Dignity and Assisted Dying: What Kant Got Right (and Wrong)

In Human Dignity and Assisted Death. pp. 143-160 (2018)
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That Kant’s moral thought is invoked by both advocates and opponents of a right to assisted dying attests to both the allure and and the elusiveness of Kant’s moral thought. In particular, the theses that individuals have a right to a ‘death with dignity’ and that assisting someone to die contravenes her dignity appear to gesture at one of Kant’s signature moral notions, dignity. The purposes of this article are to outline Kant’s understanding of dignity and its implications for the ethics of assisted dying. According to Kant, that which has dignity must be treated as an end in itself and may not permissibly be exchanged for that which merely has price. Kant’s reasoning thus seems to preclude acts of self-killing, including voluntary assisted dying, that rest on individual self-interest, since a person’s interests merely have price. However, a recognizably Kantian view of dignity can permit assisted dying under two sets of circumstances: First, it can be permissible for agents who anticipate a degradation of their rational agency due to conditions such as dementia to direct others to end their lives once sufficiently demented. In so doing, such agents in effect exercise a right to impose obligations on others regarding how their bodies, which will at some future point no longer be the vessels of their rational agency, are to be disposed of. Second, Kant errs in supposing that our dignity can stem solely from our moral personality, i.e., from our capacity to abide by universalizable moral principles. Rather, complete dignity also requires the capacity for setting discretionary ends and the means to those ends, i.e., the dignity of humanity. Individuals with prolonged and intense depression, in severe pain, or with serious disability may lack humanity while retaining their moral personality. In such cases, I propose that their opting to end their lives, with or without the assistance of others, does not amount to exchanging their dignified selves for something which merely has price and is therefore not objectionable on Kantian grounds.
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