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The sanctity of life
- The traditional Christian view. Sometimes now called the ‘strong’ sanctity of life.
- God created human life, it is a gift from God, only God has a right to end it.
- Biblical evidence:
- We are created in God’s image. Genesis says that is why it is wrong to kill people.
- The 10 commandments say thou shalt not murder.
- 1 Corinthians says that our body is a ‘temple of the holy spirit’ and ‘you do not belong to yourself.
- The weak sanctity of life view.
- There are many themes found in the Bible, the sanctity of life is only one.
- Other themes include compassion and love, both emphasised by Jesus.
- All these factors must be taken into account and in some extreme cases the sanctity of life may be outweighed by the others.
Optional further evaluation:
- Compassion being recommended in the bible does not justify overruling the sanctity of life view.
The Quality of life
- This claims that what makes life valuable is the quality that it has in terms of the balance of happiness over suffering.
- Peter Singer says that the sanctity of life is based on outdated Christian views and thus should be re-evaluated.
- Singer argues that the reason killing is wrong is that it violates the preferences or interests of a being.
- If someone has a low quality of life and a preference to die, then voluntary euthanasia is justified.
- Non-voluntary euthanasia is also justified for those in a vegetative state and for babies born with terrible medical conditions like spine abifida. They cannot have or express a preference, but they do have an interest in not suffering unnecessarily.
- The reasons killing is normally wrong do not apply in cases like this where quality of life is low or non-existent.
- Archbishop Fisher criticises the quality of life view with the slippery slope argument.
- Wherever euthanasia has been legalised for clear cases like elderly people with terminal illness, it eventually extends to cover more and more types of cases, such as babies.
- Fisher further argues that this creates pressure to be euthanised on marginalised people who feel like a burden, or feel like a failure.
- Adding to Fisher’s point, in Canada in 2022 there was controversy when some people requested euthanasia due to being in poverty.
Optional further evaluation:
- Singer’s response is that those who receive euthanasia are disproportionately privileged.
- He further points out that the number of euthanised babies in sweden has gone down over time, suggesting there isn’t a slippery slope.
- Ultimately, Fisher’s arguments are unsuccessful because they do not show that it is necessarily wrong, only that we should be careful about how we implement it.
- Nozick took a deontological/absolutist view of autonomy.
- He argued for the principle of ‘self-ownership’, that each person owns their body and can do what they want with it.
- If someone wants euthanasia then that is up to them, no matter the reason.
- If someone else wants to help them, there is nothing ethically wrong with that.
- Voluntary euthanasia is therefore always morally acceptable.
- There are ethical downsides to allowing anyone to die who wants to.
- Singer points to the example of a love-sick teenager who wants to die for short-sighted reasons.
- Singer claims we can ‘safely predict’ they will get over their issues.
- Allowing autonomy in euthanasia for absolutely any reason would lead to many people dying when they themselves would have ended up regretting it. That doesn’t seem like it enables autonomy.
- Mill and Singer take a consequentialist view of autonomy to solve this issue.
- Mill argued that society will be the happiest it can be if we follow the harm principle.
- People should be free to do what they want, so long as they aren’t harming others.
- This will maximise happiness because people are generally in the best position to know what will be good for them.
- The slippery slope
- Allowing consequentialist autonomy will result in a slippery slope towards absolutist autonomy.
- Fisher argues that once you accept that people have the right to die, you have no way to prevent slipping down the slope to allowing it in all cases where people want it.
- In that case, autonomy cannot avoid the issues faced by Nozick’s version.
Optional final evaluation
- We can combine Singer and Mill’s view of autonomy with the requirement that it be rational.
- So, voluntary euthanasia is good when it is rationally chosen.
- This would prevent the slippery slope issue, because it would not allow voluntary euthanasia in cases like the love-sick teenager.
Situation ethics application to Euthanasia
- Situation ethics would judge that euthanasia can be morally good, in situation where it maximises agape.
- In situations where it would maximise agape to avoid euthanasia, it would be wrong, however.
- For example, if someone has a very low quality of life and an autonomous wish to die, it seems that Fletcher would accept euthanasia.
- However if someone is pressured into euthanasia by their family who are greedy for inheritance or by society making them feel like a failure or a burden, or if they have a short-term issue like Singer’s example of a lovesick teenager, Fletcher would think it wrong to allow euthanasia in such cases.
- W. Barclay’s critique.
- People are not perfectly loving so if given the power to judge what is good or bad, people will do selfish or even cruel things.
- People’s loving nature can be corrupted by power.
- Someone might find it loving to manipulate/pressure someone into or out of euthanasia, perhaps if they will get inheritance to pay for their children’s food or something. Some might find it loving to end their life because they feel like a burden.
- Defence of Fletcher: humanity has progressed since mediaeval times.
- Fletcher and Robinson argue (influenced by Bonhoeffer) that humanity has ‘come of age’, however. This means that humanity has become more mature.
- In medieval and ancient time, when humanity had not come of age, people in general were less educated and less self-controlling.
- This meant that they needed fixed ridged clear rules to follow, because they could not be trusted to understand and act on the nuances and complexities in how a rule could justifiably be bent or broken if the situation called for it.
- However, now people are more civilised, to the point that granting them more autonomy will increase love without risking the stability of society.
Optional further evaluation:
- Barclay disagrees however, and thinks that although people might appear improved, if granted the freedom (and thus power) to do what they want, they won’t choose the loving thing they will choose the selfish or even the cruel thing.
- This is essentially the classic argument that power corrupts. It also echoes the debate about the extent to which human nature is corrupt, such as by original sin.
- Also relevant is psychology like the Stanford prison experiment and literature like lord of the flies.
- It is a well-known feature of human psychology that power is corrupting. The freedom to decide what is good or bad without external supervision of legalistic laws grants humans more power and thereby corrupts them.
Natural law application to euthanasia
- Natural law ethics claims that we should follow the Bible teachings, which Aquinas calls the ‘divine law’. It claims there is also another law, the ‘natural law’ which also comes from God.
- God has given reason to human nature and designed it to be able to intuitively know the primary precepts of natural law.
- Application to Euthanasia. Euthanasia violates the primary precept to protect and preserve human life.
- Violating the sanctity of life, such as by allowing euthanasia, also violates the primary precept of maintaining an orderly society. Natural law is the idea that God designed all things, including humans, with the potential to be in harmony if they follow God’s natural law, such as the preservation of human life. Failure to follow this will therefore cause disharmony. Our society will break down because living contrary to God’s design is unnatural and thus leads to immorality and social disorder.
- Mother Theresa summed up this kind of argument well during her speech upon receiving the noble peace prize. She claimed “the greatest threat to world peace is abortion. If a mother can kill her own child in her own womb, what is left to stop us from killing one another?”
- The Catholic Church uses the double effect to claim that sometimes doctors can stop or withdraw treatment (passive euthanasia) or even administer pain medication which could speed up death. So long as the intention is not to kill, the double effect would suggest such actions can be morally acceptable.
- Whether Natural law ethics and the sanctity of life is outdated
- Aquinas’ Natural law ethics and the sanctity of life principle are increasingly seen as outdated. Sociologically, we could claim these ethical principles were created to be useful in the socio-economic conditions of their time. Ancient and Medieval society was more chaotic, strict rules were important to hold society together and because people were not educated nor civilised enough to be trusted with the freedom to interpret their application. It made sense to create strict absolutist ethical principles to prevent society from falling apart. This would explain the primary precepts. They served a useful function in medieval society.
- Applied to euthanasia, we can argue it was useful to simply ban all killing in medieval times, because violence and killing was much more common and therefore needed to be strongly restricted. People were less self-controlling and less educated, so they needed clear simple rules to follow.
- The issue clearly is that all of these socio-economic conditions have changed. So, the primary precepts are no longer useful. They were designed for a different time and are now increasingly outdated. Society can now afford to gradually relax the inflexibility of its rules and think about how they might be reinterpreted to better fit modern society.
- Aquinas could be defended that this doesn’t actually make his theory wrong. The fact that mainstream culture has moved on from natural law ethics doesn’t mean it was right to. If Hitler had won WW2 and enslaved humanity, then democracy might have been viewed as ‘outdated’, but that wouldn’t make it wrong. Calling an ethical theory outdated is not an argument against its actual truth.
- A better version of the ‘outdated’ critique is to argue that Aquinas’ theory was actually a reaction to his socio-economic context and since that has changed, Natural law is no longer relevant.
- Aquinas thought that he discovered the primary precepts through human reason, as God designed. However, arguably it’s a simpler explanation that Aquinas was simply intuiting what was good for people in his socio-economic condition. The idea that the resulting principles actually came from God was only in his imagination.
- Natural law is outdated because it doesn’t actually come from God but was a reaction to socio-economic conditions that have changed.