Ivar R. Hannikainen, Anibal Monasterio-Astobiza, & David Rodríguez-Arias
Originally published 22 Feb 20
Bioethicists have long asked how to distinguish killing from letting die. Opponents of the legalization of euthanasia routinely invoke this distinction to explain why withholding life-sustaining treatment may be morally permissible, while euthanasia is not. The underlying assumption is that, when physicians refrain from applying life-sustaining treatment, they merely let the patient die. In contrast, a doctor who provided a lethal injection would thereby be 'killing' them. At a broader level, this view implies that 'killing' and 'letting die' are terms we use to distinguish actions from omissions that result in death.
Theorists such as Gert, Culver and Clouser (1998/2015) advanced a radically different understanding of this fundamental bioethical distinction. In a germinal paper, they argue that to 'kill' involves a contextual assessment of whether the doctor violated a prior duty. In turn, whether the doctor violated their duty—namely, to preserve the patient's life—depends on the patient's preferences. (They actually argued for a more sophisticated view according to which only some preferences, i.e., refusals, constrain a doctor's duty—while others, i.e., requests, do not.) This view is qualitatively different from the first (what we call commissive) view. On this alternative view, which we refer to as deontic, 'killing' and 'letting die' serve to differentiate patient deaths that result from breaches of medical duty from those that do not.
How well does each of these theoretical perspectives capture people's use of the killing versus letting die distinction? In a recent paper published in Bioethics, our goal was to develop an understanding of the considerations that carve this bioethical distinction in non-philosophers' minds.
We invited a group of laypeople, unfamiliar with this bioethical debate and lacking any formal training in the health sciences, to take part in a short study. Each participant was asked to consider a set of three hypothetical scenarios in which a terminally ill patient dies, while we manipulated two features of the scenario: (1) the physician's involvement, and (2) the patient's wishes.
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