Views on Euthanasia


J.P. Moreland

Article ID:



Apr 13, 2023


Apr 17, 2009

The following is an excerpt from article DE197-1 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.

TWO VIEWS ABOUT THE MORALITY OF EUTHANASIA Views on Euthanasia- The Libertarian View

The libertarian view is a minority position among current moral philosophers and theologians, but it nevertheless has a strong, articulate group of supporters. The clearest, most forceful statement of the view can be found in the writings of philosopher James Rachels.9 In what follows, therefore, I will focus on his position as a way of analyzing the libertarian view of euthanasia. According to Rachels, the distinctions used in the traditional view are inadequate. There is nothing sacred or morally significant about being a human being with biological life. Nor is there any moral difference between killing someone and letting him die. Thus, if passive euthanasia is permissible in a given case, so is active euthanasia. Two distinctions are central for Rachels’s libertarian position.

Views on Euthanasia- Biological Life Versus Biographical Life

The mere fact that something has biological life, says Rachels, whether human or nonhuman, is relatively unimportant from an ethical point of view. What is important is that someone has biographical life. One’s biographical life is “the sum of one’s aspirations, decisions, activities, projects, and human relationships.”10 The facts of a person’s biographical life are those of that person’s history and character. They are the interests that are important and worthwhile from the point of view of the person himself or herself. The value of one’s biographical life is the value it has for that person, and something has value if its loss would harm that person.11 Two implications follow from Rachels’s view: (1) Certain infants without a prospect for biographical life, and certain patients (e.g., comatose patients or those in a persistent vegetative state) are of little intrinsic concern, morally speaking. Though they may be alive in the biological sense, they are not alive in the biographical sense. And the latter is what is relevant to morality. (2) Higher forms of animals do have lives in the biographical sense because they have thoughts, emotions, goals, cares, and so forth. They should be given moral respect because of this. In fact, a chimpanzee with a biographical life has more value than a human who only has biological life.

Views on Euthanasia- Killing and Letting Die

Rachels argues that there is no morally relevant distinction between killing someone intentionally and letting someone die. The active and passive dichotomy is a distinction without a difference. He calls this the “equivalence” thesis, and the main argument for it is called the “bare difference argument.” Rachels sets up two cases that are supposed to be exactly alike except that one involves killing and the other involves letting die:

Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so that it will look like an accident. No one is the wiser, and Smith gets his inheritance. Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith, Jones sneaks in planning to drown the child in his bath. However, just as he enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip, hit his head, and fall face-down in the water. Jones is delighted; he stands by, ready to push the child’s head back under if necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about, the child drowns all by himself, “accidentally,” as Jones watches and does nothing. No one is the wiser, and Jones gets his inheritance.12

According to Rachels, neither man behaved better even though Smith killed the child and Jones merely let the child die. Both acted from the same motive (personal gain) and the results were identical (death). Thus the only difference between the two cases is killing versus letting die, and since the cases are morally equivalent, this distinction is morally irrelevant. Two implications follow from the equivalence thesis: (1) Cases where passive euthanasia is permissible are also cases where active euthanasia is permissible. (2) Situations where we let people die — for example, when we let people starve in famine situations — are morally equivalent to killing them.

Views on Euthanasia- The Traditional View

Since I have already hinted at the essence of the traditional view, it may be stated briefly here by focusing on three main points.

Views on Euthanasia- The Distinction Between Active and Passive Euthanasia

Two main reasons have been offered for the distinction between active and passive euthanasia. (1) The direct cause of death is different. In the former it is the doctor or another human agent. In the latter it is the disease itself. (2) The intent of the act is different. In active euthanasia it is the death of the patient, either as an ultimate end or as a direct means to some other end (e.g., a pain-free state). In passive euthanasia death is a foreseen consequence of an otherwise legitimate action whose intent may be to alleviate suffering, respect patient autonomy, cease interfering with the dying process, and so forth.

Views on Euthanasia- The Permissibility of Passive Euthanasia

The traditional view allows for withholding or withdrawing treatment in some cases where certain circumstances exist; for example, cases where the patient is terminal, death is imminent, treatment is judged extraordinary, and death is not directly intended.

Views on Euthanasia- Active Euthanasia Is Morally Forbidden

The traditional view forbids active euthanasia regardless of whether it is done directly by the physician (mercy killing) or by the patient himself with the help of the physician (assisted suicide).

Share This