The Case for Euthanasia: A Humanistic Perspective

By Kurtz, Paul | Issues in Law & Medicine, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

The Case for Euthanasia: A Humanistic Perspective


Kurtz, Paul, Issues in Law & Medicine


I wish to present the moral case for voluntary beneficent euthanasia, both active and passive. I also wish to outline an ethical theory in defense of it. Secular humanists are often challenged for defending euthanasia, but I submit that there is a profound ethical justification for it. The theory that I want to defend is known as naturalism. It is grounded in human experience, and its principles and values are tested by their consequences. It is not subjective but has an objective basis. Included in this theory is an important neo-Kantian reference, for I think there are prima facie general ethical principles that have been established over a long period of time, and also certain basic, widely shared values. Central to my position, though not exclusively so, is situational ethics.

So, first, I presuppose a body of ethical data that we share no matter what our religious, ethnic, or ideological positions. I maintain that these ethical principles are the common heritage of humankind. They are transcultural, for we live today in a world community. And since we have an opportunity for interaction in the planetary society, these principles have meanings for all parts of the human family. They are found in both the religious and philosophical traditions. They are what I call the "common moral decencies," the principles that we teach our children, the basic moral truths. Most people today will agree about their ring of authenticity, though no doubt there are some exceptions. First are the principles connected with integrity: truthfulness, promise-keeping, sincerity, honesty. Second are the principles connected with trustworthiness: fidelity and dependability. Third are those connected to benevolence: compassion, good will, and nonmalfeasance. Fourth are those connected to fairness: gratitude, accountability, justice, tolerance, and cooperation. I've only enumerated these common moral decencies without a chance to defend them or state them with any exhaustive accounting, but I am assuming that these are the shared ground upon which we stand.

Second, there are also basic values that we don't necessarily all share but that have emerged in democratic societies as the rules of the game. These values are also the values of humanistic culture. Humanism, as I interpret it, is not a recent invention but has a long history going back to the classical philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. It emerges again in the Renaissance and with the democratic and scientific revolutions of the modern world. Among these key values--l can again only enumerate them in order to give you something of the flamework of this ethical theory-is the value of autonomy, namely, that freedom of choice of the individual is cherished. The good is to maximize the range of human choice and allow people to grow creatively and develop so they can make their own decisions about their lives. It involves individual responsibility as a basic value and an effort to nourish it.

It also involves the value of excellence. There is a long-standing debate in the history of Western philosophy about hedonism versus self-realizationism. I would defend a combined theory, basic to which is the notion that we want to achieve a life in which there are significance, meaning, and degrees of perfectibility that are humanly attainable. Excellence emerges with the cultivation of a creative life in which there is a fullness of being and a quality of life in which people can enjoy happiness and well-being. I have used the term exuberance to describe the highest reaches of happiness, a life overflowing with joy.

Third, I also wish to refer to the notion of human rights. This is a recent development of the past three centuries, and it largely comes out of the democratic revolutions. It is not found, for example, in the religious or biblical tradition, and the struggle to gain recognition for human rights has been long and hard. I won't here catalog these rights fully because I think that the United Nations' Declaration and other declarations have stated them well. …

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