Kantian Ethics and Suicide

Kant believed that if something is right, it is right in all situations. Likewise, if something is wrong, then it is wrong in all situations. Faced with the issue of physician-assisted suicide, I think a Kantian would consider that an act of murder. To a Kantian, killing is always wrong.

In Kantianism, the whole purpose of morality is to do the right thing just for the sake of doing it. Doing the right thing for the right reason is also very important to Kant. Kantian morality is not consequential, so actions are based on the motive/will of the person, and not on the consequences that came from the behavior. The whole purpose of physician-assisted suicide is based on the probable consequence that the person won’t suffer anymore. A Kantian does things for the sake of doing things, not because it leads to a certain consequence.

For Kant, there is only one reason to do the right thing, and that is just because it is right. In other words, a person’s actions are based on their intentions. This means that people should do good things, not as a means to an end, but just because it is good in and of itself. Would helping someone kill him/herself be doing the right thing in and of itself? Under the Kantian philosophy, I don’t think so. Although the motivation for going through with physician-assisted suicide would be to ease the suffering of the person, the act itself would be done as a means to an end, in a consequentialist fashion under the hypothetical imperative. This contradicts Kantian ethics.

Hypothetical imperatives are dependent upon the context of the situation. They are relative and contingent. Hypothetical imperatives are formed to bring a certain result (consequence), and have nothing to do with morality, especially since we are not in complete control of the consequences of our actions.

Only decisions formed under the categorical imperative are moral. Categorical Imperatives are not dependent on the context of a situation. They are universal (can be applied in all situations). In making a decision, if one cannot universalize the behavior (can everyone do it and still be right?) without contradiction, then the behavior/act should not be done. I think that a Kantian would say that killing a person (under any circumstances, for any reason), cannot be universalized, so physician-assisted suicide should not be allowed.

On the other hand, I think that a Utilitarian might be in favor of physician-assisted suicide, depending on the situation. In assessing the situation, a Utilitarian would use the principle of utility, or the greatest happiness principle, which says “do that which will create the most happiness for the greatest number of people.” If performing a physician-assisted suicide would benefit more people than just the person who is suffering, then a Utilitarian would consider it. Perhaps if the victim’s family would be comforted knowing that they won’t suffer anymore, then a utilitarian would be in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

An act utilitarian would try to figure out what good would come of the physician-assisted suicide in making the decision. They would use what is referred to as the “hedonistic calculus” to help them choose. This entails making a list of the following details pertaining to the situation: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. Each quality is assigned a number on a scale from one to ten. Then the list is added up. The resulting answer is supposed to help the person decide what to do. A utilitarian would decide based on if the good that comes from helping someone kill themselves outweighs the pain (which is figured out through the hedonistic calculus). If it does, then the physician-assisted suicide should be done.

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