PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday October 24, 2014


[8.3.] In Support of Active Euthanasia: James Rachels.


Rachels says that the strongest pro-euthanasia argument is the Argument from Mercy. He considers two versions of this argument:


1.      the Utilitarian version

2.      the Utility & Rights version


He identifies some serious problems with the first (Utilitarian version) and changes it to the second (Utility & Rights) version in order to avoid those problems.



[8.3.1.] The Utilitarian Version of the Argument from Mercy.


Here is the first, problematic version of the Argument from Mercy:


1.      Any action or social policy is morally right if it serves to increase the amount of happiness in the world or to decrease the amount of misery. Conversely, an action or social policy is morally wrong if it serves to decrease happiness or to increase misery. [This is a statement of classical utilitarianism.]

2.      The policy of killing, at their own request, hopelessly ill patients who are suffering pain [i.e., active euthanasia] would decrease the amount of misery in the world [such as in Rachels’ story about Jack, the cancer patient].

3.      Therefore, such a policy would be morally right. (RTD 314)

As Rachels points out, many contemporary philosophers think that there is a problem with classical utilitarianism: it implies that happiness and the avoidance of misery are the only, or at least the most important, moral values. But there are other things that are also morally important:

·         freedom;

·         justice; and

·         respect for individual rights.


To illustrate this point, Rachels focuses on freedom of religion:


… people might be happier if there were no freedom of religion, for if everyone adhered to the same religious belief, there would be greater harmony among people. There would be no unhappiness caused within families by Jewish girls marrying Catholic boys, and so forth. Moreover, if people were brainwashed well enough, no one would mind not having freedom of choice. Thus happiness would be increased. But, the argument continues, even if happiness could be increased this way, it would not be right to deny people freedom of religion, because people have a right to make their own choices. Therefore, the first premise of the utilitarian argument is unacceptable. (RTD 315)


He then considers an even more extreme example, one that is more relevant to euthanasia: the right to life:


Suppose a person is leading a miserable life—full of more unhappiness than happiness—but does not want to die. This person thinks that a miserable life is better than none at all. Now I assume that we would all agree that the person should not be killed; that would be plain, unjustifiable murder. Yet it would decrease the amount of misery in the world if we killed this person—it would lead to an increase in the balance of happiness over unhappiness—and so it is hard to see how, on strictly utilitarian grounds, it could be wrong. (RTD 315)


So, we value things other than happiness, including personal freedom and autonomy:


autonomy (df.): a person’s capacity to make decisions for himself; the ability to guide one’s own life. [from Greek auto, self, and nomos, law]


So happiness, it seems, cannot be the only standard of morality.



[8.3.2.] The Utility & Rights Version of the Argument from Mercy.


But obviously, happiness is morally important. We don’t have to abandon utilitarianism entirely. As Rachels says, “when an action or a social policy would decrease misery, that is a very strong reason in its favor.” (RTD 315)


With this in mind, Rachels proposes a second, stronger version of the Argument from Mercy.


1.      If an action promotes the best interests of everyone concerned [modern utilitarianism] and violates no one’s rights, then that action is morally acceptable.

2.      In at least some cases, active euthanasia promotes the best interests of everyone concerned and violates no one’s rights.

3.      Therefore, in at least some cases, active euthanasia is morally acceptable. (RTD 316)


This version differs in two important ways from the first version:

·         it refers, not just to happiness and misery, but to peoples’ best interests [in essence, he is shifting from classical to modern utilitarianism]

·         it incorporates a concern for individual rights


Discussion: is this argument valid? [yes] Is it sound? [it is up to you to form your own opinion about whether the premises are true…]



Stopping point for Friday October 24. For next time:

                Read all of RTD ch.17: “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” by Peter Singer.

                Study today’s online lecture notes.

                There may be a pop quiz over either or both of those sources of information at the beginning of class.




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