Some time ago we discussed the moral status of euthanasia in my Philosophy and Public Issues class. We talked about it a bit again today. As some of you might now, James Rachels has argued that there are two main reasons for accepting the moral permissibility of euthanasia: respect for autonomy and reduction of pain/suffering. He also argues that cases of passive euthanasia (where a patient is allowed to die due to "natural causes" by, for example, allowing him/her to stop eating or unplugging his/her respirator) are at least morally on par with cases of active euthanasia (where a patient is killed by, for example, a doctor that injects him/her with a lethal dose of a drug). In addition, many follow Rachels in thinking that active euthanasia is morally preferable to passive euthanasia. This is because the two aforementioned reasons for accepting euthanasia can be applied to both passive and active. Also, if a patient wants to die and is "better off dead," it seems to many that she should have the option to die as painlessly as possible. Since dying from a morphine overdose is less painful than dying due to starvation or asphyxiation, there's an argument to be made for thinking that active euthanasia is morally preferable to passive euthanasia.
Some challenge this reasoning by suggesting that there is a moral difference between killing and letting die. The idea is that if killing is worse than letting someone die, then passive euthanasia ought to be considered morally preferable to active euthanasia. But is this true? Consider the following two cases:
Killing: I decide that Larry Bird must perish. I go to his house and shoot him with a gun. He dies as a result.
Letting Die: I happen to be sitting next to Larry Bird on an airplane. I notice that he is chocking on a peanut. I consider trying to save his life, but decide not to help him. He dies.
How do these cases compare morally? Rachels argues that there isn't necessarily a moral difference between killing and letting die and that they may sometimes be morally on par. But what do you think?
* You might be tempted to say that, in the first case, I am guilty of first-degree murder but that, in the second case, I am not guilty of any crime. This, of course, is a legal point. I'm not concerned with that. I'm worried about the moral status of these cases.
* It might help to imagine that I've got the same ill-will toward Larry Bird in both cases. Suppose that I despise him with every cell of my body and that I relish his demise. Does this change your assessment of the cases?