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On Euthanasia: Blindspots in the Argument from Mercy

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In the euthanasia debate, the argument from mercy holds that if someone is in unbearable pain and is hopelessly ill or injured, then mercy dictates that inflicting death may be morally justified. One common way of setting the stage for the argument from mercy is to draw parallels between human and animal suffering, and to suggest that insofar as we are prepared to relieve an animal’s suffering by putting it out of its misery we should likewise be prepared to offer the same relief to human beings.

In this paper, I will argue that the use of parallels between human and animal suffering in the argument from mercy relies upon truncated views of how the concept of a human being enters our moral thought and responsiveness. In particular, the focus on the nature and extent of the empirical similarities between human beings and animals obscures the significance for our moral lives of the kind of human fellowship which is not reducible to the shared possession of empirical capacities.

I will suggest that although a critical examination of the blindspots in these arguments does not license the conclusion that euthanasia for mercy’s sake is never morally permissible, it does limit the power of arguments such as those provided by Rachels and Singer to justify it. I will further suggest that examination of these blindspots helps to deepen our understanding of what is at stake in the question of euthanasia in ways that tend otherwise to remain obscured.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2002

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