Category Archives: Philosophy

Euthanasia and the Value of Life


Euthanasia etymologically is made up of two Greek words “eu” denoting good and “thanatos” denoting death, literally meaning “an easy or a good death”1. The modern meaning is that of “mercy killing” first used in the sense in England in 1869. ‘Mercy killing’ or’ Euthanasia’ signifies the act of killing a person, for the sake of the person being killed ,who is terminally ill in great pain and distress, without the hope of recovery in spite of the medical advancements and is killed, to relieve him of his misery in a painless manner. Euthanasia raises a number of ethical issues regarding human agents involved, the autonomy of the agents, rights of the agents, and some religious and legal issues.

There are some distinctions within Euthanasia which need to be stated to clarify the understanding of the ethical issues involved. They are as follows;

1. Active Euthanasia and Passive Euthanasia,

2. Voluntary, Non-voluntary and Involuntary Euthanasia, and;

These are the three distinctions within euthanasia which raise different ethical issues when viewed separately and distinctly. A brief discussion of the above stated distinction within euthanasia would make the ethical issues involved within them clearer and meaningful.

1. Active and Passive Euthanasia

Active euthanasia occurs in those cases where there is an act of commission by such persons who are willing to use some of the means available, for instance a lethal injection, to bring about a person’s death. And, Passive Euthanasia occurs in those cases where the person simply refuses to intervene in order to prevent someone else’s death, whether by not doing something or by stopping to do something that could keep the person alive. Whether the act is of commission or of omission, they ultimately lead to the person dying.

Many people raise a moral distinction between Active and Passive Euthanasia. They argue that it would be morally acceptable to withhold treatment and let the person die, rather than to deliberately end the person’s life and let nature take its course, thereby committing a sin and a murder. This moral distinction it seems is superficial because the intention and the result in both the cases is the same namely the death of the person concerned. More than being a moral refrain in the case of active euthanasia it is a legal one. In most of the countries Assistance to a patient for Euthanasia is equated with murder. In both the cases the intention remains the same while the method changes, the former of acting in a certain way and the latter in its refusal to act in that manner leading to the death of the person. Thus, the act of omission is just as much an act of killing as is the act of commission in a way to bring about the death of the person.

Simon Blackburn explains the doctrine of acts and omissions like this in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:

The doctrine that it makes an ethical difference whether an agent actively intervenes to bring about a result, or omits to act in circumstances in which it is foreseen that as a result of the omission the same result occurs.

Thus suppose I wish you dead, if I act to bring about your death I am a murderer, but if I happily discover you in danger of death, and fail to act to save you, I am not acting, and therefore, according to the doctrine, not a murderer.2

The doctrine does little to make the perspective clearer. Suppose that, A and B are aware that they will inherit the family fortune only after their father C dies. Their father is ill and has to be on constant medication to go on living. Both, A and B want to inherit the wealth quickly and would rather see that their father dies. Now, A kills his father by hitting his father on the head and disguises it as an accident. While B does not replenish the supply of his father’s medication and eventually lets him die. In a court case A is guilty of murder and B gets away. At the hearing B says that he didn’t do anything except not bring his father’s medication thereby letting him die. Now, that wouldn’t be very nice would it? 2

Would this example help in the case of euthanasia? The point in case is the intention of the agents involved. In the above example and in the case of active and passive euthanasia all the agents have the intention or at least the awareness of the consequences of the respective acts and omissions, so how would the one act that of just letting a person die or actually killing a person qualifies as a better moral act?affordable-euthanasia

Having stated the arguments from the perspective of the agent executing the act of delivering death to the person, it would now be worthwhile to look at the case from the perspective of the person being delivered death. Would a person under normal circumstances consent to dying? Every person values life as much as any other human being. Why then, would a person consent to end his own life? A person would consent to end his life only and only if life has become unbearable or there is certainty of death. When the last ray of hope has diminished from his life and the survival instinct has died. Let us assume that a person has reached such a point in his life. What should he do to act morally? Would he want to die a peaceful, painless death with his loved ones near him? Or would he be willing to die a painful death? Obviously everyone would choose the former. If we choose the former then active euthanasia is a better choice, and thereby, is it a better moral act?

Since the inevitability of death looms and there is no doubt that the person is going to die, either if relieved of life at this stage peacefully or if his life is prolonged in pain and misery. So given the circumstances the better option would be to act in order to relieve him. Assist him in Suicide. The practice of active euthanasia will benefit him more than that of passive euthanasia which will prolong life without any significant enhancement to it will cause more pain and suffering. While active euthanasia will allow him to die while he is still at peace and has respect for his life. Life for the sake of life has no value in itself. Life has value from the hope we derive from the future. The hope a person invests in the future for his loved ones and himself. The ideal of a better life presupposes the hope for the better future.

The argument from the sanctity of life is as follows;

Life is a gift from god, we have no right to decide whether to live or die and only god can decide.2

To rephrase it;

God gave us life we should respect it and endure all hardships that come with it. We should not only respect it but also care for the dying and the sick, because life is priceless. And, we have no power to decide over life and death questions only God has that power.

The argument can be shown to be weak because if God gave us the gift of life and he is a good God then, the good god would not want his beneficiaries to suffer this gift of life. He on the contrary will certainly want them to have relief from their suffering. And if he would want them to suffer and not be relieved of it then he is not a good God. So in this case since he is not a good god we can take the decision against sanctity of life. The problem of viewing death as a negative category is what makes us see the ending of life as a bad thing. In the religion of Jainism the Jain monks end their lives committing suicide by renouncing food and water, there by starving to death. They first take a vow called the sallekhana vrata, and then commit the ritual of sallekhana. Do they commit a sin? Is it morally unacceptable? Or is it viewed as the final act of the utmost religious life?

2. Voluntary, Non-voluntary and Involuntary Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia is that instance of euthanasia in which a clearly competent person makes a voluntary and enduring request to be helped to die.4 An example below illustrates this;

Jones was dying from a progressively debilitating disease. He had reached a stage where he was totally dependent on a respirator and was almost paralyzed. He was suffering considerable distress and knew it would get worse as time went by. He requested his doctor to end his life and save him the suffering. The doctor in consultation with his family and the medical staff administered a lethal injection, and Jones died. euphemism_gif-743732-720565

This is a clear case of Voluntary euthanasia. Euthanasia can be voluntary even if the person is no longer competent to assert he wish to die. The person may wish to end his life if he was ever to be in a situation where he suffers from an incurable disease, and, should he be in no position to decide.

Non-voluntary Euthanasia is that instance of Euthanasia where a person is not competent to decide between life and death.

Jones met with an accident which left him in a condition of total paralysis and destroyed most of his cognitive functions, leaving him totally incompetent to decide between life and death. He had never indicated a wish to die in these circumstances or a wish stating the contrary. The doctor nevertheless decides that it was better if Jones was to die and injects him with a lethal injection. Shortly after which Jones died.

And, involuntary Euthanasia is that instance of Euthanasia where a person is competent to decide between life and death, but has not given consent either because she was not asked or because she was asked but withheld consent.

Mary was infected with leukaemia and had few months to live. Her husband Jones didn’t want to see his wife suffer to the end and so he shot her. She died.

The most important argument for the permissibility of voluntary euthanasia is the argument from autonomy. It follows that we should respect the autonomous decisions of rational individuals. Since the debate regarding euthanasia emphasizes competence of the rational agent autonomy presupposes competence. Most rational agents make decisions throughout life and want to live without coercion or interference in their lives, why should the decisions of life and death be treated differently? Because, if this is to be the case then the respect for autonomy will soon turn out to be discretionary and will eventually loose respect for autonomy and assist them to do as they would so choose. In a society no individual can be permitted to do as she or he feels like action solely on the basis for autonomy, with disregard for societal conventions. Now, if this were so then morality would be the result of convention, but clearly that is not so. Therefore the argument from autonomy though rational and cogent can easily be construed and eventually lead to discretionary choices, where it would become increasingly difficult to draw a line between a competent and rational decision as opposed to an emotional and irrational decisions. This argument can also be seen as justifying suicide, where an individual chooses to die because he so chooses or under emotional or other influence.

The weight of the case for allowing Euthanasia rests on the percept that ‘death would be better that life’ in the certain circumstances. In order to have a comparative conclusion of the form stated above we need to have access to information regarding both the cases before coming to a conclusion. To compare life which we certainly have a lot of information about, to death about which we know absolutely nothing is fallacious and is merely an assumption. And decisions of life and death are far too important to be based on assumptions. All we can do is assert that this state is not conducive to human dignity, but by no stretch or imagination can we affirm that death would be a more conducive alternative to the present state. euthanasiadiagram

Buddhist perspectives on life and Death decisions

The third parajika, the monastic rule prohibiting taking human life; Buddha says,

Should any monk intentionally deprive a human being of life or look about so as to be his knife-bringer, or eulogise death, or incite [anyone] to death saying ‘my good man, what need have you of this evil, difficult life? Death would be better for you than life’- or who should deliberately and purposefully in various ways eulogise death or incite anyone to death; he is also one who is defeated, he is not in communion.


This implicitly states that assisted suicide and euthanasia leading to the taking of a human life is to be abstained. It would give a clear normative position in the Buddhist ethical stand to notice that the Buddha prohibits assistance to suicide and not suicide itself.

Buddhism as a way of life is opposed to violence in any form, to any living being and in thought and in action. Taking of life is strictly prohibited but there are certain cases where exceptions were made, especially in the case of medical circumstances. In Buddhist ethics more weight age is given to intention and the circumstances than to the action itself. It is the preceding aim of the succeeding action that would constitute the final judgments on the moral value of the action as being good or bad.

Compassion in the Buddhist ethics is of great importance, while compassion is always a morally good motive, it does not justify anything and any act done in its name. Euthanasia is usually understood to be granted the wish of death to a dying person out of compassion or mercy. Buddhagosha‘s commentary on the text of the preceding passage the person euthanizing a dying person, although acts with a compassionate and benevolent motive, violates the percept on taking human lives as propounded by Buddha. Why? Because the person euthanizing makes death his aim, thought having a benevolent motive. As Buddhism is opposed to any thing leading to the destruction of human life, euthanasia cannot amount to being a good moral act. The Buddha it seems did not agree with the respect for autonomy principle, whereby an individual has a freedom to choose between life and death.

Is Buddhism advocating sanctity of live? That life must be preserved at all costs. Buddhagosha in his commentary shows this not to be the case. He says;

If one who is sick ceases to take food with the intention of dying when medicine and nursing care are at hand, he commits a minor offence (dukkata). But in case of a patient who has suffered a long time with a serious illness the nursing monks may become weary and turn away in despair thinking ‘when will we ever cure him of his illness?’ here it is legitimate to decline food and medical care if the patient sees that the monks are worn out and his life cannot be prolonged even with intensive care.


In the above commentary intention and the view toward death of the person wanting to be euthanized is given importance, which is central to Buddhist ethical thinking in matters of life and death decisions varying from suicide to murder to euthanasia. The distinction made is between a person who intentionally rejects medical treatment with the aim of dying and a person, who accepts the inevitability of death after medical treatment and the nursing has failed to cure him, resigns to his fate. There is significance placed in the way one views life as opposed to death. The first one see life as burdensome as thereby intentionally wishes to die, whereby he contradicts the first percept of Buddhism that life is full of suffering, while the second has to be indifference to death by accepting it. Buddhism therefore places no moral obligation to preserve life at all cost. The saving of life at all cost is see due to delusion (moha) and attachment (trsna), the remedy to which Buddhism prescribes and describes in the four noble truths.

Struan Hellier writes about death with regard to the view of death in Buddhist ethical thinking;

Buddhism sees death not as an end to life, but merely as a transition to another life. Anyone who thinks of death as an end to suffering has misunderstood the First Noble Truth which clearly states that death itself is one of the most basic aspects of suffering and that in this way it is the problem, not the solution. An arhat will not commit suicide because he cannot wish for death (or life). When death comes, it comes and can only be met with indifference otherwise the arhat has revealed himself to be less than enlightened.7


There can be no conclusive case for or against euthanasia, where every instance can be accounted for, transparency expected while executing the act or more importantly the intention behind the decision made to let a person die. The discussion can at the most make clear the understanding of euthanasia as an act but clearly there is nothing to suggest that will lead to a conclusion on its moral efficacy. This has been a problem in Ethical thinking, and moral action. The conclusion in two case often are contrary leading to moral dilemmas, and again there is bound to be difficulties as societal understanding of the various phenomenon change , leading some of them to be accepted, while still opposing others. Moral thinking will always pose a challenge to have an objective conclusion on the basis of which and moral agent can act, so long as we continue to operate under a two valued logical systems. No amount of understanding of the phenomenon of euthanasia is going to solve the issue, so long as we do not invent new categories of social interaction regarding life and death issue like abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia. All these issues are basically hinged on the same arguments with subtle differences. All attempts to impose one understanding across the board must be radically redefined; they have to take into account the pluralistic nature of the belief systems that we operate within. As long as we adhere to this kind of thinking about social issues, it will always have a deterring effect to solving the problem.




2. Simon Black burn- Oxford dictionary of Philosophy

3. James Rachel makes a similar argument.

4. Voluntary euthanasia – Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy

5. Damien keown A very shot introduction – Buddhist ethics Page No-108

6. Damien keown A very shot introduction – Buddhist ethics Page No-112

7. Wiltshire 1983,134,cited in Struan helier ‘suicide and buddhism’,2003


Voluntary Euthanasia –Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy, http;//

Practical Ethics – Peter Singer, Chapter 7-Taking lives-Human

Euthanasia – Helga kuhse


What is philosophy?- Art of living a life in self-awareness.


          “Philosophy” as designated in the western traditions and “Darsana” as designated in the Indian philosophical tradition are terms used to designate the field of philosophy.  The subject of inquiry here is what exactly is it that the philosophers in both the traditions meant/mean by the use of the term philosophy? Whatever the pioneers in both the traditions meant, they most certainly did not mean Philosophy to be what it has come to be, an “institutional subject”, like any other discipline with a scientific aspiration to the objective truth or truth with a “ T “.

        By following the institutional ways of reading and studying philosophy all we can aspire to become are historians of a subject called philosophy and not philosophers, because all we do at the institutions is the history of philosophy, the interpretations by various professors of the philosophical thought of the various philosophers down the history of man’s mind. All we are taught are the similarities, comparisons, criticisms, and of course the life of the philosopher himself. Why is this important to a question that has been inquired into for many thousands of years now? It is important because philosophy as a subject has been distorted from its original place, which is within man and not in the institutions.

       Philosophy in both the traditions is concerned with worldviews, views about life and its connotations in every sphere of existence. Philosophy down the ages has successfully stood up against the well rooted conventions, superstition, and customs and the prevalent “way of thinking and looking at the world” i.e. the world views of different sets of people. But, most importantly it has enabled man to come out of his old worldview, metamorphosing it in to a higher spiritual plane of existence. Philosophy for the ancients was of a therapeutic value and not just a profession; it was a “way of life”. The ancient philosophers sought to give meaning to their lives through the practicing of what they thought was good and at the end of the day trying to find a better thought to live by. It was the noblest way that they thought they could live by.



          Among the ancient philosophers Socrates was the one who taught his contemporaries that philosophy was not about the philosophical doctrines but a lived experience. It was not a collection of logically correct proposition to be passed on from teachers to pupils, but, that it was a manner of being, communicated through dialogue. This way of life has to be the work of each individual who has the love for the truth, truth here is not the truth with a “T”, but on the contrary truth that works for you the subjective truth that you embrace to lead your life with passion and zeal for living it. This zeal to live a philosophical life comes from within the individual self, once awakened it has to be renewed and fed with self-examination, self-criticism and self-awareness. This then has to become regular habit for the rest of one’s life, the practice of which will lead to a self-conscious way of life. An individual raises himself by this “spiritual exercise” up to the life of an objective spirit i.e. he raises himself to a higher plane of a spiritual living, relocating himself within the whole.

This is primarily what the ancient philosophy aimed at, training people to have careers as human beings. They understood well that just being born human was not enough but to live a life supported by experience through dialogue was being human.

           But, after philosophy entered the institutions and their libraries it wearied out as a way of life. It became a relic that was to give the next generation a means to support their existence, how did it now matter whether they lived a life in philosophy or otherwise? The age of professors and professional philosophers arrived in which the study of philosophy could only get them to become clerks or professional philosopher whose sole work was to instruct theoretically the doctrines of the ancients, briefly mentioning practice of philosophy to be a “historical phenomenon”. As if they were relevant only at that particular juncture in history . They had stopped living a philosophical life and having now consigned practical philosophy of the ancients to historical relic, traded it for the institutes making the subject wholly theoretical and rigorous. A subject that was meant for every one born human now became the property of some individual consigning all others to oblivion.

             With the coming of Christianity philosophy became the property of the church which give it authority as sacred, knowledge which was practiced through dialogue in the ancient time now came to control all the beings the focus of which became God and his existence. Philosophy from the 5th century A.D up to the 18th century (from Thomas Aquinas up to Kant) maintained this focus. It became an axis of power for the state to control. What the ancients had thought to live for we now live by. Philosophy once understood as a practice of the spiritual exercise mediated by discourse has been ruptured by the historical development has become a nightmare from which the west is trying to awake .It is of urgency that we acknowledge this rupture and then consciously try and relocate it to its ancient from “as a way of life”.

In the Indian philosophical tradition too, the aim of the people practicing a philosophical existence was to live in a higher form of existence the end of which was ‘Moksha’ or liberation. The Indian philosophers understood life to be an existence in miseries and pain, suffering and the angst of death. For them the location and understanding of the self was of a major concern, though this inquiry took a rigorous form in the doctrines of the Upanishads, the self as an object of philosophico-religious speculation is conspicuous in the most ancient literature of India (The Vedas BCE 1500-800) only by its absence. It piquantly makes its emergence in the atharva Veda in the text called Brahmana.  Their aim to achieve the ideal of “Moksha” was not through philosophical speculation but by the practice of life regulated by philosophical ideals.



                 The Buddha recognized life to be full of suffering and misery, the therapy of which was for him meditation and right living. Here philosophy can be seen as a way of life to which the Buddha subscribed and taught the people the method of achieving the ideal, the pratayasamutpada (the theory of dependent origination), and the four noble truths followed by the eight-fold path. All the doctrines that the Buddha taught were and are empty and of no importance without ‘praxis’. For him it was a way of living that moved us closer to the ideal of “Moksha”, cessation of suffering thereby following. The Buddha lived a life of conscious self-awareness of the temporary and ever changing momentariness of existence and this world.

               Even in the twentieth century there are two personalities who  took philosophy to have a therapeutic value and lived it as a way of life. One is from India and the other from Europe. Mohandas karamchand Gandhi was a man who had a conscious existence to the truths he sought to pursue. He demonstrated to us that the truth is not something that will reveal itself to us, but that we have to go and locate the truth for ourselves. In other words he had the notion of the subjective truth as opposed to the objective truth with a capital “T”. And this he did by showing us that the practice of “satyagraha” or passive resistance, which is characterized by non-violence, could achieve goals of any proportions against the suppressors of the suppressed. It was a practice that showed us not how far the oppressors could go to commit the evil on the oppressed but that how much the oppressed take it as evil .It was the strength of the satagrahi, staging a nonviolent resistance that was to be tested.

                The second figure was Ludwig Wittgenstein an Austrian philosopher who taught at Cambridge. His father was one of the richest businessmen in Austria, but when Wittgenstein inherited his father’s wealth he quickly gave all of it away to charity and his family members. He then went on to Norway, built himself a hut and stayed there in absolute solitude and minimalism, coming briefly to Cambridge. It was here that he wrote his magnum opus ‘The Philosophical Investigations’. He himself said of his philosophy that it was of use only as a therapy. Even he denied that there was an objective truth. He demonstrated a life of philosophical existence with the way he lived. After his death he came to be called “The philosopher’s philosopher”. It was because of the passion he had for transforming life by a philosophical practice as a way of life that he achieved his works.

              What started off as philosophy as a way of transforming a man’s life has now just become a subject dedicated to theoretical speculation, a subject dedicated to examining the arguments logically, and setting up of new disciplines within the subject. If philosophy is understood to be a spiritual exercise supported by theoretical speculation, the aim is to change the point of view of mankind against certain attitudes. It is an attempt to make the world a better place to live in, while recognizing each person’s individuality and respecting his personal space and freedom.

The aim is to train people to look at the world and reality as a whole. It does not try and subjugate a man to be a slave to certain established norms, but attempts at the regular transformation of the individual. It is not a “once” process but an ongoing process till we reach the end of our existence. A life in philosophy can be best compared to that of the work of a painter, who paints a portrait not once but till the time he achieves a masterpiece. We at the end of our lives should aspire to achieve this ideal of being a masterpiece when we become a trace in the history of mankind.