Essay – Full mark 2018 essay on euthanasia & Natural law

October 8, 2018
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Assess the view that natural law is of no help with regard to the issue of euthanasia. OCR Paper H573/2 June 2018

Here is an answer written in the actual June 2018 exam that secured full marks. I have added comments to demonstrate what is good and not so good about this answer. You don’t have to write a perfect answer to gain full marks. Read my comments in italics and see if you agree. PB

Natural Law is a religious ethical theory that puts reason at the centre of moral thought and decisions. Euthanasia is a modern practice where a person/persons can be killed on their own terms, whether passively (switching of a life machine) or actively (lethal injection). In terms of the practices of euthanasia and whether it should be accepted, natural law is of no help and instead situation ethics should be adopted to the issue of euthanasia.

There are a number of good things about this opening paragraph: it has a clear thesis – situation ethics is to be preferred, although the candidate might have briefly hinted as to why. The opening emphasises reason, a point many candidates miss. And there is a clear definition of two types of euthanasia, with good issue of brackets for economy. Ia m not sure that euthanasia itself is an issue – there are issues involved in the moral debate such as slippery slope arguments or sanctity of life arguments. These might also have been hinted at rather than taking a broad approach.

 Euthanasia is being widely adopted in modern western cultures as secularism is becoming more popular. There is more emphasis being placed on the quality of life rather then sanctity of life. Natural Law theory places special emphasis on the sanctity of life arguing that only God should have the power to take away a life.

Natural Law is an ancient theory deriving from the Greeks and particularly Aristotle. Aquinas took Aristotle and attempted to reconcile his theory of ethics with Christianity. So what the candidate is talking about here is Aquinas’ version of natural law which has been a dominant moral theory in the west, as it informs the moral theology of the Catholic Church. Note the synoptic link to the Christian Thought paper and secularism.

 Natural Law is focused on the primary precepts and upholding its main components; worship God, live in an ordered society, reproduce, to learn and to defend the innocent. Euthanasia goes against possibly three of these primary precepts, and is therefore forbidden under natural law. The secondary precepts would argue that euthanasia is wrong as it goes against the precepts of defending the innocent. Killing someone voluntarily or non-voluntarily and worshipping God as only God should be able to take life away. In a period where quality of life is emphasised, natural law is incompatible with modern culture. Natural Law upholds the sanctity of life and any practice taking away life is wrong – in a society which allows this natural law is outdated. Aquinas lived when the church dominated society and culture and now the church and state are separate, showing now natural law should be adapted.

Aquinas finally gets a mention.  The word ‘adapted’ is interesting as secondary precepts are meant to be adaptable, so Aquinas argues. Secondary precepts are ‘proximate conclusions of reason’. The candidate hasn’t really explored the tantalising hint in the first paragraph that natural law is a theory of human reason. I like the mention of three precepts here: for example, candidates often miss the implications that might exist for an ordered society if euthanasia was adopted (rise in court cases for example as relatives argue about whether passive euthanasia should be applied!).

 Natural law also prohibits euthanasia on the grounds of real and apparent goods. Killing someone passively is an apparent good because it does not achieve long-term gratification as the person would be dead. However this view can be criticised as a person’s suffering would be cut shirt so best for the long-term – there is no more suffering. Many agree with natural law also b saying that euthanasia sets a dangerous precedent and makes a possibility of a ‘slippery slope’ when killing becomes natural. This is against human nature.

There seems to be a misunderstanding here about what a real and apparent good is. According to Aquinas, we cannot willingly and rationally do evil because we are by nature orientated towards the good. So if we objectively do evil it is because we subjectively believe through a defect of our reason that we are actually doing good. Because of a lack of clarity this paragraph doesn’t take the argument forward and could easily have been deleted in its entirety.

 Another weakness of natural law is that it contradicts itself. Although the primary precepts prohibit euthanasia as it actively kills a person, the doctrine of double effect allows it. If a doctor keeps prescribing a patient more medicine, which eventually leads to an overdose, the is not the doctor’s fault and is permissible through the doctrine of double effect. This is a weakness as it seems to contradict earlier teachings from Aquinas. However it could also be seen as  strength of natural law. The doctrine of double effect is a better developed by the catholic church in response to situation ethics ; it allows euthanasia to certain degree as well as upholding religious aspects  – many see this as favourable and may provide a way to treat the issue of euthanasia.

It’s only a contradiction if you misunderstand the relationship between the absolute primary precepts and the secondary precepts which are never absolute. Aquinas, not the catholic church, introduces double effect way back in the thirteenth century – so it cannot be in response to the twentieth century theory of situation ethics.

Natural law is of no use to euthanasia and so situation ethics should be adopted. Joseph Fletcher was the founder of situation ethics and was at one point president of the euthanasia society in the USA. Situation ethics allows the practice of euthanasia as it focuses on the quality of life more. Firstly, Fletcher’s view of agape is much stronger as it accounts for the most loving thing to do. In certain situations, the most loving thing is to switch of the life support machine so that a person’s suffering is ended. The most loving thing to do allows the families of patients to say goodbye allows for patient’s to assess future possible situations themselves through living wills. Situation ethics follows the propositions of pragmatism, personalism, positivism and relativism. Each one important to the issue of euthanasia. Pragmatism allows a practical approach to euthanasia and where practicality of a situation is focused on. Personalism puts people above laws so full agape can be achieved. Although a partly legalistic theory situation ethics is also antinomian where people should be making their own decisions above the law. Positivism allows the practice of euthanasia because in most cases a positive effect is being produced. Relativism is most important because it allows the situation to be weighed on a case by case basis (natural law is unable to do this as it is absolute). These propositions provide more clarification on euthanasia and allow the issue of euthanasia to be clarified.

Natural law is not absolute in terms of its secondary precepts. The name Fletcher gives to his four principles is ‘working principles’ not ‘propositions’.

 Another supporting factor for euthanasia is the six principles which seek to fulfil agape. For example, the third principle that justice is love seemed upholds the value of love distributed. The other fundamental principles also seem to clarify how love is best served and how agape is applied in different situations. In the real case of Simon’s choice, a man was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and in months ahead lost control of his bodily functions and was dependent on support. Simon made the choice to go to Switzerland to die. Natural law would not have permitted this as it breaks the precept of the sanctity of life however situation ethics would allow Simon’s choice to die based on his quality of life. The shows the more practical and reasonable approach of situation ethics is more useful.

However, situation ethics can be criticised. By describing it as relativism, euthanasia is judged on a  case by case basis, which can lead to dangerous precedents. If someone is allowed to be euthanased because they are blind, it could influence other people. With sensory issues to seek euthanasia. Even if they have a decent quality of life. Euthanasia can thereby lead to a slippery slope, where euthanasia becomes too common. This raises the question of where to draw the line with euthanasia, and situation ethics provides no guidance on this. Also doctors swear by the Hippocratic Oath, to uphold the life of the patient. Situation ethics dismisses this – instead going against the doctor’s primary role. A judgement is made about the future: in some cases a patient may get better. Overall however, these weaknesses don’t create a strong enough basis for dismissing situation ethics.

On balance, therefore natural law is of no help in regard to the issue of euthanasia and instead situation ethics should be adopted. Situation ethics is stronger as it takes  a teleological approach seeking to uphold the quality of life – this secures someone’s autonomy and secular views which are being adopted by western societies – such as Switzerland. Natural law is also absolute and deontological, upholding the sanctity of life which seems outdated. The precepts are also incomplete with modern society Fletcher’s four working principles are much more practical and relevant. Overall therefore natural law is of no help with regard t the issue of euthanasia and instead situation ethics should be adopted.

40/40 Grade A*

What is excellent about this essay (and often not achieved by candidates) is the precise focus on the question set. The very clear thesis is referred to again and again, elaborated and clarified. The justification for the case is complete. You can reconstruct the question from the answer itself. However, the answer is rather long and a bit repetitive. If you can develop your won slightly tighter style, it allows you to add even more excellent analysis. One glaring omission in this answer is the failure to develop and discuss the idea that natural law is a theory of human reason, which is mentioned in the opening paragraph. There are two concepts Aquinas introduces to confirm this: synderesis (the intuitive knowledge of first principles – the primary precepts) and phronesis (the practical wisdom we develop to judge secondary precepts rightly and make nuanced judgements about the application of double effect). Being critical, I also feel there are a number of misunderstandings here – about real and apparent goods, for example and the persistent claim that natural law is absolute and contains hard rules like Kantian ethics. Aquinas never argues for a hard form of deontology. Human beings are designed by God to use our reason to face hard choices and take responsibility for them.

 My conclusion: to gain full marks you don’t have to have knowledge that’s 100% accurate, but you do need a strong argument, a clear thesis and a comprehensive analysis and evaluation that justifies your thesis. Candidates are often preparing for this exam in the wrong way – just by learning material rather than practising their analytical writing skills.

 Peter Baron October 2018




Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.