James Rachels And The Active Euthanasia Debate -- By: J. P. Moreland

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 31:1 (Mar 1988)
Article: James Rachels And The Active Euthanasia Debate
Author: J. P. Moreland


James Rachels And The Active Euthanasia Debate

J. P. Moreland*

The rise of advanced medical technologies, especially life-sustaining ones, has brought to center stage the importance of bioethical issues that arise in acute and long-term care contexts. The recent avalanche of bioethics committees is a witness to the importance of bioethical issues.1 Problems about the nature and permissibility of euthanasia have been especially pressing.2

Roughly speaking, there are two major views about euthanasia.3 The traditional view holds that prima facie it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being, but that given certain circumstances it is permissible to withhold or withdraw treatment and allow a patient to die. A more radical view, embraced by groups like the Hemlock Society and the Society for the Right to Die, denies that there is a morally significant distinction between passive and active euthanasia that allows the former and forbids the latter. Accordingly this view argues that mercy killing, assisted suicide and the like are permissible. I want to argue against the radical view by criticizing the most articulate expression of it to date—that of James Rachels.4

I. Important Ethical Concepts

1. The active/passive distinction. Passive euthanasia occurs when a person is allowed to die by withholding or withdrawing a life-sustaining treatment. Active euthanasia is the direct, intentional killing of a person either by himself (suicide) or another (assisted suicide or mercy killing).

*J.P. Moreland is associate professor of philosophy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

2. Intentional action and the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect was given explicit formulation by moral philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth century, though its roots can be traced to Scripture itself.5 The principle stated that when an action has good and bad consequences, then the act may be performed under the following conditions: (1) The act is good or at least indifferent by its object (where “object” means the directly intended thing one is doing); (2) the good and evil effects follow immediately from the act—that is, the good effect is not obtained by means of the evil effect; (3) one only intends the good effect and merely tolerates the bad one; (4) there is a proportion between the good and bad effects—that is, the good must be at least equa...

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