Bentham’s and Kant’s Views on Euthanasia

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The role of happiness in solving moral problems has been a topic argued by many philosophers. They have sought to understand whether it is the consequences or the motives of actions that truly matter in morality. Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant both have demonstrated their own views in regards to this concept. Each philosopher follows his own theory to explain the rightness and wrongness of actions. This debate continues to apply to the moral problems we face in today’s world. One of these controversial moral problems is the act of euthanasia, or the painless, assisted suicide of a person who is suffering from a terminal illness. According to their opposing views of morality, Bentham would be in favor of euthanasia and Kant would be against it.

Jeremy Bentham would find the act of euthanasia to be morally right. His ideas follow that of Utilitarianism, or the “view that each of us should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (Mulvaney 533). To Bentham, consequences are what matter the most in morality. The rightness or wrongness of actions depends on whether committing them will lead to more happiness or more unhappiness. His focus is specifically on the pleasure and pains that follow an action. He believes in the principle of utility, which is that people should seek pleasure “both for themselves and for the wider community” (Mulvaney 127). Bentham states that an action follows the principle of utility when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it” (Mulvaney 128). The action being done must bring more happiness than unhappiness to the community to be considered morally right. According to Bentham, actions must always bring pleasure and avoid pain. This thought shows that he would be in favor of euthanasia. Euthanasia becomes an option when a patient is suffering from a terminal illness and is in a lot of pain. The main reasoning of euthanizing a patient is to make it so that they are no longer in any pain. When a doctor euthanizes a consenting patient, they are relieving the patient of all of their pain. In the context of the patient, the pleasure gained would be much greater than the pain, as the patient would no longer be suffering. According to Bentham, the motives of euthanasia do not matter when determining whether it is morally right or wrong. This act may even lead to unhappiness, but the overall amount happiness is what matters the most in this decision. He also believes we should look to how the community as a whole is affected by the action as well. The interest of everyone involved in the consequences of euthanizing the patient also matter. Bentham could argue that the patient may have a family and that they would be affected by the death of the patient. While at first they are likely to experience pain through grieving over the loss of the patient, they would later gain happiness knowing the patient was no longer suffering. The doctor and nurses of the patient would also feel unhappiness from the loss of the patient, however, they also would feel happiness later. The hospital as well would no longer have to use money and resources in order to keep the patient alive. When looking at the situation overall, euthanizing a patient who is suffering from a painful, terminal illness has a likeliness of bringing more pleasures than pains. In the reasoning of Bentham, he could consider it a morally right action.

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Immanuel Kant demonstrates views that oppose the views of Bentham. Bentham’s focus is on the consequences of an action, however, Kant does not believe they matter in morality. He states that nothing can be “called good without qualification, except a Good Will” and that “a good will is not good because of what it performs or effects” (Mulvaney 136). He disagrees with Bentham’s view that an action can be considered good if the outcome is good. He separates his thoughts into two concepts: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is “the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed (or at least which one might possibly will)” (Mulvaney 137). In the case of a hypothetical imperative, an “action is good only as a means to something else,” such as the types of actions Bentham had discussed (Mulvaney 137). A categorical imperative represented by “an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, that is, objectively necessary” (Mulvaney 137). Kant sees categorical imperatives as an action that is “conceived as good in itself,” and he states “this imperative may be called that of morality” (Mulvaney 138). Kant goes against the views of Bentham and believes that an action can only be considered morally right if it is done out of good will, not because it leads to good outcomes. He adds that there is only one categorical imperative, which is this: “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Mulvaney 139). In order to determine whether an action, such as euthanasia, is morally right, Kant says we must look at it as if it were to become a universal law. He provides an example of a maxim similar to euthanasia in the context of committing suicide. A man contemplating committing suicide asks himself “whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life” and decides that “from self-love”, he will take his own life if continuing to live is “likely to bring more evil than satisfaction” (Mulvaney 139). If continuing to live brings the man more pain than pleasure, then, form self-love, it would be better to take his own life so that he may avoid experiencing more pain, which follows the thinking of Bentham. However, Kant argues that as a universal law, this maxim says that ending a life by the means of self-love, “whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life”, would be contradictory (Mulvaney 139). A maxim that contradicts itself as a universal law would be considered a bad action. Kant says we should “act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only” (Mulvaney 143). The act of killing oneself or aiding in killing another through euthanasia would be considered as using a person “merely as a mean” to achieve a more “tolerable condition” (Mulvaney 143). Kant views killing oneself would be a mean to no longer suffer from pain. He continues, “I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage him, or kill him” (Mulvaney 143). Kant is not in support of suicide or the killing of a person. He would see the act of ending one’s life through the act of euthanasia as a morally wrong action, as it would be used simply as a means, which goes against his own moral theory.

When looking at the opposing views of Bentham and Kant on the morality of the act of euthanasia, it can be difficult to decide who seems like they would provide a more adequate answer. Both seem like they would present reasonable arguments for and against euthanasia, but they also both have their faults. Bentham would say the motive of euthanasia does not matter, only that it provides pleasure and avoids pain. As long as the act of euthanizing the patient brings more happiness than unhappiness, he would consider euthanasia morally right. Kant would say that the consequences of euthanizing, or not, does not matter, what matters is that it is done out of good will. However, he does not believe that the act of taking a life can be used as anything but a means, and part of his theory is that we never act to treat humanity as a means only. Euthanizing a patient as a means for relieving them of suffering would not be considered a morally right action by Kant. Both philosophers would provide opposing views in regard to the morality of euthanasia and I cannot be certain that either seem more adequate than the other.


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