top of page
  • Writer's pictureStudentGuiders

Immanuel kant's Moral theory as a response to euthanasia


Kant was a German philosopher (1724−1804). Born in Konigsberg, which was known as East Prussia (today Kaliningrad in the former Soviet Union). Educated at the University of

Konigsberg where he earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in 1755. He lectured at the university as a Privatdozent, “a private teacher whose salary was paid directly by his students” (Soccio, 320).

He eventually became a professor of logic and metaphysics at the university in 1770. He probably never traveled 60 miles beyond his home town during his life. He had a rigid schedule. People could set their clock by regularly scheduled walks. He died a lonely man, but his philosophy shook the foundations of Western philosophy.[1]

The contributions of Immanuel Kant to every area of Western philosophy have really influenced philosophical thoughts and notions not only in the West but around the world. In short his philosophy is largely quoted and made use of in different areas of studies. However his contributions to morality and to ethics cannot be taken for granted as they were of vital importance to those who came across them. This German scholar was no doubt a unique man in virtually every aspect of philosophy. In this work we want to see his contributions to ethics or morality.

We shall approach this work in the following pattern so as to fully exhaust our topic and broaden our scope not only on Kant but on Euthanasia.

1. What is Euthanasia?

2. Typology of Euthanasia

3. Kantian Moral Theory

4. Kant and Euthanasia, Any Nexus

5. Evaluation/ Conclusion.


Originally, the word 'euthanasia' was derived from two Greek roots meaning 'good death'[2]. It is the deliberate killing of a person for the benefit of that person. The American

Heritage Dictionary defines euthanasia as the giving of an easy painless death to one suffering from an incurable or agonizing ailment.[3] It is a form of suicide. The term subsequently came to have two distinct meanings: (1) the act or practice of painlessly putting to death those who suffer from terminal conditions (active euthanasia); (2) intentionally not preventing death in those who suffer from terminal conditions (passive euthanasia). The second meaning came into usage when technological advances in medicine made it possible to prolong the lives of persons without hope of recovery. Eventually, the requirement of a 'terminal condition' was dropped in many proposed definitions. [4] We shall approach these types of euthanasia later on, but for now let us concern

ourselves with other conceptualizations of euthanasia and how other scholars view it.

Euthanasia is seen as the deliberate action of a physician or any other individual with the intent to end another’s life for benevolent motives such as the relief of suffering. The act is performed with the explicit consent of a competent adult.[5] The applied ethical issue of

euthanasia, or mercy killing, concerns whether it is morally permissible for a third party, such as a physician, to end the life of a terminally ill patient who is in intense pain.[6] Andrew C. Verga, defined euthanasia as “the causing of an easy or painless death to a patient who is dying of a

terminal illness”[7].

The euthanasia controversy is part of a larger issue concerning the right to die. Staunch defenders of personal liberty argue that all of us are morally entitled to end our lives when we see fit. Thus, according to these people, suicide is in principle morally permissible. For health care workers, the issue of the right to die is most prominent when a patient in their care (1) is terminally ill, (2) is in intense pain, and (3) voluntarily chooses to end his life to escape prolonged suffering.

In these cases, there are several theoretical options open to the health care worker. First, the worker can ignore the patient's request and care can continue as usual. Second, the worker can discontinue providing life-sustaining treatment to the patient, and thus allow him to die more quickly. This option is called passive euthanasia since it brings on death through nonintervention. Third, the health care worker can provide the patient with the means of taking his own life, such as a lethal dose of a drug. This practice is called assisted suicide, since it is the patient, and not technically the health care worker, who administers the drug.

Finally, the health care worker can take active measures to end the patient's life, such as by directly administering a lethal dose of a drug. This practice is called active euthanasia since the health care worker's action is the direct cause of the patient's death. Active euthanasia is the most controversial of the four options and is currently illegal in the United States. However, several rights to die organizations are lobbying for the laws against active euthanasia to change.[8]

The advocates of euthanasia argue that the person will die anyway, and that the purpose is not to invade the person’s right to life but only to substitute a painless death for a painful one.9

Here, death becomes the inevitable, hence they propound such ideas. They do not term it murder under the plea- volenti non-fit injuria- no injury is done to one who is willing.[9]


There are three types of euthanasia, namely voluntary euthanasia, involuntary euthanasia and non voluntary euthanasia.

Voluntary Euthanasia

This is referred to as the intentional termination of life at the patient’s request by someone other than the patient. It can be seen as mercy killing that takes place with the explicit and voluntary consent of the patient, either verbally or in a written document such as a living will.11 This means that a terminally ill patient can instruct anybody to take his/her life; because the life has become unbearable for him or her. The ethics of all these cases turn principally on the questions of whether or not a competent individual is entitled to control her own destiny, including the timing and manner of his/her death, and if he/she is not wholly entitled to exercise this control whether or not there are some circumstances in which this may be legitimate.[10]

Involuntary Euthanasia

This is another type of euthanasia quite different from the voluntary one. It is done against the wishes of the patient and would clearly count as murder.[11] The individual who dies chooses life and is killed anyway. This is a case of murder, but it is possible to imagine cases where killing would count as being for the benefit of the person who dies. However, involuntary euthanasia is universally condemned and plays no role in current moral controversies.[12]

Non-voluntary Euthanasia

This type of euthanasia occurs when the person is unconscious or otherwise unable to make meaningful choice between living or actually dying, and an appropriate person takes the decision on his/her behalf. This person might be a very young baby or someone with low intelligence probably an imbecile. Non-voluntary euthanasia refers to the mercy killing of a patient who is unconscious, comatose, or otherwise unable to explicitly make his intentions known. In these cases it is often family members who make the request. It is important not to confuse non-voluntary mercy killing with involuntary mercy killing.[13]

There are other forms or kinds of euthanasia, which are active and passive euthanasia

Active and Passive Euthanasia

We have seen that someone can die on his own accord or with his/her consent to the doctor or medical practitioner. Now let us see if it can be active or passive. Active euthanasia is all about a person directly and deliberately causes the patient’s death. It involves taking any direct action to kill the patient or end his/her agony. This can be carried out by either a nurse or doctor by giving the patient an overdose of medicine or painkillers to hasten the death of the person.[14]

Passive euthanasia on the other hand involves just letting the patient die slowly. The patient’s life is not directly taken. Rather it can be as a result of omission or withholding or even withdrawal of treatment. The individual can even refuse medical attention or administration of drugs to him or her.[15] By withholding, it means not carrying out surgery that will extend life for a short time. Some people thing that active euthanasia is morally better, thereby considering passive euthanasia to be less bad than active. Rachels argues that there is no moral difference between actively killing a patient and passively allowing the patient to die. Thus, it is less cruel for physicians to use active procedures of mercy killing. Rachels argues that, from a strictly moral standpoint, there is no difference between passive and active euthanasia. He begins by noting that the AMA prohibits active euthanasia, yet allows passive euthanasia. He offers two arguments for why physicians should place passive euthanasia in the same category as active euthanasia. First, techniques of passive euthanasia prolong the suffering of the patient, for it takes longer to passively allow the patient to die than it would if active measures were taken. In the mean time, the patient is in unbearable pain. Since in either case the decision has been made to bring on an early death, it is cruel to adopt the longer procedure. Second, Rachels argues that the passive euthanasia distinction encourages physicians to make life and death decisions on irrelevant grounds. For example, Down's syndrome infants often have correctable congenital defects; but decisions are made to forego corrective surgery (and thus let the infant die) because the parents do not want a child with Down's syndrome. The active-passive euthanasia distinction merely encourages these groundless decisions.[16]

Having considered the nature of euthanasia, it will wise to take a look at Kant’s idea of ethics and his contributions to euthanasia.


This philosopher Immanuel Kant is generally credited with much of the foundational thought in the evolution of deontology and deontological perspectives. Kant viewed the ability of human beings to reason as the basis of our status as moral agents. His ethical theory has been very influential. In his The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he presents an account of moral duty.[17] For an action to have moral worth, for it to reflect a good will, the action must be undertaken for duty’s sake- and not for some other reason, such as fear of being caught or punished. Thus this is based on reason alone, which is in contrast to Aristotle’s notion that ethics is based on human nature.20 Kant sought moral principles that do not rest on contingencies and that define actions inherently right or wrong apart from any particular circumstances. He believed that the moral rules can, in principle, be known as a result of reason alone and are not based on observation (as are, for example, scientific judgments). He believed that reason can be revealed in the basic principles of morality.[18] These principles are goodwill, duty and categorical imperative.

The Goodwill

For Kant, nothing is good except for a good will. This does not imply that courage, selfcontrol, intelligence, happiness, to mention but a few are not good and desirable. What

determines the goodness in all these is the will that makes use of them.[19] For instance, courage is not good when someone has courage in doing evil things or hurt his neighbour and is proud about it. The same also applies to intelligence if it is used for evil purpose. Intelligence is meant to better the environment not for personal gain or depriving people of what is legally theirs; in this very sense, it is not used for good purpose.23 It is the same with the gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honor, health, and contentment inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a good will to correct the influence of these on the mind.24 A good will is good, not because of its attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition; that is, it is good in itself. The preeminent good which we call moral can consist in nothing else than the conception of law itself, insofar as this determines the will.[20]

Let us see what “will” is all about. By this Kant meant the uniquely human capacity to act from principle. In this idea of good will, he brings out the idea of duty. Moral worth can only be derived from our actions when we act from duty. As such duty determines our moral worth, without duty our moral worth is inconsequential. Thus we cannot have any moral worth if we act out of feelings, emotions, inclinations, or self-interest.26 Actions have true moral worth only when they spring from recognition of duty and a choice to discharge it. In other words, if you do not act from a sense of your duty to be fair and honest, then your action does not have true moral worth.

Duty thus goes hand in hand with goodwill. The salient questions thus come to mind, what determines our duty? How do we know what morality requires of us? Kant answered these questions by formulating what he called “the categorical imperative”. This provides Kant with the answer to “What makes a moral act right?” And this happens to be what we are looking for, in the sense of what makes euthanasia right?

The First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Universal Law Formulation

Here, we will see Kant trying to tell us why we must have a universal law or command that will be so useful for the entire humanity. However, we said in the beginning that Kant believed that reason is a necessary factor for every man, now he says that reason alone can yield a moral law. With reason, we can arrive at some abstract truths as “Every change must have a cause,” so we can arrive at absolute moral truth through non empirical reasoning.[21] This will help us to discover what we must do; our duty. An absolute truth must be logically consistent free

from internal contradiction. He aimed to avoid contradictions in his absolute moral truths.

He then stated that there is just one command or imperative that is categorical; that is necessarily binding on all rational agents, regardless of any other consideration. This will thus provide us with abundance of commands of duty. In other words, with the categorical imperative at our disposal, we can have different commands of duty. His categorical imperative states thus: we should act in such a way that we can all will the maxim of our actions to become a universal law.[22] An objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory, is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative. All imperatives are expressed by the word ought, and indicate the relation of an objective law of reason to a will which is not necessarily determined by it. They say that something would be good to do, but they say it to a will which does not always do a thing because it is conceived to be good. [23] But there is an unanswered question as to “what makes a moral action right?” put differently, when this question is rephrased, it would look like this, is an action morally right if and only if we can will it to be a universal law of conduct. What Kant is searching for is quite obvious, now can our maxim be a universal law of conduct? That is an action is morally acceptable if and only if the maxim the individual is following is morally acceptable. However, a maxim is morally acceptable if and only if one could consistently will it to become a universal law.[24] Before we move further, let us understand what he meant by maxim.

A “maxim” for Kant means the subjective principle of an action, the principle or rule that people in effect formulate in determining their conduct. For instance a maxim can be expressed in this way: I will make promises that I’ll break whenever keeping them no longer suits my purposes. The morality of any maxim depends on whether we can logically will it to be a universal law. The above maxim in question has a contradiction of will. This is because it is possible to make promises and have them honoured, while if you have the intention to break a promise when you so desire, then promises would not be honoured in the first place, because it is in the nature of promise that you be believed. A law that allowed promise breaking would contradict the very nature of a promise. So also, a law that allowed lying would contradict the very nature of serious communication, because communication requires speaking the truth. He cannot without contradiction, will both serious conversation and lying. Therefore, with willing promise keeping or truth telling to be universal laws there would be no problem.[25]

Furthermore, Kant would not agree with anybody who out of self-love decides to take his/her life. This is because this is a system that aims at destroying life; hence this maxim could not possibly exist as a universal law. For a moral rule to be universal, it must be categorical not hypothetical. A hypothetical prescription tells us what to do if we desire a particular outcome. While categorical aims at providing us with universal law, hypothetical gives us particular, yet hypothetical imperative is not the ideal for Kant. Hypothetical imperative is all about the “I”. Thus, “if I want people to like me, I should be nice to them”. Again hypothetical commands conditional goal, that is, if you want to go to the seminary, you must take Christian Religious Studies. (CRS). If we do not go to the seminary, then CRS does not apply to us.

The Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Humanity as an End in Itself

This second formulation is quite equivalent to the first version. The first involves universal law, while the second involves treating people with respect thus bringing humanity as an end in itself not a means to an end. The second could be said in this way: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means. Man, and generally any rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will. Non rational beings have only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things; rational beings, on the contrary, are called persons, because their very nature points them out as ends in themselves.[26] Trees, insects, fish, snakes and squirrels are living beings but they are not persons.

Human beings are thought to be special.[27] This means that every human being have rationality; this makes them unique and different from non-living beings and other animals. We must therefore always act in ways that do no disrespect the dignity of our fellow human beings and in ourselves.

This brings us closer to the Golden Rule; which says “do unto others what you like done to you”. Rational beings recognize their moral worth; as such they would never wish to be used as entities possessing worth only as means to an end.[28]


There are different arguments for and against euthanasia. What we aim to do is to outline some of these arguments and see how Kant responds to them. Kant’s response will determine if

Kant is for euthanasia or against it. Arguments in support of euthanasia say that it allows people who are terminally ill to be relieved of their pain and suffering. It also allows a terminally ill person to die in dignity. Furthermore they argue that choosing when to die is personal freedom. The response of people who feel that euthanasia is an abomination of the human being’s dignity is as follows. They hold that death is natural part of the human nature and nobody has the right to determine when to die or live not even the doctor. They say that euthanasia can be open to abuse by relatives or friends who have ulterior motives other than wish the person to get well. Legalization of euthanasia might lead to assaults on individual autonomy. What this implies is that if euthanasia is by chance legalized, it will be abused by a lot of persons; that is people might be placed in terrible conditions intentionally by their friends, relatives or families and then suggest to the doctor that their lives be terminated since the individual cannot function as a human being.

Now, Kant is not happy with all of these ideas that euthanasia should be legalized or encouraged no matter the situation. His first formulation of categorical imperative talks about man being a rational being; since he is a rational being, he has no right to formulate such a maxim like “if I am in a terrible condition, I have the right to take my life or reserve the right to the doctor or my family members”. This kind of maxim will not form a universal law; since it cannot form a universal law, then it should be removed and replaced with a more reasonable

maxim. If we will such maxim, we will end in hypothetical imperative not categorical.

Furthermore, he speaks of humanity as an end not a means to an end in his second formulation of categorical imperative. If humanity is an end, no man has the right to take his life even in whatever condition he finds himself. We must thus act in ways that do not disrespect our fellow human beings and ourselves. It will be disastrous if we act in such way as dehumanizing ourselves through euthanasia. This is the point that Kant wants us to understand.


Immanuel Kant no doubt is a unique scholar contributing to almost every branch of philosophy; even his contribution to ethical issues and to euthanasia in particular is really satisfactory. Kant believes that we are all rational men and must act as such. Rationality should define a human being from any other animal and non-living things. He demands of us to act in ways that do not contradict our very maxims that will end up being a universal law. We should know that our maxim will be treated as a universal law; this should correct whatever abstract or mundane thoughts we carry about.


Barcalow E., Moral Philosophy: Theory and Issues (Wadsworth Publishing Company:


Bayles D. Michael, Euthanasia and the Quality of Life an Article in Quality of Life: The New

Medical Dilemma, James W. and Shanna T.A. (Eds), (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).

Devine J. R., (Ed), Good Care Painful Choice: Medical Ethics for Ordinary People, (Paulist

Press: New York, 2006)

Eugene O., Aspects of Philosophy (Achugo Publications: Owerri, 1999) second edition

Gensler H. J. (ed.) et al, Ethics: Contemporary Readings (published by Routledge Taylor and

Francis e-library: London, 2005)

James F. and Bradley D. (eds), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998, pdf


Lawhead F. W., The Voyage of Discovery: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd ed,

(Wadsworth Learning: U.S.A:, 2002)..

Bunnin N. and Tsui-James E. P. (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy

(Blackwell Publishers Ltd: UK, 2003) Second Edition, pdf

Omoregbe J.”Ethics”: A Systematic And Historical Study ”, (Lagos: Joja Educational

Research and publishers Limited, 1994).

Rachael James, The Right to Die, (Random House: New York, 1989).

Regan Tom, (Ed), Matters of Life and Death, (Random House Incorporated: New York, 1980). Shaw W. H., Social and Personal Ethics, (Wadsworth Publishing Company: California,


Smart J.C. (Ed.), Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism in Theories of Ethics, (Oxford

University Press: London, 1967).

Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press Inc. : New

York, 1995) pdf edition

Other Sources

Kant’s Categorical Imperative class pdf

The American Heritage Dictionary

An Article titled “Euthanasia”, Pulling the Plug: Two sides to Every Story

[1] Kant’s Categorical Imperative class pdf [2] Ted Honderich, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,(Oxford University Press Inc. : New York, 1995) pdf edition, p.252 [3] The American Heritage Dictionary [4] Ted Honderich, op cit p.252 [5] An Article titled “ Euthanasia, Pulling the Plug: Two sides to Every Story [6] James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (eds), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998, pdf edition. P.304 [7] James Rachael, The Right to Die, (New York: Random House,1989), p. 36. [8] Ibid 9 Eugene Okoro, Aspects of Philosophy (Achugo Publications: Owerri, 1999) second edition, p.215 [9] Ibid 11 James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (eds) op cit. p. 304 [10] Nicholas bunnin and E. P. Tsui-james (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy (Blackwell Publishers Ltd: UK, 2003) Second Edition, pdf p.509 [11] James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (eds) op cit. p. 304 [12] Ted Honderich, op cit p.252 [13] James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (eds.) op cit. p. 304 [14] Philip Edema Lecture Notes on ContemporaryIssues in Ethics at Don Bosco Institute of Philosophy and Education, Ibadan. P.3 [15] Eugene Okoro, op cit p.216 [16] James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (eds.) op cit. p. 306 [17] William H. Shaw, Social and Personal Ethics, (Wadsworth Publishing Company: California, 1993) p.42 20 Ibid [18] Ibid p.23 [19] Ibid 23 Cf. Ibid 24 Harry J.Gensler (ed.) et al, Ethics: Contemporary Readings (published by Routledge Taylor and Francis e-library: London, 2005) p.153 [20] Ibid 26 William H. Shaw, op cit p.23 [21] Ibid p.24 [22] Ibid [23] Harry J. Gensler (ed.) op. cit. p. 155 [24] Emmett Barcalow, Moral Philosophy: Theory and Issues (Wadsworth Publishing Company: California ) p.137 [25] Cf. William H. Shaw, op cit p.24 [26] . Harry J.Gensler (ed.) et al op. cit p.155 [27] Emmett Barcalow, op cit p.143 [28] William H. Shaw, op cit p.26

Recent Posts

See All

When infusing pantoprazole, use a separate IV line, a pump, and an in-line filter. A brown wrapper and frequent vital signs are not needed. A client has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The pro

Your paragraph text(10).png
bottom of page