The Philosophy Discussion Group: “Duty to Die”

The Philosophy Discussion Group will host its second discussion tomorrow
(Tuesday) at midday in MB 370. The topic is Euthanasia, and I will be
starting off the discussion by talking briefly about the argument that
in certain circumstances we may have a duty/responsibility/obligation to
die. The discussion will not be restricted to this, however. The
Philosophy Discussion Group is intended to be a very informal affair so
you are welcome to contribute anything, as long as things stay at least
loosely related to end of life issues. Also remember that this is not a
reading group. There is no requirement to read the article or even this
blog posting.

I first read the “duty to die” argument in an article by John Hardwig.
The central concept in Hardwig’s argument is burden and the
responsibility this creates on the person who is the source of the
burden. Many people feel that family members have an obligation to
support and assist people when they are sick and at the end of their
lives. Hardwig argues that such responsibility is a two-way street:
Families have a responsibility to act in a way that reduces suffering
and misery, whether it be suffering at the end of life, or suffering of
those left behind. He offers this example of a case where the burden
created by a person near the end of their life could be so great that it
creates an obligation to die:

“An 87-year old woman was dying of congestive heart-failure. Her APACHE
score predicted that she had less-than a 50% chance to live for another
six months. She was lucid, assertive and terrified of death. She very
much wanted to live and kept opting for rehospitalization and the most
aggressive life-prolonging treatment possible. That treatment
successfully prolonged her life (though with increasing debility) for
nearly two years. Her 55-year-old daughter was her only remaining
family, her caregiver, and the main source of her financial support. The
daughter duly cared for her mother. But before her mother died, her
illness had cost the daughter all of her savings, her home, her job and
her career.”

Hardwig asks which burden you would rather bear: “To lose a 50% chance
of six more months of life at age 87? Or to lose all your savings, your
home, and your career at age 55?”

See you on Tuesday.
David Macdonald
(If you are interested in reading the whole article you can get it


10 responses to “The Philosophy Discussion Group: “Duty to Die”

  1. The example that he gives misses the point. The 55 year old chose to help her mother. She wasn’t forced to by anyone, it is what she wanted to do. It would be wrong to pressure the 55 year old to help her mother, just as it would be wrong to pressure the 87 year old to allow herself to die.

  2. I would like to respectfully disagree with this Hardwig fellow. Human life is intrinsically valuable and therefore it should always be protected. It is never acceptable to allow a person to die and it is certainly not okay to kill them, which is what this posting hints at.

    • Definitely a valid point, as I consider myself a humanitarian.

      But what I want to know is when does the amount of suffering that someone endures outweigh their quality of life? Obviously if they want to continue on living that is fine, but if they are in such incurable severe physical pain and every single day is agony for them would it not be more humane to support their choice for death?

      Also, what is it about people that make their lives so valuable that many other living creatures on the planet are murdered for their survival?

  3. There is an article in the SMH about two women who have been charged with assisting in the suicide of a man. One of the women is also charged with murder.

    It doesn’t have much in the way of detail, but it looks like it involves Nembutal.

  4. Sorry, Freddo, I think you miss the point. Nobody forced the 55 year old to help her mother in the sense that nobody held a gun to her head, but her “choice” was far from free. Social pressures combined with our unhealthy fear of death meant that she had very little choice. Do you really believe, society being as it is, that the 55 year old could have walked away, done nothing and lived happily ever after? Because that seems to be a plausible necessary condition for ‘free choice’.

  5. Andy,

    “Because that seems to be a plausible necessary condition for ‘free choice’.”

    I don’t agree. She has a choice between helping her mother or not helping her mother, and they both have unfortunate consequences. She won’t live happily ever after no matter what she does.

  6. The whole point of the argument is that the death of a terminally ill old person is given greater weighting than the total destuction of the life of a younger, healthy person. Legalising euthanasia would involve changing attitudes about this weighting. The death of an old person who is dying anyway is not a worse consequence than the total destuction of the life of this younger, healthy person – and yet it is currently perceived to be. Changing attitudes towards death and dying would allow the 55 yr-old a way to live “happily ever after” in some sense.

  7. I agree with Andy, I think. For some reason we give a special status to the burden of dying and death that we don’t give to other burdens; a parent has an obligation to make sacrifices to help their children except when helping their children involves the parent allowing themselves to die. I don’t see why death should have this special status. What’s so bad about death anyway?

  8. “Do you really believe, society being as it is, that the 55 year old could have walked away, done nothing and lived happily ever after? Because that seems to be a plausible necessary condition for ‘free choice’.”

    So a society that enforces values where the burden of dying is given a lower status is one more ‘free’?

  9. No, Chadd. A society which HAS values where the burden of dying has a lower status than in our society would be more free in this area.

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