James Rachels' Death and Dying
James Rachels is one of the most controversial philosophers talked about
in today's society. One of his most talked about topics is whether a person has
a right to die or not. Not much is known about Rachels expect for the many
articles and books he has written. In the controversy of letting a person die
or killing him, he does not try to explain which method is good and which method
is bad. He however tries to explain why they both are bad to a certain degree.
Rachels does not take one side, but tries to convince why one is better than the
other. In his opinion, letting a person starve to death or just putting him out
of his misery by killing him is an ongoing struggle. If you let a person starve
to death, it might be putting that person through a lot of pain but he'll still
be alive (who knows, maybe a miracle cure will be found.) If you killed him on
the spot with a lethal injection, it would be a more peaceful death but you
would be shortening that person's life. Putting a person to death in a peaceful
manner is called euthanasia. Euthanasia is an ancient word that means "easy
death." There is also the issue of morality. Would killing someone by their
own will or suicide be a moral act? What about a patient that is suffering from
cancer? Is it moral to let that person suffer? These are some of the many
questions people have been trying to answer for year without success.
Euthanasia is a very uncomfortable subject to talk about for most people
because who wants to think about having to kill oneself or a person that is dear
to his or her life. Even though nobody wants to go through the hardship of
deciding whether a person should live or die, it happens everyday. There are
two forms of euthanasia. There is an active euthanasia and a passive euthanasia
(Jussim 7-13). This so-called distinction between active and passive was
challenged by Rachels in a paper first published in 1975 in the New England
Journal of Medicine. In that paper, Rachels challenges both the use and moral
significance of that distinction. He argues that active euthanasia is in many
cases is more humane than passive euthanasia. Rachels urges doctors to
reconsider their views on active euthanasia. He writes: "To begin with a
familiar type of situation, a patient who is dying of incurable cancer of the
throat is in terrible pain, which can no longer be satisfactorily alleviated.
He is certain to die within a few days even if present treatment is continued,
but he does not want to go on living for those days since the pain is unbearable.
So he asks the doctor for an end to it, and his family joins in this request
(Rachels 106-108)." "Suppose the doctor agrees to withhold treatment. The
justification for his doing so is that the patient is in terrible agony, and
since he is going to die anyway, it would be wrong to prolong his suffering
needlessly, but now notice this if one simply withholds treatment, it may take
the patient longer to die, and so he may suffer more than he would if more
direct action were taken and a lethal injection given. This fact provides
strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision not to prolong his
agony has been made, active euthanasia is actually preferable to passive
euthanasia, rather than the reverse (Rachels 106-108)." Let's take for example
one of my favorites, Baby Jane Doe. She is a baby that was heavily deformed
mentally and physically. The doctors said that she doesn't have a chance to
live if she doesn't go into surgery. However, Baby Jane Doe has a slight chance
of living if the surgery is done, but she would most likely live to be 18 years
old or less. She would still be mentally retarded and would need constant
attention from her parents. So if Baby Jane goes into surgery, it would be the
same as passive euthanasia. The parents of Baby Jane decided that it would be
better for them and her if she died peacefully rather than suffering through
what was sure to be her death in later years. However, the government decided
that it was wrong for Baby Jane to die so they were forced to have the surgery
done to their child (Rachels 60-62). So is killing someone worse than letting
them die passively? Rachels asks us to consider two cases. Let's take for
example a guy named Mike will gain a large inheritance if anything should happen
to his young cousin. One evening while the youngster is taking a bath, Mike
sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so it
will look like an accident. In the second case, a guy named John will gain a
large inheritance and plans to drown his cousin, but as he enters the bathroom
John sees the child slip and hit his head and fall face down in the water. John
watches and does nothing. Now, Mike killed the child while John let the child
die. Now did either man behave better, from a moral point of view? "If the
difference between killing and letting die were in itself a morally important
matter, one should say that John's behavior was less reprehensible than Mike's.
But does one really want to say that (Rachels 131)?" So in the case of Baby
Jane Doe, no one is to say who's right. In this circumstances, the government
was right because Baby Jane Doe is doing a whole lot better than many doctors
speculated. Even though the government might have been right about Baby Jane
Doe's diagnosis, there are many times when their decisions are completely wrong.
I believe that there are some circumstances when euthanasia is the morally
correct action. I also understand that there are real concerns about legalizing
euthanasia because of fear of misuse or overuse, and the fear of the loss of
respect for the value of life. We need to proceed with caution in my opinion.
We need full and open discussion, improvements in research, and above all we
need to think about the topic together. Our best approach at this time may be
to modify homicide laws to include motivational factors as a legitimate defense.
Just as homicide is acceptable in cases of self-defense, it could be considered
acceptable if the motive is mercy. Obviously, strict parameters would have to
be established that would include patients' request and approval, or in the case
of incompetent patients such as a person in a vegetable state, advance
directives in the form of a living will or family and court approval. Now there
lies the question about the law and how euthanasia can be a legal process.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the government would make as much sense as
'men' do? All we need is beer, sleep, nachos, and sex. Then we would have no
complications whatsoever. However, the law doesn't work that way. Our
governing law works much like a 'women' does. It's so controlling even though
it says we have freedom, it spends our hard earned money like crazy, and it's
always changing the rules to its liking. For those who believe that euthanasia
is immoral may nevertheless hold that it should not be illegal (Rachels 168).
They may reason that if a person wants to die, it is strictly up to them no
matter how foolish or immoral their desire may be. However, the American law
makes no distinction between euthanasia and murder (Rachels 182). As everybody
knows, there are many loop holes in the government, and if you look hard enough
you'll be able to find them. One of the ways that you can get away with
euthanasia is by starving yourself to death. Some people might feel that
starving themselves to death is an alternative and an ideal euthanasia. Many
old people have died this way (Humphry 63). However this is not as easy as it
seems because there are many factors you have to consider. In some cases of
self-starvation, the dehydration process can be painful and could take up to 40
days. They may also slip in and out of coma. Because of this, the process of
self-starvation euthanasia could take a considerable amount of time and should
be carefully considered before preceding (Humphry 63-65). A person may ask why
this form of euthanasia is legal. It is because there is always a loop hole
somewhere in the government's law system. The law doesn't permit force feeding
so you can't force someone to eat. Also the law doesn't permit any medical
treatment without the patient's consent even if their condition threatens their
life (Humphry 65).
Death is one of the wonders of Life. I'm sure that everyone sometime or
another has thought about what it was like to be in the state of complete
unconsciousness or be dead to put it in simpler terms. In an ironic sense, many
people may wonder what it would 'feel' like to be dead. Many doctors and
scientists that have spent many years researching this topic and have come to
the conclusion that death occurs when a person's heart stops beating,
respiration ceases, and brain activity comes to a halt (Kung and Jens 8-9). It
took a genius to figure that one out. Euthanasia can not be completely argued
on until someone knows exactly what happens when someone passes on to the other
side. David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, remarked
that the aim of philosophy should be to replace superstition and false religion
with reason and understanding (Rachels 1). So it is safe to say that euthanasia
is neither right or wrong.
Humphry, Derek. Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and
Assisted Suicide for the Dying. Oregon: The Hemlock Society, 1991.
Jussim, Daniel. Euthanasia: The "Right to Die" Issue. New Jersey: Enslow
Publishers Inc., 1993.
Kung, Hans, and Walter Jens. Dying with Dignity: A Plea for Personal
Responsibility. New York: Continuum, 1995.
Landau, Elaine. The Right to Die. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.
Rachels, James. The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1986.
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