KILLING OTHER PEOPLE OR THEIR BODIES
AT THEIR REQUEST
When speaking of "causing", "risking" and "allowing the
deaths of other people" or "of the bodies of other people", some
might immediately associate these terms with a descending scale
of wrongness. Causing someone else's death, or killing, would
then be worse (that is, more wrong) than risking it, and risking
someone else's death would, in turn, be worse (more wrong) than
allowing it. Those believing this to hold in general are in
In the event that the beings we are speaking about are persons, it may
indeed be worse to cause another person's death than to risk it.
Yet, the fact that allowing another person's death is not wrong has nothing
to do with a descending scale but everything with the
nonactivating character of the
extrinsic duty concerned.
Those who cause another person's death against
'er will do interfere in the
gravest way possible and those who risk this other person's death risk
interference, but those who allow the other person's death do not allow
interference (unless the other person is involuntarily killed by a
third person): they simply do not interfere, which is their
extrinsic right (even when a
person is involuntarily killed by a third person, albeit a very
questionable attitude to take in such a case).
Now, if a person asks to be killed there is nothing extrinsically
wrong in killing
'im in accordance with
'er express wishes after having taken every precaution to ensure
that the decision is a free, personal one. Causing 'er death is
then even a better way to fulfil such a wish than merely risking
'er death. And it is in this case the act of not allowing 'er
death which would be a flagrant violation of the person's
discretionary right to live and to die.
A person who requests to be killed painlessly on account of
'er distressing, physical and/or mental state, because
'e is not
able to do this 'imself, is someone asking for voluntary active
euthanasia. Such euthanasia is called "active" since it
requires an action, namely that someone (a doctor, for instance)
causes 'er death; passive euthanasia, on the other hand,
requires a nonaction, namely that no-one tries to postpone the
death of the person concerned or 'to prolong the act of dying'.
Being termed "voluntary" for obvious reasons, it should be
distinguished from both 'involuntary' and 'nonvoluntary'
Involuntary euthanasia is the act or
intentionally killing, or letting die, someone who is ill or injured,
or whose future well-being is threatened, in disregard of 'er
own views but with the motive to serve 'er own interests.
Nonvoluntary euthanasia is the act or practise of intentionally
killing, or letting die, an ill, injured or threatened sentient
being which is not in the position to have or to express, and
which has not expressed, any view on the matter, with the motive
to serve its own interests. Voluntary and involuntary euthanasia
can only apply to persons or their bodies, nonvoluntary
euthanasia may also apply to sentient beings with which one has a
special relationship (such as domestic animals).
Nonvoluntary euthanasia is not related to
personhood, and the killing of
happiness-catenal (or living)
beings must in this context be judged by the standards applied to killing
happiness-catenal (or living) beings as discussed in the
Involuntary euthanasia is a form of killing or not saving
people, or their bodies, against their will and will be
discussed later in this division.
Voluntary euthanasia is governed by the rules of the
constellation (like involuntary euthanasia) and, consequently, the
difference between passive and active, voluntary euthanasia is significant.
Whereas passive voluntary euthanasia only requires that one
allow another person to die, active voluntary euthanasia requires
that one cause 'er death (or that of 'er body) oneself.
If this is done, the person's right is not violated, because
one has 'er permission (by definition), but whether it should
be done does, strictly speaking, not depend on the person's own
wishes. And if one thinks that it should not be done, it is also
every person's right to refuse cooperation, that is, to refuse
to perform the act of euthanasia.
Whether one is allowed to or not allowed to kill other
people, or their bodies, is in the first place a question of extrinsic
rights and duties; whether one should or should not do this
a question of
intrinsic rights and duties.
As soon as intrinsic rights and duties come up for discussion, however, we
must look at people, or their bodies, as happiness-catenal
beings or as living beings. It is then that we should painlessly
kill a person as a happiness-catenal being if 'e is bound to
suffer a lot from a painful and incurable disease, and under
such conditions that the side-effects to other happiness-catenal
beings are nonexistent or minimal. (But this should not be done
if the person as a hapiness-catenal is only not going to lead a
happy life anymore, without definitely having to experience
much more pain than pleasure.) As a living being the life of a
person is not worth living anymore if 'e is pining away due to a
disease which destroys more and more of 'er body and its parts.
When both considerations (that is, that of the
value and that of the value of life) point in this
direction, one should evidently assist in an act of voluntary
If they both point in the opposite direction one may have the extrinsic
right to cause the person's death, but then it would still be wrong on
the basis of the neutralistic doctrine.
But the person's own wish is indirectly also of great import from the
doctrinal angle, because if 'e
wants to die, it is more likely that 'e suffers unbearably and that no
future happiness will outweigh 'er pains.
Other things being equal, this is a reason to validate 'er request for
The definition of euthanasia (act or practise of
intentionally killing, or letting die, a person or sentient being
that is ill or injured, or whose future well-being is
threatened, with the motive to serve its own interests) will
probably be attacked for being vague.
It might be argued that being ill and a being whose future
well-being is threatened admit of different interpretations.
This criticism is certainly correct, but can only lead to terminological
It does not effect our normative considerations.
Firstly, on the
metadoctrinal model, a person
may give permission to kill or use 'er body regardless of 'er being sick
or of 'er well-being being threatened or not.
And secondly, on the doctrinal model, if a happiness-catenal or living
being is not really sick, or if its well-being is not really threatened,
this must influence the decision whether to kill this happiness-catenal,
or living, being or not. The procedure to reach this decision does by no
means depend on the definition of euthanasia, let alone on its
vagueness. It is rather the other way round: if it is believed
that something or someone who has not expressed 'er will to stay
alive should be killed, then people would rather call this
Another charge of vagueness as regards euthanasia might be
that the killing must take place 'with the motive to serve the
interests' of the sentient being concerned.
This objection is mistaken
The concept of motive is not vague in itself; it
may only be hard to establish what the real motive is. If
the motive to kill or to have killed, say, someone from whom the
killer inherits all possesions, is only the killed person's
money, then it can easily be pretended that the motive is or was
to serve that person's own interests, if the killing would
indeed save 'er own interests. (A reason why important decisions
like these must not be taken exclusively by those 'most closely
affected' unless they do in no way benefit personally from a
decision to perform the act of euthanasia.) Such a motive would
be a very wicked one, but in the case of voluntary euthanasia it
is the person requesting 'er own death who has to take such
possibilities into account.
Just as in the case of infanticide, so some theorists use a
slippery slope or wedge argument against euthanasia, especially
against the decriminalization (or 'legalization') of active
euthanasia. The 'logical' interpretation of this argument is
that once the all-important first step has been taken to kill
human life, there would be no good reason for not accepting
additional practises which are plainly unacceptable, and therefore
the first step had better not be taken. This, of course, is
rubbish, even if we read for "human life", "the life of a
As has been replied elsewhere already, there is a rational ground
for distinguishing between the person 'in agony who wants to die' and,
for example, 'an old infirm person who does not want to die'.
This rational ground is that the death is requested in the first case,
and not requested in the second.
Such a ground is metadoctrinal, but even on the doctrinal view there is an
important difference between the first person who suffers terribly, and the
second person who does not suffer in any comparable way.
If logic were that simple, a wedge argument might as well prove that the
illegalization of euthanasia with respect to human beings would compel a
country to illegalize all forms of killing human beings without exception,
that is, inclusive of capital punishments and of the killing of members of
foreign armies (to say nothing of nonhuman animals or nonhuman sentient
On the psychological version of the slippery slope argument
against active euthanasia it is claimed that this form of
killing would in fact lead to terrible consequences reflecting a
general breakdown in respect for 'life' (which in the language
of these human beings means human life when it suits them).
There are several reasons which make this argument implausible.
Firstly —as has been pointed out—, in societies in which
defective babies, or even feeble old people, used to be killed,
this did not lead to an easy approval of other types of
killing. Secondly, in societies in which people are permitted to
kill others in self-defense, people seem smart enough to also
distinguish killing in self-defense from other types of killing
nevertheless. And finally, it has been pointed out that in
societies where euthanasia, or active euthanasia, is illegal the
choice is not between a benign policy and a potentially
dangerous one. The existing policy in such a society has its own
evils, the worst of them being that the right of a person to
decide over 'er own life and death is violated by the law of the
country or state. Those who do not want the slippery slope
argument to hold can always build in safeguards, and more and
stronger safeguards, dependent on the time and place concerned.