Ethical Theories on Human Euthanasia/Mercy Killing

Updated on July 27, 2016

Utilitarians and Kantians Ethical Theories Snapshot

Utilitarians weigh the circumstances of an issue and state that the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people involved.

Kantians don’t believe in exceptions to creating universal laws. Something is either wrong or right, regardless of the circumstances.

Mercy Killing: What is it?

No human being with a spark of pity could let a living thing suffer so, to no good end” Stewart Alsop stated as he watched another human suffer from a terminal illness [1].

Should we have pity on those suffering without the hope to survive and allow them the dignity to die peacefully? That is the debate.

In order to understand the dilemma, one must understand euthanasia in two forms, and ethical theories both for, and against, mercy killing.


There are two types of euthanasia: voluntary and involuntary.

Involuntary euthanasia is one where the person dying has made to request or is unable to request hastened death such as through infanticide or capital punishment.

Voluntary euthanasia, also known as mercy killing, is one in which a person requests to end their life early, usually as a result of a terminal illness that is causing an immense amount of pain without hope of survival.

Voluntary euthanasia can be passive, via removing life supporting service to hasten death, or active which is the physician assisted suicide of a terminally ill person via medicine that results in death.

The sides are divided with moral and logical reasons as to why mercy killing is, or is not, moral.

"I'm dying everyday, but I'm not scared of death. I'll die happily and if they give me an injection, I'll die right now.


Ethical Theories on Mercy Killing: Utilitarianism and Kantian Application

If someone has a terminal illness and are in pain, they may seek assisted suicide in mercy. In this situation, death is unavoidable and their suffering is in vain.

The ethical question is:

Do we kill in mercy to relieve them or is it unethical or immoral to do so?

Most central to this ethical problem is whether killing is okay.

Fundamentally, we say it is not okay to kill another human, but unlike most ethical and moral theories, life has exceptions.

For instance, most people don't blink at the thought of killing at all, their answer is an absolute "no, it's not okay--ever".

But what about capital punishment? It is mostly accepted and just another day when we hear of a convicted murderer being euthanized. This type of killing falls under retributivism, and is a form of vindication and closure for the victim's family when a murderer is murdered.

But is that not what it is? Murdering?

We do agree that if someone murdered one of our loved ones, they, too, deserve to die, correct? Most agree. If that is so, then those in agreement should also agree that mercy killing is ethical, too. But....

But when someone asks to die, people find it inhumane.

There are two ethical approaches to this dilemma. Kantians and Utilitarians.

A Utilitarian approach to this dilemma would allow the mercy killing only if certain conditions are met. Utilitarians do not follow divine command, thus they are not bound by a holy scripture to find guidance.

A Utilitarian would weigh the circumstances and state that the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people involved. Thus if the person wanted to die, and less family members objected than those who agreed, the mercy killing would be OK.

However, if more family members objected than agreed, the Utilitarian would push the principles of the Utilitarian approach back on the family members to ask what would result in the greatest amount of happiness. In a mercy killing case, the unnecessary suffering of a family member that will inevitably result in death is not choosing to produce the greatest amount of happiness. Thus the conclusion would be to allow the mercy killing.

A Kantian approach would disagree that mercy killing is the right thing to do as it would result in a new acceptable behavior of murdering. Although it, too, excludes divine command, its theory states whatever you do, you create a universal law. So by killing you are approving of murder without exception. Kantians don’t believe in exceptions to creating universal laws. However; the inconsistency here is that Kantians agree with retributivism.

In other words, they DO agree killing is acceptable under certain conditions....

So, it appears there is an exception to their lack of exceptions. Approving of murder when one is convicted of killing another, according to them, creates a universal law of killing--period.

This approval of retributivism, which takes into consideration the specific circumstances involved when taking a life, ignores the specific circumstances of a terminally ill person dying and requesting hastened death. They hold onto their argument that it would create a universal law.

They argue mercy killing 'breaks the seal' of killing, and as a result killing would then be acceptable in all forms-- and people will kill without value for life.

However; they contradict themselves. Why is is acceptable to have exceptions for retributivism but not for voluntary euthanasia? The exceptions for this type of killing would be only acceptable when a terminally ill person requests it.

Arguing that it is acceptable to kill a killer as a form of retributivism is still fundamentally killing. Thus, if a universal law is born by all acts, then their agreement with capital punishment is an agreement with mercy killing.

In the end, Kantians are contradictory in their stance. If one act creates a universal law, then the one exception allowing capital punishment should create a universal theory change; that would be consistent.

In 1999, Kevorkian was arrested and tried for his direct role in a case of voluntary euthanasia. He was convicted of second-degree murder and served eight years


Disfigured from acid attack, not permitted to die.


Opponents argue if we choose utilitarianism as our basis to decide to mercy kill, that under that theory, we would kill any innocent person if it brought happiness to many [1].

But this argument does not take into consideration that Utilitarians approve of this only when the terminally ill person requests it. Thus the argument does not provide a true representation of the exception for mercy killing which is the request of a terminally ill person suffering in pain.

They also argue, with a slippery slope, that taking a suffering person’s life is making a statement that we advocate death over dealing with a life of hardships [1]. However this argument does not take into consideration the actual type of hardship referenced when mercy killing; the unnecessary suffering that will end in no other way but death. This is far from simple hardship, it is unbearable suffering. Hardships such as being poor, or lacking education, do not support the immense suffering and imminent death these patients are undergoing; death is better. Thus it is overly broad and invalid.

They also argue that this type of mercy killing will lead to allowing people to request death if they want to die simply from depression or challenges [1]. However they fail to take into consideration the premise that a person must first be dying of a terminal illness causing severe pain with no hope to live.

Each opponent’s argument is invalid based on the omission of all facts.

Proponents argue more simply:

  • the person will, in fact, die
  • they are, in fact, suffering
  • no one's rights are being violated
  • the hastened death only benefits the person in pain and takes nothing away from others

I agree with this. In the absence of hope to be cured, if a person is going to die without a doubt, there is no need to let them suffer.

Life has exceptions, and so must ethical theories. We cannot rule life in black and white when it is full of color.

When someone takes the life of another: they should die, too.

When someone is terminally ill and suffering immensely without hope for life; they should also be permitted to die.

Right to Die

Should a terminally ill person have the right to ask for death?

See results

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Abubakar Salifu(Kant Jr) 

        18 months ago

        That's wonderful piece of work

      • profile image


        23 months ago

        Wow! This is a wonderful job. Keep it up.

      • profile image


        3 years ago

        this is a very well written article great job

      • Tara Mapes profile imageAUTHOR

        Tara Mapes 

        4 years ago from Cincinnati

        Aviannovice, thank you for reading. I think due to the unique requirement being incurable and terminally ill people, the ethical implications don't bleed over into other incomparable areas.

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        Since this encompasses such a small segment of euthanasia, will it open more doors for abortion, wartime, etc? You presented this very well, and allowed the reader to form his/her own opinion, which is difficult to do in cases such as this. Well done.


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