Humanism, Illness, and Elective Death
A Case Study in Utilitarian Ethics
Keywords:Ethics, Euthanasia, Elective Death, Utilitarianism, Humanism, suicide, chronic illness, secular humanism
The author offers a defense for elective death on utilitarian grounds, but one that is presented specifically from the perspective of someone who: 1) faces a potentially terminal illness and diminishing quality of life; 2) views death as nothing more than a return to prenatal nonbeing; and 3) maintains common humanist ethical commitments. The argument, then, is uniquely situated and limited in scope, rooted both in the particulars of his recent experience with a rheumatic autoimmune illness and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as well as in a worldview shaped largely by emerging narratives in the sciences. Drawing upon the work of J.S. Mill and P. Singer, the author begins by assuming that one is generally free to act on a preference for nonbeing so long as others are not unduly harmed or thwarted in pursuing their own aims as a result. But a humanist, he suggests, ideally ought to press beyond this minimum criterion and do one’s best to maximize eudaimonia by carefully weighing how elective death would likely affect others to whom one is currently obligated in significant ways. The focus of one’s ethical reasoning, then, should remain on maximizing well-being and minimizing harm, not on creating a logical flawless and internally coherent defense that may satisfy a set of abstract or universally applicable criteria drawn up by others in an effort to define precisely what might render a given suicide “rational” or “morally permissible.”
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