit me) because goods other than being a person are outweighed by bads. The worth of my life is not measured solely by its worth to me in satisfying my desires, or its worth to others in satisfying theirs. According to Kant, then, it is wrong for others to treat me as a mere means for their ends, but equally wrong for me to treat myself as a mere means for my own ends: As others should respect my dignity as a person by not using me merely as a means for their purposes, I should have proper regard for my own dignity as a person, and not simply use myself as a means for my own purposes. But that is precisely what I do when I aim at my own death as a way to eliminate pain. So I ought not to pursue that aim, and therefore ought not to consent to a morphine injection aiming at death, or give one to a patient who has consented.
Before assessing this Kantian argument, I want to justify focusing it on intentional killing rather than other ways of intentionally contributing to a death. Consider a patient who intends his own death and therefore wants life support of any sort removed. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we disapprove of this intention. Suppose, too, that we disapprove of a doctor’s agreeing to remove treatment because he also intends this patient’s death. But while we may disapprove of the intentions and conduct, acting on that disapproval would require us to force life support on the patient, and he has a right that we not do this. Our opposition to his intentions and the doctor’s is trumped by our opposition to forced invasion of the patient. So we permit the patient and doctor to act—to remove treatment—intending death. Consider, in contrast, a patient who intends his own death and, therefore, requests a lethal injection or pills. Suppose, once more, that we disapprove of this intention. Acting on our opposition would require us to refrain from invading him with a lethal injection or refuse the pills. But it seems clear that the right not to be invaded with treatment against one’s will is stronger than the right simply to be invaded (with a lethal injection) or given pills. So the fact that we must terminate treatment, even when the patient and doctor intend the patient’s death, does not show that it is permissible to kill the patient or assist him in killing when he and his doctor intend his death. Correspondingly, an objection to intentional killing need not imply an objection to terminating treatment for someone who intends his own death.5
I turn now to the Kantian-style argument against aiming at one’s death (or aiming at another’s death with his consent). In assessing this argument, we must distinguish three different ways in which one may treat a person as a mere means:
1. Calculating the worth of living on in a way that gives insufficient weight to the worth of being a person.
2. Treating the nonexistence of persons as a means to a goal (e.g., no pain).
3. Using persons in order to bring about their own end.
The first idea is that being a person has worth in itself and is not merely a means to an overall balance of other goods over evils in the person’s life. On this interpretation, we treat persons as a mere means if we give inadequate weight in our decisions to the value of our existence as persons; if we do, then death may seem a lesser evil. But even when there are few goods in life besides the capacity to be a rational agent, the loss of life—and therefore the loss of that capacity—may still be a greater evil than pain.
Though I do not doubt that this idea has force, it can equally well be given as a reason for not terminating a course of treatment, even when one merely foresees one’s death. Because this way of treating a person as a mere means does not distinguish the morality of intending death from the morality of merely foreseeing death, it cannot be used to explain why intentional killing in particular is impermissible.6
It might be said that this observation should prompt us to rethink the permissibility of killing in, for example, the case of morphine for pain relief, where death is foreseeable but not intended. For it might be said that the concern to treat people as ends and not mere means can be met only by giving overriding weight to the value of rational humanity, and that this requires that we refrain from acting in ways that we foresee as leading to death, and not simply from intentional killing. This response seems unjustified. Suppose life involves such unbearable pain that one’s whole life is focused on that pain. In such circumstances, one could, I believe, decline the honor of being a person. In so doing, we need not treat our life as mere means to a balance of good over evil. We might acknowledge the great (and normally overriding) value of being a person, and believe it is right to go on in life even if it has more pain than other goods besides rational agency: though we reject the thought that rational agency is merely a means to happiness, we allow that some bad conditions may overshadow its very great value.
What, then, about the second and third interpretations of the idea of using persons as mere means? To see the difference between them, consider an analogy: My radio is a device for getting good sounds and filtering out bad sounds. It is a means to a balance of good sounds over bad ones. Suppose it stops performing well, that it only produces static, but cannot be turned off. I can wait until its batteries run down and not replace them, or I can smash it now, thus using the radio itself to stop the noise it produces. Either way, I would see its death as I saw its life, as a means to a better balance of good over bad sounds. While I have always seen my radio as a mere means to an end, if I smash it, I use it as a means to its end (termination): This is sense (3).7 If I let the radio run down, intending its demise, but do not smash it—I see it wasting away and do not replace its parts—then I do not see it as a means to its own end, but I do see its end as a means to a better balance of sounds. This is sense (2).
Active suicide is analogous to smashing the radio: the person uses himself as a means to his own death. Some people find this complete taking control of one’s life particularly morally inappropriate, perhaps because they think our bodies belong to God and that we have no right to achieve the goal of our own death by manipulating a “tool” that is not ours (or intending that others manipulate it). This objection is not present if—here we have sense (2)—we terminate medical assistance with the intention that the system run down, aiming at its death. For then we achieve the goal of death by interfering with what is ours (the medication), not God’s. Here we have another reason why someone may object to killing but not to terminating treatment, even if accompanied by the intention that the system run down: unlike intentional killing, terminating treatment does not involve using persons to bring about their own end. Some say, though, that this way of using persons as means is also more objectionable than merely foreseeing the death. They say that if we terminate medical assistance, intending death, we do not merely treat our life as a means to greater good over bad, but treat our death (the end of our life) as a means to greater good over bad.
How much weight, then, should be placed on the second and third senses of “using a person as a means”? Should they really stand in our way? I believe not. It cannot be argued, at least in secular moral terms, that one’s body belongs to someone else and that one cannot, therefore, use it as a means to achieve death. Notice also that if your body belonged to someone else, it isn’t clear why you should be permitted to use it by administering morphine to stop your pain when you merely foresee that this will destroy the body. We aren’t usually permitted to treat other people’s property in this way either. Nor does it seem that treating one’s death as available for one’s purposes (i.e., being rid of pain) is necessarily a morally inappropriate attitude to take to oneself—so long as there is no failure to properly value the importance of just being a person. If this is right, then, at least sometimes, a patient would do no wrong in intending or causing his death. At least sometimes, a doctor who helped him by giving pills would also do no wrong merely because he killed, or assisted killing, aiming at death.
The strongest case for such conduct can be made, I believe, if the overriding aim is to end physical pain. The need to do this may be rare with modern techniques of pain control, but still the patient has a “disjunctive” right: either to adequate pain control or the assistance in suicide of a willing doctor. Psychological suffering which is a reaction to one’s knowledge or beliefs about a state of affairs is a weaker case. The test I suggest here is: Would we give a drug to treat psychological suffering if we foresaw that it would rapidly kill as a side effect? If not, then giving pills to a patient intending that they kill him in order to end psychological suffering would not be permissible. This same test can be applied to other reasons that might be offered for seeking death by euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. For example, would we allow a patient to use a drug that will rapidly cause death (rather than a safer one) if it will save him money? If not, then we may not perform euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide to stop the drain on his family finances. Would we give a demented patient a drug that unraveled the tangled neurons that caused his dementia but which we foresaw would rapidly kill him as a side effect? If not, then why should we be permitted to give him pills, intending his death? Of course, the application of this test may yield positive responses rather than negative ones to these questions.
V. A Philosopher’s Brief
I have argued that if it is permissible to treat someone in his best interests though we foresee that this treatment will rapidly cause death, it is permissible to kill or assist in killing someone intending his death when this is in his best interest. (Consent is required in both cases.) In their recent “philosophers’ brief,” Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon, and Judith Jarvis Thomson8 also reject a blanket ban on physician-assisted suicide, but their strategy of argument (and some of their conclusions) differ from mine. They argue from the premise that it is permissible to omit or terminate treatment with the intention that the patient die to the conclusion that it is permissible to assist in the killing of the patient intending death. I think this approach neglects the moral force of the distinction between killing a person and letting her die.
Dworkin et al. wrote as amici curiae in the “assisted suicide cases” that the Supreme Court heard this past January.9 The cases came on appeal from two circuit courts, which had both ruled that government cannot simply prohibit doctors from prescribing medication that would hasten the death of patients who request such medication. The philosophers urge the Supreme Court to uphold those decisions. One part of their argument builds on the Court’s 1990 decision in Cruzan v. Missouri, in which the Court majority assumed (if only for the sake of argument) that patients have a constitutional right to refuse life-preserving treatment.10 According to Dworkin et al., the existence of a right to refuse treatment also implies a right to assistance in suicide: if, as Cruzan indicates, it is permissible for doctors to let a patient die (even when patient and doctor intend the patient’s death), then it is permissible for doctors to assist in killing. In a preface to the philosophers’ brief written after the Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case, Ronald Dworkin notes that several justices rejected this link between Cruzan and the assisted suicide cases. They sought to distinguish them by reference to a “common-sense distinction” between the moral significance of acts and omissions: assisting suicide is an act, and thus requires a compelling moral justification; in contrast, not providing treatment is an omission, a matter of “letting nature take its course,” and can be justified more easily. Dworkin says that “the brief insists that such suggestions wholly misunderstand the `common-sense’ distinction, which is not between acts and omissions, but between acts or omissions that are designed to cause death and those that are not."
I agree that the act/omission distinction will not bear much moral weight in this setting: When a doctor removes treatment by pulling a plug, she acts, though she does not necessarily kill. If the doctor is terminating aid she (or an organization she is part of) started, then I think she does not kill the patient but lets him die. Consider an analogy: I am saving someone from drowning and decide to stop. Even if I have to push a button to make myself stop, I do not kill the person but let him die. When the doctor gives morphine to ease pain, foreseeing it also causes death, she also acts and even kills. But I part company with these philosophers when they argue that, once a patient has consented, we can always move from the permissibility of removing treatment while intending the patient’s death to the permissibility of assisted suicide. Killing is not on a moral par with letting die. Let me explain by reference to some cases.
In the first, doctors act against their patients’ wishes to live. Dworkin et al. agree that a doctor may permissibly deny an organ to a patient in order to give it to another, but not kill a patient to get his organ for another. This is not, they say, because of a moral difference between letting a patient die and killing him, but because the doctor merely foresees death in the first case, whereas he intends it in the second. If this showed, however, that killing made no moral difference, it would imply that it is permissible for a doctor, in order to transplant an organ into a patient, to use a chemical that he foresees will seep into the next room where another patient lies, killing that patient. For in this case, the doctor does not intend to kill the patient in the other room, but only foresees his death as a side-effect of the chemical. Presumably, though, transplanting with this effect is wrong because it is a killing, albeit foreseeable rather than intended. So in cases in which we merely foresee death, killing may be wrong, even if letting die is not.
Killing can also be a significant factor in cases where a patient does not want to die because letting die with the intention that death occur might be permissible even if killing with such intention is not. It is true, as the brief says, that a doctor who lets his patient die of infection against the patient’s will, intending that he die so that his organs are available, has done something wrong, as has a doctor who kills the same sort of patient, intending him to die. In both cases, the doctors aim against the welfare of their patients and violate their rights. The first doctor violates a right to treatment; the second doctor violates a right against being killed. But this does not always imply, as Dworkin et al. think, that “a doctor violates his patient’s rights whether the doctor acts or refrains from acting against the patient’s wishes in a way that is designed to cause death.” For example, suppose that someone does not want to die but it would be in his interest to die. If a treatment is experimental, or in general something to which the patient has no positive right, it may be permissible to deny it to him because death would be in his own best interest. I do not believe the patient acquires a right to have the experimental therapy merely because the doctor’s reason for refusing it is that he aims at the patient’s death. Still, it would be morally wrong to kill the patient if he did not want to die, even if it were in his interest to die.
Consider next the type of case in which the patient wants death. Here, the distinction between killing and letting die makes a moral difference when deciding on the scope of permissible refusal of treatment versus permissible assistance to killing. Dworkin et al. seem to suggest the scope should be the same, saying that if a doctor can turn off a respirator, he can prescribe pills. But a mentally competent patient may legally refuse treatment, intending to die, even when it is not in his best interest to do so and, on many occasions, even when he could be cured. Presumably, in many of these cases, he could also insist on terminating treatment, even if his intention is to die. Furthermore, even if the doctor in these cases improperly intends that the patient die, the treatment must be terminated. This is because the alternative to letting the patient die is forcing treatment on him. We think a competent patient’s right not to be physically invaded against his will is typically stronger than our interest in his well-being (though this right is, to be sure, not absolute and can sometimes be overridden by considerations of public safety). But if he asks for assistance in killing himself when it is not in his interest to be killed, it might well be morally impermissible to kill him. Contrary to what Dworkin et al. say, therefore, a doctor might in some cases be permitted and even required to turn off a respirator but not permitted to give pills.11
The alternative to letting die, then, has such a morally objectionable feature—forcing treatment which he has a right we not do—that even if we think the patient’s and doctor’s goals are wrong, we must terminate aid. In contrast, the alternative to assisted suicide may simply be leaving the patient alone; this often does not violate any of his rights against us, and so we can, and sometimes we should be required to, refuse to help because we disapprove of his goals. Many people—including the Supreme Court justices Dworkin et al. cite—might, then, reasonably distinguish refusing treatment and thus letting a patient die from assisting in a suicide. The move from Cruzan’s right to refuse treatment to the permissibility of assisted suicide is, therefore, not generally available. Still, my discussion here indicates that we may have other reasons to accept the fundamental moral conclusion: that assisted suicide (and euthanasia) are sometimes morally permissible.12
An earlier version of this paper was given as a talk at the Plenary Session of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in New York, in February 1997.
1 Only “may,” because some doctors aim simply to give patients a choice whether to live or die.
2 I first presented this argument in Creation and Abortion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 33-35, and again in Morality, Mortality, Vol. II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp 194-98.
3 Notice that this waiver seems to be morally necessary even when the doctor wishes to give morphine that will kill as a foreseen side effect. This means doctors should get permission for giving the morphine for pain relief as well as for giving it to deliberately kill. (I do not believe they always do so.)
4 We also terminate human life considered independently of whether it is the life of a rational being. It may seem harder to justify destroying a person than a human life that lacks qualities required for personhood—for example, a functioning brain. But I will assume that one could substitute “human life” for “person” in the argument I give against intentional killing and in my response to that argument.
5 In contrast, suppose that a patient who intends his own death is also suffering great pain that only morphine will stop. He asks for the morphine, not because it will stop the pain, but because he knows it will kill him. If it would not kill him, he would not ask for it. Does he have a right that the doctor give him the morphine? If he does, then the doctor is not at liberty to refuse simply because of the patient’s intention, any more than he could refuse to terminate treatment because of the patient’s intention. Indeed we might not be permitted to interfere with the doctor’s giving morphine in this case even if he gave it only because he intended death. I owe this case to Timothy Hall.
6 Kant thought we had a duty to actively preserve rational humanity and hence we should not too lightly do what we foresee will lead to its end. Still, he allows that we may sometimes engage in conduct though we foresee it will result in our deaths, but we may never aim at our deaths.
7 If I see someone else destroy it and do not interfere, I may be intending its use as a means to its own end, though I do not myself use it.
8 New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997.
9 State of Washington et al. v. Glucksberg et al. and Vacco et al. v. Quill et al.
10 Cruzan v. Missouri, 497 U.S. 261 (1990). The Court did not, however, agree that Nancy Cruzan had clearly decided, before an automobile accident that left her in a persistent vegetative state, that she would refuse treatment.
11 It seems to me that the lower court in the Washington case also overlooked this point when they said that whether we assist killing or let die is not morally or legally crucial. For even that court was concerned to limit the doctor’s right to assist in killing the patient to cases where the patient’s life is going to end shortly anyway and when death is not against his interests. But the right to refuse treatment and have it terminated applies much more broadly. If, however, the distinction between killing and letting die as such makes no moral or legal difference, then refusing treatment should be permitted no more broadly than assisting killing. See Compassion in Dying v. Washington 79 F.3d 790 (9th Cir. 1996).
12 I am grateful to Joshua Cohen, Timothy Hall, and Seana Shiffrin for their comments.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
June 01, 1997
32 Min read time