Peter Singer: The Utility of Euthanasia

Peter Singer: The Utility of Euthanasia


Below are some extracts  from Peter Singer’s book: ‘Practical Ethics’ on the topic of euthanasia, and a few points to be taken from each one.


Singer starts by stating that for euthanasia to be safely enacted, safeguards would need to exist, in order to protect people from being wrongfully killed. But he denies the effectiveness of such a safeguard in his next paragraph, where he says that division lines are arbitrary and have been throughout history.

If our laws were altered so that anyone could carry out an act of euthanasia, the absence of a clear line between those who could justifiably be killed and those who might not would pose a real danger; but that is not what advocates of euthanasia propose. IF acts of euthanasia can only be carried out by a member of the medical profession, with the concurrence of a second doctor, it is not likely that the propensity to kill would spread unchecked throughout the community. Doctors already have a good deal of power over life and death through their ability to withhold treatment. There has been no suggestion that doctors who begin by allowing severely disabled infants to die from pneumonia would move on to withhold antibiotics from political extremists or patients who belong to a racial minority. In fact, legalising euthanasia might well act as a check on the power of doctors because it would bring what some doctors do now, on their own initiative and in secret, into the open and under the scrutiny of another doctor.

Some points to consider:

  • If doctors (or nurses) already take the lives of their patients where euthanasia is illegal, there is no reason to suggest that two will not collude after euthanasia is legalised, or that one will act alone against a patient’s wishes. This is happening in Belgium, where patients are sometimes killed without consent. Alex Schadenberg writes here that 1.7% of all deaths were hastened without explicit consent in 2013. And you can read a 2010 article here where almost half of Belgium’s euthanasia nurses admit to having killed patients without their consent. This violates the law requiring that a doctor provides euthanasia and only with the patient’s consent.


  • To say that doctors do not tend to progress from one form of killing to another is irrelevant. The fact that there is no progression (although there may well be) doesn’t indicate that a doctor is trustworthy, and will never kill a patient without consent.



Next, Singer tries to convince his readers that since boundaries differ across cultures and historical periods, it should be possible to allow them to change in order to accommodate the idea of euthanasia. By making this suggestion, he negates his previous statement.


There is, anyway, little historical evidence to suggest that a permissive attitude towards the killing of one category of human beings leads to a breakdown of restrictions against killing other humans. Ancient Greeks regularly killed or exposed infants but appear to have been at least as scrupulous about taking the lives of their fellow citizens as medieval Christians or modern Americans. In traditional Eskimo societies, it was the custom for a man to kill his elderly parents, but the murder of a normal, healthy adult was almost unheard of. I mention these practises, not to suggest that  they should be imitated but only to indicate that lines can be drawn at places other then where we now draw them. If these societies could separate human beings into different categories without transferring their attitudes from one group to another, we with our more sophisticated legal systems and greater medical knowledge should be able to  do the same.

Some points to consider:

  • Even if it were true that the devaluing of life among one group of people does not lead to a general devaluing of life, creating a class of non-persons is always a dangerous scenario. If the lines are arbitrary and can be moved, then no-one is ever safe from potentially being categorised as a non-person. Thus, no-one has any security.


  • However, it isn’t actually true that killing one class of humans is without effect on other classes: We are now seeing seeing cases of disabled people being euthanised without their consent by their guardians. See Bobby Schindler’s story here and this one, about a mother who had her disabled 12-year-old legally killed. “Dying with Dignity’ for the terminally ill has progressed to “Mercy-Killing” of non-terminal patients.


  • Our apparently sophisticated legal systems already fail to stop corrupt doctors and also maintain immoral laws: ‘sophistication’ is no guarantee of morality or justice.


  • Peter Singer states that he is not suggesting these historical cultural practices be imitated, but, in fact, that is exactly what he is doing.


  • As Dr Peter Saunders, director of the Care Not Killing campaign in Britain, said: ‘We should take a warning from this that wherever you draw the line, people will go up to it and beyond it.’



Lastly, Singer asks us to compare the risks of legalising euthanasia with those of maintaining the status quo. 


All this is not to deny that departing from the traditional sanctity of life ethic carries with it a small but nevertheless finite risk of unwanted consequences. Against this risk, we must balance the tangible harm to which the traditional ethic gives rise - harm to those whose misery is needlessly prolonged. We must also ask if the widespread acceptance of abortion and passive euthanasia has not already revealed flaws in the traditional ethic that makes it a weak defence against those who lack respect for individual lives. A sounder, if less clear-cut, ethic may, in the long run provide a firmer ground for resisting unjustifiable killing.

Some points to consider:

  • It is strange to say that the acceptance of abortion and euthanasia is an indication there is a problem with traditional morality. Rather, such a disregard for human life is the fruit of philosophies such as Singer’s, which give mortals the power to decide whether or not another person is worthy of life.


  • The definition of misery is very subjective - who is meant to judge whether another person’s suffering is able to be endured or not? And there is little necessity for someone to suffer physical pain: almost every statement on euthanasia by one of its opponents repeats the fact that palliative care is an under-resourced sector and that pain-management is almost always successful when administered by properly-educated specialists. (For the Catholic moral perspective on palliative care, see this article   by Canadian registered nurse, Terry McDermott.)


  • Who wants a life-ethic that isn’t clear-cut? Such morality has no value; this is relativism at its very worst.


  • If Peter Singer is right, and euthanasia is simply a normal part of the human condition, he will have to convince many in the medical profession to re-educate their consciences and begin to take lives, instead of saving them.


  • See the Doctors Opposed To Euthanasia website here.
  • To stay informed on the euthanasia debate, visit Paul Russell’s Hope website. 


That’s it for my little foray into the work of Peter Singer and his preference utilitarianism. (You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.) It was interesting to look at his arguments and see that we have little to gain from embracing his atheistic ideas.

Professor Singer will be in Sydney in August 2015, to debate with Sydney’s  Archbishop, the Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Fisher O.P., on the topic of euthanasia. I plan to be there and see these two great minds, representing the two great opposing forces in the world, battle it out.



Singer, Peter. PRACTICAL ETHICS. Cambridge University Press. NY. NY. 1980. Third Edition. 2011. p 189-190.



Author: genericmum

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