Humanism, Illness, and Elective Death

A Case Study in Utilitarian Ethics

Authors

  • James A. Metzger East Carolina University

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/eph.28242

Keywords:

Ethics, Euthanasia, Elective Death, Utilitarianism, Humanism, suicide, chronic illness, secular humanism

Abstract

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.”

Author Biography

James A. Metzger, East Carolina University

Most of my formal training has been in religious studies (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, 2006), but my current teaching duties have required me to read extensively in philosophy and ethics as well. Most recently, I’ve taught at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Luther College, East Carolina University, and Pitt Community College. I have written two books (one academic, another fiction) and published in a wide array of academic journals and magazines (including EPH and Free Inquiry).

References

Améry, Jean. 1997. On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death, translated by John Barlow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Barrington, Mary Rose. 1980. “Apologia for Suicide.” In Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, edited by M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo. 90–103. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Battin, M. Pabst. 1994. The Least Worst Death: Essays in Bioethics on the End of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Battin, M. Pabst. 1995. Ethical Issues in Suicide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Cholbi, Michael. 2011. Suicide: The Philosophical Dimensions. Buffalo, NY: Broadview.

Clements, Colleen. 1980. “The Ethics of Not-Being: Individual Options for Suicide.” In Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, edited by M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo. 104–14. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Fischer, J.M. 1993. “Introduction.” In The Metaphysics of Death, edited by J.M. Fischer, 3–30. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-08-042152-0.50017-x

Gill, Michael. 2005. “A Moral Defense of Oregon’s Physician-assisted Suicide Law.” Mortality 10: 53–67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13576270500031055

Groll, Daniel. 2014. “Medical Paternalism—Part 2.” Philosophy Compass 9: 194–203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12110

Hick, John. 1994. Death and Eternal Life. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Holley, D.M. 1989. “Voluntary Death, Property Rights, and the Gift of Life.” Journal of Religious Ethics 17: 103–121.

Huxtable, Richard and Maaike MÖller. 2007. “‘Setting a Principled Boundary?’ Euthanasia as a Response to ‘Life Fatigue.’” Bioethics 21: 117–126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2007.00535.x

Kagan, Shelly. 2012. Death. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Marquis, Donald. 1989. Why Abortion is Immoral. The Journal of Philosophy 86: 183–202. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2026961

Melville, Herman. 1985. “Bartleby the Scrivner.” Reprinted in Concise Anthology of American Literature, edited by George McMichael. Second edition. New York: Macmillan.

Mill, J.S. 1978. On Liberty. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Motto, J.A. 1980. “The Right to Suicide: A Psychiatrist’s View.” In Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, edited by M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo. 212–219. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Pew Research Center (Religion & Public Life). 2015 May 12. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus). 2004. Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell. New York: Penguin.

Singer, Peter. 2003. “Voluntary Euthanasia: A Utilitarian Perspective.” Bioethics 17: 526–541. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8519.00366

Swinburne, Richard. 1997. The Evolution of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/0198236980.001.0001

Wijsbek, Henri. 2012. “ ‘To Thine Own Self be True:’ On the Loss of Integrity as a Kind of Suffering.” Bioethics 26: 1–7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2010.01801.x

Wood, David. 1980. “Suicide as Instrument and Expression.” In Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, edited by M. Pabst Battin and David J. Mayo. 151–60. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Published

2016-09-20

How to Cite

Metzger, J. (2016). Humanism, Illness, and Elective Death: A Case Study in Utilitarian Ethics. Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, 24(1), 21–58. https://doi.org/10.1558/eph.28242

Issue

Section

Articles