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How Would Relative Morality Be Applied to Euthanasia?

The author is an online writer and careful thinker who enjoys sharing thoughts with readers.

What Is a Moral Relativist?

A Moral Relativist is someone who recognises that different people have different opinions on what is morally acceptable. They realise that people will disagree on issues, but neither view is right or wrong. So how does this apply to euthanasia? Well, first it means that a relativist would be open to hearing both sides of the story - the person who wants to be euthanised, and those who oppose it.

The most controversial circumstance is when it comes to active euthanasia, which has been made illegal in the UK (which is unusual since from 1961 it has been legal to commit suicide, but is still not legal to have assisted suicide. This is most likely because people – for instance, those in the Catholic Church – would consider it wrong to bring another person into the picture of ending a life, as it may be seen as if in a way that person is in fact committing murder. ) Active euthanasia would mean taking an active part in assisted suicide, for example, taking a similar situation of a woman who has an incurable disease, but one that won’t kill her for many years to come. This does still mean that she is in a lot of pain, pain killers don’t have much effect and this suffering will go on for several more years. She might decide that the agony is just too much to go through and that she would rather die now instead of continuing to suffer. This would mean that she would need to be given a lethal injection that would effectively end her life. While some people may think this is acceptable because it still has the effect of a shorter wholesome life instead of a long painful one, others such as followers of Natural Law might say that God has not chosen this woman to die yet, she has many more years to go, so we can’t meddle in his plans by giving euthanasia because it is unnatural.

Though some people like Absolutists may believe that all life should be preserved in all circumstances, there is a larger percentage of the population who disagree with this, myself being one of them. I believe that euthanasia – passive or active – should be legal and if there is a case extensive enough and the patient wishes it then it should be allowed because it gives freedom of choice.

Some ethical moralists who would oppose active Euthanasia are those who follow Natural Law (or are pro-life). They would state that life is sacred and should be preserved and that it is a sin against God to take away a life that he created. Many may push the point further by saying that only God can decide when one’s life should end.

However, a Relativist may argue with Situationism; I.E. there is no universal standard for all people and in every situation, the moral standard would vary. They might argue with an example such as a person being in a vegetative coma and it is unknown if they would wake up or not. The family or doctor has the choice of whether to let them go or keep them on life support.

Some people might say that it is wrong to use euthanasia in this case because there is a chance that the patient would wake up or the patient might not agree with it if they conscious to decide; on the other hand some people might say that it is right to use euthanasia in this case because it is unlikely the patient will recover, the hospital bed is needed for other patients, (Kantian ethics would disagree with this because it would be treating the person as a means to get an extra bed, instead of an end in themselves) it is too traumatic for the family to see their loved one in that state or perhaps the family was close enough to know that that would have been the patient’s decision.

As you can see, a relativist is weighing up the situation at hand; the people and statistics involved are what makes the action acceptable or unacceptable, not the action itself. So if the family consent to euthanasia and the statistics give a less than twenty percent chance of recovery, then euthanasia is morally right, however, if the family doesn’t consent and there is a sixty percent chance of recovery, then euthanasia would be morally wrong.

When it comes to passive euthanasia, Religious moralists would be more inclined to accept it. For example, if a person needed to take a certain drug for the rest of their life to live, but that quality of life was low, then a Catholic or someone who follows Natural Law might support the case for passive euthanasia since it does not actually take steps to end one's life, but stopping the medication, which will, in turn, have a secondary effect of that patient dying. This way they are not actually killing the person themselves but allowing nature to take its course. Natural Law would say it was a natural death because it didn’t involve any technology to end the life and Catholics might say that the treatment should have been stopped because it was God’s intention for that person to die at this time and we have no right to interfere with his decision.

Though a Relativist may agree with the decision made, it would not be for the same reasons as that of the other groups. Their reason would be based more on pro-choice, saying that it was up to the person on the medication whether to continue to live by taking medication or to die peacefully and stop taking the medication.

In conclusion, Relativist morality can be applied to euthanasia either to be for or against it depending on the given situation such as the people involved, the place it takes place and the time it takes place, not on whether it should universally the same for everybody like an Absolutist would say.


Bryony Harrison (author) from UK on September 03, 2012:

But every situation is different. You cannot shove every case into the same box. In some cases euthanasia should be acceptable, and others not. Saying there is only one answer for everybody is like shoehorning all children with different abilities into one classroom and teaching them the same way. That just doesn't work, and puts some at a disadvantage, just like denying death to the suffering is cruel and inhumane.

There most definitely need to be strict rules in place to prevent involuntary euthanasia, but not everyone should be punished just because there are a few bad eggs in society who would try to worm their way through the system.

Ricksen Surya Winardhi from Singapore on September 03, 2012:

In my humble opinion, when we decide whether euthanasia is justified or not based on the situation on hand, it does not mean that we become a relativist. We simply use wisdom to decide on ethical matters that fall on the gray area. Regardless of this, we should retain the absolute morality, or else we can never say that euthanasia is morally right or wrong since there is no standard.

As for the euthanasia itself, I believe that extreme care should be taken. As pointed out by Chris Neal on the comments above, allowing euthanasia on one case can cause a "slippery slope": it will degrade the value of human life. If we decide to euthanize the patient, what different are we from a community that killed others just because they become burdens for the society? If euthanasia is legalised, people may conduct legalised euthanasia involuntarily, claiming that it is voluntary euthanasia. In addition to this, better alternatives such as palliative care are available.

I've written a hub on this topic before, do check it out:

Bryony Harrison (author) from UK on September 03, 2012:

I understand where you are coming from about asking someone to help kill you. But there are plenty of cases where family members or doctors want to help by going through with the patient's request. I don't call that killing, but assisted suicide. As long as all parties agree, I do not think there is anything wrong with it. There should definitely be strict guidelines in place as to what is and what is not acceptable (e.g. mental health of persons in question).

While there are risks involved, I think the benefits far outweigh, especially considering the amount of suffering some people with degenerative diseases go through. I think it is a human right to decide when you are going to die, and that other bodies (I.E. the government) should not be able to stand in your way. It is none of their business, and they are not the ones suffering.

One of the main arguments against is about it being possible to twist a patient's arm so to speak, into having euthanasia (maybe because they feel they are are burden, or are being threatened), but Switzerland seem to have got the balance right. The patient actually has to take their own life. No one forces their hand; all the doctors do is provide the means to make it possible.

Chris Neal from Fishers, IN on September 03, 2012:

As both someone who is pro-life and someone who nursed his wife through a long and painful illness to which she eventually succumbed, I do have some experience in this. It does indeed seem both more humane and simply more human to say that the person should be allowed to make up their own minds, but one needs to ponder the implications of asking someone else to be your killer. I'm not simply talking short-term, but also long-term and cultural. Do not discount "slippery slope" theories. I'm 46 and in the short amount of time I've been alive I've watched society change radically, and what would have been unthinkable when I was six is now considered natural and even good. Absolutists on either side tend to be people who can fairly clearly see the implications of actions taken today and don't like them, or conversely people who don't like the way things are now and see the implications both clearly and as a good thing. And the moral and cultural implications of asking doctors to become killers are profound indeed.