CathBlog - Scrutinising apparent support for euthanasia



Assisted suicide advocate Dr Philip Nitschke (pictured) has been using survey results to claim that 80 per cent of Australians support euthanasia. 

It is well known that opponents of euthanasia object that the survey does not clearly distinguish between deliberate killing and turning off life support.

It is not surprising, they say, that 80 per cent of Australians are not opposed to turning off life support in certain situations but it would be very surprising to find so many Australians supporting deliberate killing.

However both sides are a little unclear on this issue.

I think clarity is required as it brings out the commitments of the proponents and forces us to make important decisions. There is actually a deeper and more fundamental distinction at the basis of this disagreement. This distinction is upheld by many and rejected by many as well. It is a distinction that forms a great divide between two groups of people.

The distinction is that between intended consequences and forseen consequences. In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy, the incredible Elizabeth Anscombe taught us that most moral philosophers – between Sidgwick and Anscombe – deny that there is any such distinction. They form the first group, which we can call consequentialists, a familiar term coined by Anscombe in this famous paper.

For consequentialists there is no difference between administering a life shortening drug for the purpose of pain relief and administering it to end a life. In a sense they are both the same action and equally euthanasia. Therefore, they would say, the supposed misleading survey results claimed above are not misleading at all. To suggest that they are, is to assume a distinction which is not morally relevant.

The opposition, in which I include myself, does recognise the distinction and could be called Aristotelians in honour of their founder. Personally I think it is very important to draw the distinction and bear it in mind when engaged in moral discussion. Why? Because this distinction is at the heart of all moral theory.

For Aristotelians what matters about morality is that we (individual people) do good and refrain from evil. Very roughly, this means that even if an evil occurs, as long as you did not participate in that evil personally, you did not sin.

For example, bringing a child with spina bifida into the world, even if you knew about the disease prior to the birth, does not make you guilty of making the child suffer and does not lesson the goodness of your actions.

Or again, a government (or a God) which (or who) allows people freedom, yet knows that this freedom will result in crime, is not guilty of those crimes.

However if you do not draw the distinction between intended and forseen consequences. you make morality about the eradication of all evil in the world. For consequentialists, every evil in the world brings an amount of personal guilt to each of us. An example comes from Robert Adams who once responded to David Lewis with ‘morality stems from the obligation to improve the way things are’. To which Lewis (I think rightly) replied ‘what is crucial about morality is that we not do evil’.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since the rise of consequentialism in the world, the problem of evil is more frequently cited as a reason not to believe in God.

However, in any event there is a deep disagreement going on and it is having a big impact on Australian politics. It is time for us all to decide which side we are on. Even utilitarians need to decide where they stand on this one. Do they side with Hume and Mill on the Aristotelian side or with Sidgwick, Adams, Singer and the Consequentialists on the other?

It is worth thinking about this one: not only will it bring much needed clarity to a topical subject, but it will also help give a very personal understanding of a much maligned concept, that of individual responsibility.

Simon RowneySimon Rowney is a CathNews reader who blogs from Corrimal, NSW.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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