Kantianism and utilitarianism

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Euthanasia is one of the issues that different philosophers have discussed in length. Euthanasia denotes any action that terminates the life of an individual in intense and debilitating medical state. Mill is one of the philosophers who described the moral theory of utilitarianism, an ethical view that can help an individual in making decisions. On the other hand, Kant postulated his theory, Kantianism that offers ethical guidelines that help people in making ethical decisions. This paper will focus on evaluating a euthanasia case of Brophy, using utilitarianism and Kantianism. Brophy is a patient in persistent vegetative state, whose wife expressed the intent of carrying out passive euthanasia. Using the views from the two philosophers, this paper will examine whether euthanasia is an ethically right choice.


Immanuel Kant described a deontological ethical philosophy titled as ‘Kantianism’. He made it evident that in his view, duty, good will, and moral worth were critical aspects in determining of the action taken. He opined that duty was the only reason that should motivate an ethical action (Abel 24). According to him, human beings are moral agents that should use reasoning while making ethical decisions. In his view, one could only settle on morally worth decisions when guided by goodwill and duty.

Kant embarked on defining the universal laws that determine the duty of making morally worthy decisions. He formulated two different versions of the categorical imperative. The first version was the universal law that defined that humans must act in a manner that qualifies categorization as universal. The second version of the categorical imperative highlighted that it was critical for humans to consider humanity as the end and refrain from regarding it as merely a means (58).

Kant describes certain maxims that were critical as guidelines for making ethical decisions. These principles were the product and reason and were namely duty, goodwill, and categorical imperative. Therefore, the will determining why an individual carries out a certain action cannot receive underestimation in deontology. He advanced his views to highlight that the only way in which an individual could exhibit good will was through taking action out of duty. In Kant’s definition, good will denotes the ability of human beings in taking decisions based on principles. Acting in fulfillment of duty refers to actions motivated by good will and not feelings, emotions or self-interest. Duty and good will are moral principles that complement each other. Kant also highlighted that actions motivated by duty exhibited moral worth. He placed emphasis on the need for actions to depict a sense of moral worth (49). Moreover, Kant explained the value of dignity towards human beings. He emphasized that it is critical for people to act in ways that exhibit the dignity for others.


This moral theory is the work of philosopher Mill. The central principle of the ethical view is that actions taken should produce happiness and pleasure to a large number of people (59). The moral theory emphasizes on the value of making considerations of the potential consequences of actions. Mill opined that an ethical decision is one that translated to a measure of happiness and pleasure to people. If more people found pleasure and happiness in the decision, then he considered the specific action more ethical. According to this moral theory, decisions should have a basis on the benefits they can offer to the society (68). His philosophy encourages the compromise of individual interest while focusing on promoting a higher sense of ‘common good’ in the society.

The central principle of this moral theory is the ‘greatest happiness principle’. This principle implies that judgment of actions occurs according to the measure and proportion that they cause happiness or its reverse state (84). Mill opined that highly ethical actions cause a high level of happiness while less ethical decisions are those causing people feelings that contrast to the state of happiness. Happiness in this context also denotes the lack of pain. Such a state should offer pleasure to the people. According to this principle, circumstances, events, and actions that exhibit a high level of pleasure become the preferred options while those with low levels of pleasure are not preferable (89).

Moreover, Mill highlighted that both quantity and quality of pleasure were critical in the choice of moral action taken. As mentioned, actions likely to yield increased level of pleasure were preferable. Better still, an individual would choose an action that would yield high quality pleasure (90). This translates to the fact that pleasure has both quantitative and qualitative ratings. The principle of quality versus the quantity of pleasure proves highly influential in the choice of actions that an individual can take. In addition, Mill highlighted the criticality of designing ‘an act versus rule’ utilitarianism where each individual should identify rules that translate to a measure of utility and rely on such rules when making moral decisions (92).

Analysis of the Brophy Case

According to the case highlighted, it becomes evident that Brophy would give in to voluntary euthanasia because he prefers immediate death than long periods of suffering (92). His medical condition is chronic because he has been on the persistent vegetative support for over a year, without exhibition of any visible change despite all the medical interventions. He had communicated his support for euthanasia in reference to the cases that he had observed before his current predicament. He had communicated his preference to his wife, brothers and friends (94). This explains why they have given consent to passive euthanasia that will involve withdrawing nutrition and fluids to facilitate his death in two weeks. The hospital does not support passive euthanasia, and the court ruled in support of the hospital.

Viewed in the definition of Kant, human life deserves dignity and a regard as the end. Passive euthanasia does not conform to this view, making it ethically wrong according to Kantianism (98). There is need for the family to demonstrate dignity to the life of Brophy, a view highlighted in the decision made by the court. Such high regard for life will motivate the family to support the hospital in offering care to Brophy, to prolong his life irrespective of the current hopelessness. This will demonstrate that they are responding to both the good will principles and duty, as defined by Kant’s categorical imperatives (122). Moreover, Kant highlights that it is the responsibility of the hospital staff to prolong the life of Brophy despite the pressure from the family. In doing so, the doctors will be responding to moral duty.

According to Kantianism, ethical decisions should reflect moral worth, goodwill and response to duty. The second version of Kant’s categorical imperative, humanity deserves regard as the end (95). This principle dissuades people from viewing humanity as a means, a regard that would prove debilitating to the dignity of humans. Carrying out the passive euthanasia that the wife is advocating for illustrates that she views human life as a mere means. The entire family supports her distorted view as Kant described.

On the other hand, utilitarianism is likely to support passive euthanasia intended by the family because the patient had highlighted that it would make him happy. For him, the prolonging of life in the vegetative state was not something pleasurable. Therefore, it falls short of being the most ethical action according to Mill (129). Moreover, passive euthanasia will translate to promoting common good because it is the preferred action by the family members, who are the majority in this case. In a different sense, passive euthanasia will leave the hospital bed and other resources that he is using for other patients who present a higher chance of surviving. In this case, it will yield ‘good’ in both good and quantity as Mill explained (134).


As described above, it evident that, in Kant’s view, duty, good will, and moral worth is the critical aspects in determining ethical decisions taken. In his view, one could only settle on morally worth decisions when guided by goodwill and duty and, therefore, euthanasia is ethically wrong. On the other hand, the central principle of the ethical view is that actions taken should produce happiness and pleasure to a large number of people, and euthanasia is ethically preferable.

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  1. Abel, Donald C. Fifty Readings in Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.
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