Kant and Moral Theory



For Kant, the outcome of an action is not relevant to whether or not it is ethical. This can easily be demonstrated – sometimes evil actions lead to unintended good consequences. He also disagreed with making moral choices out of compassion, kindness etc. It is also easy to give an example of where kindness leads to doing the wrong thing (the road to hell is paved with good intentions). The only right thing is to do what reason dictates.

When considering euthanasia, then, Kant will not be interested in the level of suffering of the patient or relatives. He would not agree that we should do the loving thing. He would work out what the right thing to do was.

Universalising the maxim “I should help [George] to die” would give a universal law that everyone should be helped to die – a self-contradiction. If you took the maxim “I should help George, who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and desparate to die, to die” you might create a more acceptable universal rule such as “Anyone who is terminally and incurably ill, suffering greatly and has freely chosen to die, should be helped to die”.

You get closer to what Kant would have said himself if you consider another statement of the Categorical Imperative – that we should act according to maxims that we would make into laws of nature. Here, it seems irrelevant what a person chooses. If we decide that a person in a particular physical state should, naturally, die, they would die regardless of their wishes. We could not will this – it is a contradiction of the will as the person has not chosen to die.

Some Kantians may disagree. They could argue that you can include what a person chooses in a law of nature. Some people believe that people can die when they lose the ‘will to live’. It may not be too hard to imagine someone wanting to die being a factor in their death according to laws of nature.

The last statement of the Categorical Imperative says we should not use people merely as a means to an end. Kant may have said that killing someone to end their pain was using them to another end. Other Kantians might argue the opposite – that a person’s ends are best served by ending their misery.

Kant himself was strongly against any form of suicide, and would have argued against euthanasia. However, modern Kantians may well disagree.


Evaluate the argument that Kant’s moral theory could not support the idea of voluntary euthanasia.

Kant’s theory says that there are moral absolutes which we ought to follow, which can be worked out by reason.  They are categorical imperatives.  To work out where an action is right or wrong, you need to universalise the maxim and see if it is self contradictory or a contradiction of the will.

For example, Thomas Hyde had ALS, a disease that attacked his body while leaving his mind active.  He asked Dr Jack Kevorkian to help him to die.  If we universalise the maxim “Anyone with ALS should be helped to die”, we get a contradiction of the will – we couldn’t want to live in a society where people were killed because they were disabled.  This does show up a weakness of Kant’s theory, however, as someone like Thomas Hyde might claim that he would want to live in such a society as he would not want to carry on living if he had this condition.

Another statement of the Categorical Imperative says that we should act in such a way that our maxims become universal laws of nature.  This is more helpful – how would it be if people with ALS just died?  We would be deprived of Stephen Hawking’s brilliance, among others.  Thomas Hyde would not have wanted to condemn everyone with ALS to death – he was merely asking for it in his circumstances.  Kant’s theory doesn’t allow us to consider the individual’s situation, however.  This may be seen as a criticism of Kant, because the suffering of an individual seems morally relevant.  Kant would also argue against a compassionate response, as he believed it was possible to do the wrong thing if led by our emotions.

To conclude, Kant’s theory seems to be against voluntary euthanasia, although there are many criticisms of his theory.

Kant’s theory could be used to argue against voluntary euthanasia.  Firstly, Kant would dismiss arguments concerning the suffering of the patient or the cost of treatment – these are not morally relevant factors for Kant.  He is concerned with the act itself, not the consequences.  Most justifications for voluntary euthanasia can therefore be dismissed.

Kant would consider the maxim “It is right to kill Dianne Pretty, suffering from Motor Neurone Disease, who has asked to die”.  He would then universalise it, forming a Categorical Imperative:  “It is always right to kill people suffering from Motor Neurone Disease”.  Kant would ask “Is this a self contradiction?”  It doesn’t appear to be.  “Is it a contradiction of the will?”  The answer seems to be “Yes!”  We couldn’t want to make a rule that meant everyone with MND had to be killed.  For Kant, the universal rule is important, and individual circumstances should not be taken into consideration.

However, Kantians can put more thought into their Categorical Imperatives, and might easily form a different universal rule.  For example, we might be more comfortable making a rule that said “Anyone suffering from MND who has lost the will to live, and has asked to die, should be Killed.”  Put another way, we might accept a law of nature that ended life when pain became unbearable.

Kant’s theory says that people should never be merely a means to an end.  You should never kill someone in order to reduce suffering, or save money.  However, Kant held ‘respect for persons’ in such high esteem that allowing someone to suffer and die without dignity may seem to go against his theory.  The concept of human rights does not contradict Kant’s theory, which could be used to argue for the right to die with dignity.


About okathleen

I am me - sometimes
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