- One of the most famous discussions in applied ethics, James Rachels’s advocacy of euthanasia, contains an argument that implies the moral equivalence of killing and letting die. What Rachels overlooks is that the thought experiments1 they rely upon to demonstrate this equivalence actually suggest that many readers had earlier underestimated the wrongness of allowing someone to die rather than overestimated the wrongness of killing. So if Rachels is correct about killing and letting die, there are actually two lessons to be learned by those who oppose active euthanasia.
- The first lesson which Rachels seeks to inculcate, is that active euthanasia cannot be distinguished from passive euthanasia, on the grounds that the first of each pair involve a killing and the latter just allowing death.
- But the second lesson, one that Rachels would not have liked if they had noticed it, is that passive euthanasia is actually worse than had previously been thought. Thus those readers who had opposed active euthanasia but not passive euthanasia, when forced to treat these consistently in light of the moral equivalence of killing and letting die, have more reason to change their permissive attitude to passive euthanasia than to accept active euthanasia.
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