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  1. #1
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    The Morality of Euthanasia (Passive)

    This was a college assignment for a philo course I'm taking this semester (Critically Thinking about Ethical and Philosophical Issues).

    This was a rather unique sort of assignment. The instructions were to:

    1) Read the short story about a nurse tending to a patient who suffered severely in war and was now "home".

    2) Finish the ending of the story from the perspective of you being that tending nurse, specifically explaining what would or wouldn't you do if placed into the situation: euthansia

    It's a terrific exercise in critical thinking after one has become familiar with the core concepts of argument analysis, and I plan on adapting it into ODN's online course on Critical Thinking.

    Attached is the short story. What follows is my response. It may not make sense at first if you do not read the short story (attached .pdf document) as it picks up directly where the actual short story ends.

    Attachment 3112


    “Gut wrenching” just doesn’t seem to have the meaning it once did. I’m a nurse. How could I be put into a situation like this? Tough decisions are presented to me every day. This was not a tough decision, but a life changing, nearly impossible dilemma that I’m simply not paid to be concerned with!

    Is it wrong to allow someone who has no hope of surviving much longer to slip away, pass into the “unknown”, to simply cease existing? How much of a difference does it make that Johnny was aware of his situation, not only gave his consent to let him die, but initiated his own death sentence?

    I thought it was a sin to take one’s own life if one were Catholic. Johnny said it wasn’t and in this case, “they” were wrong. He seemed to believe he was already dead and it was merely a matter of passing through that door to his next life, nothing more.

    He made his moral decision. He was fine with it. It doesn’t seem right for me to interrupt the decision he has made in his life. It’s one thing if the decision that he makes may be harmful to his life and perhaps just doesn’t know better, but in this case what was harmful to Johnny was actually living! So to intervene…wouldn’t that make my actions (and potentially intent) harmful if I stopped him from carrying out his wishes? Indeed it would. I have no moral obligation to do that which may be harmful to another, and it certainly seems as if this state of being that Johnny was experiencing, was harmful. My decision could not rest on the concern I have for Johnny’s moral standing, but rather it must be based on my own moral compass.

    So there I was, contemplating what actions I have available to me that would not violate my own sense of morality, my own sense of dignity. At least this dilemma was clarified. It became more specific. It became “Is it moral for me to allow someone on their deathbed to die given the fact that they desire it and have given their consent?” By doing so, am I violating any moral commands?

    As a nurse, I have a moral obligation to help those in need. And perhaps this can be further broken down into whether or not that need is the preservation of life or if by “need” we mean to say assist those in the welfare of their being (whatever that may be). Both are legitimate needs, both are worthy values for someone to have. But what is the purpose of each? To preserve life…does it mean to do so in any circumstance in an absolute sense and without exception? Since the other value I hold dear is to provide for the best possible welfare of another being while they are under my watch, it would seem that there is a possible conflict. Preserving life in this instance is obviously at odds with caring for the welfare of Johnny’s very well-being. He is suffering, he understands there is no hope, there is no life for him, there is no living. Therefore to force his continued existence in his current state of being which has no possible way of getting better and is obviously coming to an end soon would seem to be an act of cruelty. And being cruel is not how I would identify myself or my values. Emotionally, it may seem easier to simply just say “Life must be preserved at all costs” and let nature take its course. But I see two problems here. One, it wasn’t easy emotionally when I allowed Jenny to die as she did. Secondly, “thinking” emotionally rarely ever results in the best possible outcome. I am looking out for the welfare of Johnny’s being by respecting his autonomy and his current state of life…or lack thereof. Therefore, it would seem best to allow Johnny’s request and do so on purely rational grounds.

    OK, so from a humanist perspective, I can feel a little more comfortable with this decision because it is rational. To not be cruel is a strong argument for respecting Johnny’s wishes to die and it is indeed, caring for his welfare. But is the humanist perspective all that I should be considering? I’m not a humanist philosophically. I’m not all that entirely spiritual either, but I do believe in the Christian God and I do believe that God thinks that life is precious. Should I respect that? Does that trump my personal convictions?

    If it is the case that God creates life and has authority over it, it is His to give and to take, not necessarily mankind’s. And given the fact that God created all that exists, it seems like a pretty strong argument to believe that God must have the right to make decisions about mankind. With this authority over human beings, He has allowed mankind to take the lives of others through varying circumstances. One example that comes to mind is the prescription of capital punishment for certain offenses such as murder (Leviticus 24:17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death”). So a human being can take another life, as long as it is justified. There are many ways to justify taking another’s life I suppose (self-defense, implementation of capital punishment, war, etc…). Is allowing Johnny to carry out his wishes and not intervene considered “taking” his life though? And if so, is that considered murder and thus not justified?

    The intent behind me allowing Johnny to go through with this actions and decision is not to cause harm to him. It is not to be cruel nor is it to cause his death. Quite the contrary, my primary motivation or intent is to care for his welfare or state of being. Allowing him to end his life early (as it would surely be over in the coming weeks or months, maximum, at the rate of his deterioration) cannot be said to be the same as taking his life with ill intent. My intent is to help Johnny in whatever capacity that I can, and it is his interests that should be my priority.

    But what about intervening in the process? By not stopping him and letting him die aren’t I playing the role of God and deciding that he should die now? I don’t think so. In fact, I think we intervened when we saved Him in the first place and we continue to intervene by putting off the inevitable outcome of his current situation. While life is indeed precious, neither Johnny nor I wanted Johnny to die, that wasn’t our goal, it wasn’t our objective. Instead, it was the recognition that death is unavoidably imminent. Johnny shouldn’t be forced to endure treatment that will not work, and I shouldn’t be forced morally, to administer treatment that only prolongs the inevitable. If we look at the situation from a religious perspective, it isn’t that we are intervening to prolong Johnny’s life; it is that we have intervened to save it up to this point and we continue to intervene by keeping him alive. It is only through technology that we are able to keep Johnny alive. I remember reading a short book called Basic Questions: End of Life Decisions which had a very profound statement that I’ve never forgotten: “We must keep in mind that medical technology is a human invention, not a divine mandate.[1].” That is, our way to intervene in situations such as these comes in the form of medical technology. And if it is through medical technology that we can preserve life while at the same time caring for the welfare of a human being, then we should use this tool to do so. But if through such an intervention we have made matters worse by making the welfare of the human being worse, then it is an abuse of the tool itself and ought not to be done.

    I don’t know how…but the above dilemmas and reasoning them out seem to take place at sonic speeds. My heart wrenched of course…but my mind accepted what should be done. I only wish I was able to think as clearly for Jenny as I did today. I wish I could hear her voice again. I wish I could have another chance. I wish the last words I remember from her were simply…”Thank you Mary Ellen, thank you.”

    [1]Stewart, G. P., Cutrer, W. R., Demy, T. J., O'Mathúna, D. P., Cunningham, P. C., Kilner, J. F., & Bevington, L. K. (1998; 2004). Basic Questions on End of Life Decisions (20). Kregel Publications.
    __________________________________________________ __________
    Last edited by Apokalupsis; February 6th, 2013 at 07:11 AM.
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  2. #2
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    Re: The Morality of Euthanasia (Passive)

    It's a heck of a story you wrote, and I greatly admire your skill as a writer, but it muddles some important moral concepts a bit. For example, in the story you didn't write, it's said of Latham just after taking the fatal dram:
    "...these last minutes, few and precious as they were, now were his to spend as he pleased."
    Why were they precious? Because he had them, and could spend them "as he pleased". Where did those "precious minutes" of life come from? Certainly not from Latham, nor his doctors or nurses. God doesn't need doctors to provide a human being with life. Why, then, did God give Latham those minutes? Doubtful it was to "spend as he pleased". Is that a solid basis for Christian morality; that we get to spend our precious moments of life pleasing ourselves? I think I missed that part of the Gospel if that's the case. The part I remember stressed loving others without thought of the cost to ourselves.

    The story is gut-wrenching, and I don't presume to know how I'd react in a similar position. I hope I'd be faithful to the God I worship, regardless of the pain to myself, living according to His will for me, revealed to me in my circumstances, for He informs me that nothing in my life happens that doesn't first pass through His will for me, and that even more, all things work together for good for me as I continue to love and obey Him.

    Pain has an important property; it demands our attention on ourselves. Be it excruciating or mild, the temptation is to minister to it in any way we can, by whatever means we can, and this self-ministry, this self concern is the opposite of the love of God we are called to live and to share with our fellow man. Latham had reached despairing of the goodness of God in his life on this earth, His thoughts were entirely self-centered in those last minutes. No more thoughts about being used of God in the lives of others, as was illustrated by his desire to be wheeled in the veteran's parade. Life, for him, had been reduced to an absolute, unequivocal, unmitigated self concern according to the story, which gives no hint of him ending his life to unburden those he loved and who so obviously loved him with all their hearts. As understandable to that part of us not submitted to the love of God as it might be that Latham would take his own life, the fact remains he spent is last moments on earth in deep and abiding self pity; a self pity that drove him to seek a release God was not nearly ready to grant Him without Latham's trespass on the sovereignty of God.

    Perhaps the best way to analogize this is, as a Christian, how would it have been if, after Jesus had hung on the cross for half an hour, He had miraculously released Himself, declaring to the astonished John, the Apostle, "That's enough of that!"

    Living a life of Christian love means living it to the moment of the end of the suffering that must come with it in a world typified by suffering, at the behest of the God who gives us life; as His, and not our own, for we have been bought with a price.

    The nurse didn't have to be there before Latham died. If it was God's will that Latham's life end then, God had all eternity to arrange for her to be just a few minutes later than she was in fact. She arrived in time to make a moral decision, so a moral decision must have been what God wanted from her. What was moral, according to our Christian faith, was helping Latham endure the trial of his faith he had failed on his own; so as to give him yet another chance at victory before he had to stand before God and account for his life that God gave him. She WAS God's strengthening of Latham at the point where his own strength had failed. Had she not failed as well, Latham would have lived longer; had more opportunities to be used of God for good in others' lives; and perhaps, just perhaps, to receive a better reward when he entered Heaven; to hear of his Lord and Savior, welcome my good and faithful servant. Enter into My rest."

    The idea that it was man's technology that put Latham and Mary Ellen and her sister in the moral trials they faced is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. On any traditional Christian theology, God uses man's technology like God uses everything else, for His own inscrutable purposes. Because those purposes are indeed inscrutable, it is not up to man to decide when to use it and when not. If it has a reasonable chance of prolonging life, it's to be used. In using it we don't keep people alive God wants to die. That technology, with respect to the will of God for Latham, was in the same relationship to him that Mary Ellen was; there to keep Latham alive according to God's will for Latham. It was there to prolong Latham's sojourn upon this earth as a witness bearing testimony to the love and mercy of God.

    Now I know how black and white (and thus, perhaps, heartless) this all sounds, but that's the nature of a moral code. I recently viewed again the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, and while there is plenty to criticize theologically in the motion picture, the scene where Jesus questions God's purpose in His death is superb, and highly instructive here. There the actor/singer playing Jesus sings in obvious agony of spirit and doubt, having been shown the death He must die, "Watch me die!", giving us our model for life eternal. There is no gray area when it come to obeying thge will of God for our lives, and God has shown us by the fact that it is true for even the Son of God, that this is immutable truth.

    The Christian moral code is based entirely on the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, the embodiment of selfless loving incarnate. In this story Latham struggled long and hard to live up to selfless love, but in the end he was defeated by self concern, and it does no good as a Christian to deny or question this because we have grave doubts we, ourselves, could do no better, or even as well, much less better! Jesus also showed us that perfection on this earth includes having doubts; moments of wavering faith that then rights itself and finishes the course set before it.

    We have to trust to the mercy of God for Latham, and continue to live as best each of us can, with God's grace, to be faithful to unselfish loving of others. Mary Ellen, as portrayed by your part of the story, failed to live up to the model of Christian love revealed in Christ as well, and again, our own doubts as to our own ability to do any better do not excuse an attempt to re-write the Gospel to make it easier for us (and her) to succeed, where as written she clearly failed in her calling. She failed as much as the televangelist caught stealing from the offering plate fails. She failed as much as did the priest who succumbed to the temptation of pederasty. Sin is sin; is an offense against the will of God, and in giving offense, as opposed to having consequences here on earth, all sin is the same, from the white lie told to avoid a minor conflict with a friend, to sadism of the most egregious sort imaginable.

    This can be no better illustrated than by realizing that if the Christian God doesn't exist, and there is no God who just is selfless loving, and no such God to call us to a life lived selflessly loving others, then it is clearly best to allow Latham to die, and Mary Ellen did the "right" thing...assuming there is a right thing in a world without a selfless and holy God superintending it. Pain can reach a level where nonexistence is to be much preferred; of that there can be no dispute. However, it does little to spread the Gospel to mix what seems right according to atheism or agnosticism, with what Jesus has taught us by example. Clearly, despite the encouraging words of Paul, Latham had indeed resisted temptation "unto blood", but he was unable to finish the race; stumbling at the finish line.

    But this isn't really about who fails and who doesn't. It's about what is or isn't Christian morality as demonstrated by who failed and who didn't. The doctors didn't. Latham's family didn't. But Latham and Mary Ellen did. There are a thousand nuances in this story that would make for interesting disucssion, but they don't change the basic failure of both main characters according to biblical morality. I'm not suggesting Latham ended up in Hell, or anything like that, for God is a God of mercy, too, and Latham's judgment will have to include his not getting the strengthening from God that God intended by arranging for Mary Ellen to arrive in time to save his life. But as to whether or not they made moral end of life decisions within a Christian context, there is little doubt that they didn't.

    As to one of those aforementioned nuances, how about taking the life of Stephen Hawking into consideration here? Clearly there are human beings living lives similar to that of Latham, who instead of sinking into despair, rise as needed to the occasion, even on just their own "hook" as it were, denying the very existence of a loving God the entire journey (thus far...hope springs eternal). And if that's the case, then this whole story boils down to the question, is ending your own life a moral decision, regardless of your life's circumstances? Take, for example, that young boy who was "outed" as a homosexual, and humiliated on the Internet, who then took his own life amidst the pain of pure mortification. Was that a moral decision on his part according to our Christian faith? If it differed even slightly from the horrible tale you given us to consider here, I'm afraid I don't see it. Pain is subjectively experienced, and I can't feel anyone's but my own. All I can do to gauge its intensity in another is observe what it causes them to do; to act. Thus for all anyone knows that young boy's pain was equal to Latham's, even if of a different sort. But were they really of a different sort? Didn't they both cause a human being to take their own life seeking release from that pain? Does Christian morality demand we should have "helped" this young homosexual boy out of this life, because of his pain and suffering? Because he "consented" to his own death? If not, then how does it demand we sit by idly while someone under our care, according to the will of God, takes theirs?

    Sorry about the length of the reply. There is a ton of stuff here to consider that I haven't even mentioned, but this is too long by half as it is. Besides, none of what's missing would change my own basic judgment here shaped by biblical morality as I understand it. Again, I want to stress to the max I'm not passing judgment on either of the main characters. I didn't create them, they don't belong to me, it's not my place, even if they were actual people, and God is a God of mercy...thank God!

    PS - I want to assure you I read every word of the story in the pdf file, and of yours, and took it all into due consideration in what I wrote above.

  3. #3
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    Re: The Morality of Euthanasia (Passive)

    Nice writing there Apok!

    I personally agree with the morality of the choice, though I didn't get from the story that he surely would have died despite medical care. There seemed to be some outs for him to keep on a while longer.

    As a humanist I think that fundamentally our lives are our own and that if we choose to end them that is our decision to make. I still think that sometimes others can think more clearly than we can and I don't fault those who take some action to save the lives of others in moments of drama. Preventing suicides is a noble endeavor. That said, I think in the case of those who clearly have no future to look forward to, no redemption of health and peace of mind, it is a great mercy to allow their lives to end. We all die, it is inevitable and if life can no longer provide meaning, its rational for it to come to a conclusion.

    I find the notion of preserving life at all costs morbid and inhumane. The notion that the purpose of living is to suffer even more so. Jesus suffered for a reason, a clear and distinct one. I don't think that applies to the character in the story.

    I agree with cstamford in so much as there are strains in the bible that support what he is saying. But I also think that its presumptuous to think that god only wants one thing in his incorruptible plan and that it is our purpose to carry out that one desire unless prevented from doing so. Even if you judge the main characters choice to end his life as selfish, I don't think you can say the same for the nurse. Her heart was motivated by compassion and love, and that is the central message Jesus teaches. He did not call people to judge the sins of others or to ensure that all others followed the path of the righteous. He mostly called people to follow the path themselves regardless of the world around them.

    I think with the first patient, it was not fair to call on the nurse to end her life. Asking someone to kill you is a rather crewel request to make, its not really fair unless that person has made it known they are willing to do so. Asking someone to allow you to make your own decision is much less so.

    And I do think in net, the main characters decision, while motivated by a desire to end his suffering, likely did others good. The resources and effort needed to sustain his life could then be spent on those who had a strong desire to live and who had hope for fuller lives. Imagine if all the money spent on his future treatments could be spent to give food and shelter to people who don't have it, or to give routine medical care to people who would otherwise die from common ailments.
    Feed me some debate pellets!



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