Killing and Allowing to Die: Why It Is a Mistake to Derive an “Is” from an “Ought”

Daniel Callahan

in The Roots of Bioethics

Published in print October 2012 | ISBN: 9780199931378
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199980598 | DOI:
Killing and Allowing to Die: Why It Is a Mistake to Derive an “Is” from an “Ought”

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The late philosopher James Rachels argued in a famous paper that there is essentially no moral difference between terminating treatment on a dying patient and directly killing that patient by, say, a lethal injection. That argument was widely accepted by moral philosophers but rejected by most physicians. The physicians are right. What Rachels did not note was the way over time medicine came to develop moral rules for the care of the dying. Those rules served to shape the practice of physicians, who in the end are helpless in the face of the fact that all patients eventually die. A physician who stops useless life-sustaining treatment of the dying is not responsible for the patient’s death; the underlying lethal disease is. Analogously, we would not say that a person who stopped shoveling a driveway in the face of an overpowering blizzard is responsible for the snow eventually filling that driveway. A failure to see the force of socially constructed moral rules leads to the fallacy of deriving an “is” from an “ought,” as if those rules were themselves facts.

Keywords: Rachels; naturalistic fallacy; rules; morality

Chapter.  3326 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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