Sunday, July 31, 2016

Killing vs. Letting Die

From guest blogger, Julie.

Is there a moral difference between killing and letting die? I don’t know if I buy that you can “let someone die.” When you have the power to prevent someone’s death and you don’t intervene, you’re killing them.

Killing is defined as the act of causing someone’s death, especially deliberately. When you make the decision to allow the process of someone dying to continue, you are killing them. If you have time to think through your options: save them or watch them die, and you choose to watch them die, you have deliberately decided to end their life. 

Take for example a victim of a car crash. You are the only one around. If you were to call 911, an ambulance would come and provide necessary medical care to save the victim. If you don’t call 911, the victim is sure to die a painful death. Your phone gets great service so you have complete capability to call for help. You decide you don’t want to call, are you still letting the victim die? It seems to me that you are causing the victim’s death, deliberately since you make the conscious decision to not call. That sounds a lot like killing. 

Now let’s change the scenario slightly: unfortunately, your phone doesn’t get great service. Now you can’t help by calling 911. All you can do is watch the victim die a painful death… or you could end their suffering and allow them to finish their life without grueling pain. Does “letting die” seem to be the greater moral choice in this situation? Either way their life is going to end and you could help relieve some pain if you kill them.

What do you guys think? Is there a difference between “letting someone die” and killing them? Instinctually there seems to be a difference, but I just can’t find it. And how do you think this applies to the debate over euthanasia? 


Bryan Li said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks for raising an interesting question. In my perspective, there are moral difference between killing and letting die because killing takes an initial action and it is generally crueler than letting die. Yet there are few cases (depend on context) where we can argue killing is worse than letting die.

In your last example, it is to me that killing is not a greater moral choice because we have no cruel about his real status and legally we have no right to make a such large decision for him. Although I see the victim is suffering, maybe for few hours, yet my intuition tells that there is still large potential he can survive. When the concept applies to euthanasia, my thought has changed. Regarding an elder people with stroke in class, we have seen the elder suffering the pain over for years, and the elder will die in the near term. Hence, I do not see much difference by using direct euthanasia or indirect euthanasia because the intention (to reduce pain) and the results will be the same.

Catherine Peterson said...

For me, in a general I don't think there's a moral difference between killing and letting die, but whether or not either is morally good or bad is entirely dependent on the intentions of the acting person and the desires of the dying person. In the case of car crash the victim doesn't want to die, there's a simple way to save them and the onlooker (who I still think is letting them die) by ignoring that is in the moral wrong. When applied to Euthanasia I think you could argue it's morally right in that the sick person, if making the decision, wants to die because they are suffering and the doctor killing them has the good intentions to relieve them from unnecessary suffering.

Jane Zhou said...

Hi Julie,

The moral distinction between killing and letting die is an important part of the debate over the legalization of euthanasia. It is generally accepted that killing a person is morally worse than letting a person die, therefore doctors should be allowed to cease treatment of a patient and ‘let them die’ but should not be able to act upon the patient to cause their death, or ‘kill them’. Passive euthanasia involves not just letting the patient die, but doing so quite deliberately and for the good of the patient. In a similar way, active euthanasia is deliberately killing the patient for this own good. This indicates that withholding from a terminally ill patient treatment, which would extend his life a little but which is judged to be excessively burdensome, is not passive euthanasia.

Jane Zhou

Mark said...

I'm kinda trying to make sense of the difference myself... I believe that they're equally deplorable, but putting that aside I think the distinction is something like this:

Killing someone requires some degree of malice, or bad intent. The death is a direct result of that intent.

Saving someone requires some degree of grace, or good intent. You can choose not to save someone out of apathy, but then the death is not a result of any ill intent, only circumstance.

We kinda expect people to be a bit better than apathetic, which is why a lot of people see both situations as bad. Intrinsically, one seems a little less bad, however.

And I think the principle is the same if you're considering saving someone who's been stabbed (ill-intent) or someone who's having a heart attack (circumstance).