Double Effect and Ethical End-of-Life Care: Assessing the Benefits and Burdens of Lethal Treatment (or Lack Thereof)

Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics 6 (1) (2016)
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Given the wide the range of legally available options for end-of-life care in recent decades: from aggressive, even experimental, treatment to active euthanasia, our ethical analysis struggles to keep pace with technology and law. In this essay I show that the principle of double effect (PDE) remains, and will continue to be, a useful tool for ethical analysis of end-of-life care. According to PDE, an agent may ethically perform an act that s/he foresees will have a significant bad effect (e.g., death) in addition to a good effect (e.g., pain relief) only if s/he does not intend the bad effect, the act is not bad for reasons other than its causing the bad effect, and there is a proportionately serious reason to act. Following a brief explanation of PDE and preliminary considerations in favor of counting death as a bad effect, I analyze several end-of-life options in terms of the principle. I begin with those that enjoy significant consensus among proponents of PDE: active euthanasia, “passive euthanasia,” and palliative care. Then I consider the less-straightforward cases of drug provision, refusing food and water, and terminal sedation, arguing that participation in such actions is justifiable via PDE only under very limited conditions.

Author's Profile

Heidi M. Giebel
University of St. Thomas, Minnesota


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