Arguments for Physician Assisted Death in James Rachels’ Writing


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In James Rachels’ writing “Killing and Starving to Death” suggests the idea of death when done by a physician it is not the same as killing or letting someone die. Through his argument of an “Equivalence Thesis” he is comparing the of killing someone and letting someone die. He mentions at one point “But it does provide strong evidence that letting die is much worse than we normally assume, and so that letting die is much close to killing than we normally assume”, but then later states not all instances of letting people die is wrong because it could have moral reasoning behind it. One of those moral reasonings being if someone where to be terminally ill and chose to die, then it would not be wrong for a physician to assist that person in that instance killing. Within this essay, I will review Rachels’ argument as to why a physician’s assisted death is morally acceptable and how I do in fact agree with this and why. Then looking at how Trammell argues against what Rachels is stating and how this could further lead to other arguments. Finally, looking further into arguments that could follow my thesis.

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Rachels’ main argument was to compare that of killing someone to letting someone die and how though killing ultimately may still be worse, knowingly letting others die it a comparable offense. He uses the example if a child were to be right in front of us as we are just eating and we see that the kid is starving, most people would of course give the child food to find other ways to help. However, he states now what if someone was sitting there and seeing the kid and just continued to go about their day, would you not be upset or disturbed by that person?  Most people would be. But this is what he compares to what we are doing when we let others just die due to starvation, just because we can not see them does not get us out of the moral obligation to help. The reason is not as bad as killing to Rachels is that there are sometimes that letting someone die is justified such as when a family chooses to let a doctor end a life when their family member is suffering or can not come back. Additionally, to that there is the case of if someone is terminally ill and only has months to live, then they should be allowed to have a physician assist in letting them die versus waiting out their death.  This is why ultimately, though severe, letting someone die is not as bad as killing.

Trammell was the one to present two arguments to the entire “Equivalence Thesis”. His first being that there is an important duty to not only not kill people but to also not let them die. Additionally, he talks of the “optionality” of their being a moral difference of killing and letting others die. This statement to me does not bring valid points to the argument for physician assisted death in that if it is important to not let others die then this certainly would not be an option to have to people. However, I do agree with Rachels in that those who are terminally ill should be allowed to choose to end their life, and in which case the physician would not be responsible for killing someone or letting them die. I also would state that there is mercy in allowing this to happen, if someone who has terminally ill only has three months to live and just to make it through that they have to go through grueling test and pain how is it fair to ask someone to endure that? What if they do not want to feel that kind of pain or even let their family see them go through all of that. I say that if a person can coherently agree to say they do not want to continue in life, they should be able to go to the afterlife peacefully with the assistance of a medical professional. Furthermore, the state should not be able to intervene within that decision because it is up to the individual just like it is our choice to do other things in life including getting treatment and care for other medical decisions. So, when it comes to a person deciding to end their life, the state should not have a say.

There is always a counter argument to all things in life, especially when posing the philosophical questions of life. With that in mind we should consider if a physician’s assisted death should be allow with terminally ill patients, then someone could pose where does this end? Could a child who is terminally ill make the decision or maybe their parents? What about clinically depressed people, if they are deemed “competent” should they not be able to also agree to have their life ended? The list could go on in which case they could argue that maybe it is allowed for certain circumstances and that is where the state gets involved. Have an agreed upon guideline for someone to be able to make the decision to end their own or a family member’s life. Maybe if it is not a case of someone being terminally ill, then they must go to a psychiatrist and try all options prior to ending their life.

All in all, Rachels argument to allow people to end their life through a medical professional is an agreeable argument for some, but does present the challenge of where does it end? Also, does it ultimately clear someone of letting someone die even if it was their decision? Should they not try to do absolutely do everything to save them or let them die when its time? The cycle of questioning and rebuttal will be a constant, but I believe it does come down to the personal choice.  

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