Ethics sample answer from 2018 exam – Religious Studies Tutor Brighton

3) Assess the view that natural law is of no help with regard to the issue of euthanasia (40 marks)

Aquinas natural law theory is thought of as absolute, in that it knows of no exceptions, however after looking at doctrine of double effect it can be shown that the theory can give inconsistent answers in the case of euthanasia. This inconsistency coupled with the foundation of a God given purpose limits the help that it can be with regards to the issue of euthanasia in a secular society. (add in different types of euthaniasia)

Following on from Aristotle’s belief that everything had a final cause, Aquinas argued that humans all share a telos (purpose), which was to reach a unity with God and achieve our full potential. Being a natural theologian he thought that we could use the Bible and reason in order to understand the purpose given to us by God “right reason in accordance with human nature”. From this starting point a strong sanctity of life position can be held as God is the only giver and taker of life as we are born ‘Imago Dei’ – in his image. This would render euthanasia in any form immoral as it would stop us achieving our full potential and would be going against God. The strong sanctity of life position holds merit in that it protects the vulnerable (such as those who can’t give their consent to euthanasia), Aquinas foundation of a God given purpose is questionable. For instance some things have several purposes, for example a cardboard box can be used to transport books, or for a cat to sleep in, or for a toddler to make a car out of. Going further, an atheists like Dawkins would argue that there is no purpose to human life (except to continue DNA) but that doesn’t mean that life isn’t valuable. In a secular society it seems that we don’t have to have a God given purpose in order to protect the vulnerable as they can still have value without purpose and so would not be of any help to law makers at a theoretical level.

Natural law could still be of help to the individual though by using the primary and secondary precepts to work out what to do when it comes to euthanasia. Primary precepts are teleological in their nature in that they state what our actions should be aiming to do i.e. preservation of life, defend the innocent, live in an ordered society. From these, reason is used to derive the secondary precepts, which are deontological in nature. For euthanasia the primary precept of ‘preservation of life’ would mean that you could derive the rule of ‘no euthanasia’. While in practice Roman Catholics (who use natural law as part of their decision making procedure) advocate no euthanasia at any cost, it is debatable what constitutes ‘life’ or personhood. If it involves consciousness then those in a persistent vegetative state wouldn’t be considered ‘alive’ whereas if it requires bodily function like the heart still beating, those on life support wouldn’t be deemed alive. Issues of what comprises ‘life’ aside, it can be said that natural laws absolute rules come at the expense of quality of life and means that it can exacerbate suffering. Joseph Fletcher in his formulation of Situation Ethics argued that a person should come before the rules and advocated a weak sanctity of life, which does not consider euthanasia when done out of love immoral. For Fletcher there would be nothing wrong in allowing Diane Pretty, who was suffering from Motor Neurone Diseases, to end her life with her husbands help. As is UK law this wasn’t allowed to happen and Diane had to continue to suffer well beyond what she had wished and died a painful death. Diane had assessed her quality of life to be low, she had a terminal illness and was in great pain. By putting the rule above the person as natural law does means that suffering is extended, as in the case of Diane Petty. In this was natural law can be seen to be unemotional and impersonal and so is of little help in cases of euthanasia, which is very much about the person and their suffering when we look at case studies like Diane Pretty.

Lastly the doctrine of double effect gives inconsistent results meaning natural law is of little help as it gives unreliable results. The doctrine of double effect applies in situations where there is an intended outcome and another unintentional outcome, which must be proportionate. Using the above example, while it wouldn’t have been acceptable to end Diane Pretty’s life using the primary precept of ‘preservation of life’ it would have been permitted to give her painkillers to ease her suffering (the intended outcome) with the unintended outcome of ending her life. As long as the intention was to end her unnecessary suffering and not to cause death, the doctrine of double effect holds. It isn’t classed as a form of voluntary euthanasia as it isn’t intentional in causing the death of the person. Contrastingly cases of passive euthanasia, where life support is stopped with the intention of ending a persons life, wouldn’t be applicable to the doctrine of double effect and would be considered morally wrong. Critics have accused natural law of collapsing into a form of utilitarianism with the doctrine of double effect and that the absolutist principles fold into relativism, depending on how you formulate the intended and unintended outcomes. One of the prima facie strengths that natural law holds is its simplicity and clear answers. However when the doctrine of double effect is introduced then the results become inconsistent and rely on the participant to weigh up and be clear about their intensions, this could be abused in cases like the serial killers dubbed ‘angels of mercy’ caregivers that decide to end someone’s life because they believe it to be ending their suffering. Due to the issue that the doctrine of double effect gives inconsistent results and so would make it difficult to apply, plus the issue that intensions could be manipulated it isn’t helpful in cases of euthanasia, where an incorrect decision is a matter of life and death.

As can be seen natural law isn’t of help in regard to euthanasia due to its risk of abuse in formulating the doctrine of double effect, its reliance of a God given purpose and its unemotional approach to the evocative issue of suffering.

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