The desire to both alleviate suffering and protect life are two ethical principles upon which much of modern society shapes its moral values around. However, there are several situations that present a clear conflict between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to protect life. The debate over assisted dying is probably the most difficult of these (from a moral standpoint) because it involves a person whose suffering is so great that she or he wishes to just end her/his life as a final recourse to the pain, often even if there exists the possibility that medical attention can either save or prolong her/his life. The ethical dilemma of whether such a person’s wishes should be respected, or whether the ability to save a life at all costs ought to take precedents is not a simple issue to resolve through purely philosophical musings.
Just about everyone can image a scenario in which an individual’s physical pain is so great that it would seem downright cruel to force her/him to continue to be tormented just to appease our collectively idealized standard over the sanctity of life. Certainly one could make the case that even a painful life is better than no life at all, but the caveat that cannot be ignored is the question of by what right any one of us can demand for a person to continue to live in agony to preserve our ideals about the greater value of life.
“What if the person’s pain is causing them to speak from hysteria and fear? What if they would have changed their mind about wanting to die?” What if is a line of reasoning that though interesting is destined to remain unresolved by virtue of its phrasing. Case and point, what if the person ends up living only a few months longer, all in agonizing pain, only to die anyway? You could have spared them these final moments of unspeakable pain, but didn’t. Does that seem more morally sound than letting them die?
A conflict does arise of whether anyone else’s opinion besides the suffering individual’s should be considered (such as family members not willing to let their loved one die at any cost if it can be avoided). This is the part of the assisted suicide debate where it becomes difficult to insist on a clear course of action. It’s redundant to state how almost no one wants to see someone they love suffer. Now add on the caveat of not just having a loved one die, but to actually assist in the process. I recognize that this is undoubtedly too great a burden for many to go through, seeing as how I, too, would no doubt be torn to my core if such a decision faced me. However, I still have to maintain that, as heartbreaking as it is to consider the torment that someone will suffer at losing a loved one, I still don’t see how the alternative is any better (i.e. how much the individual her/himself is currently physically suffering, and how s/he must continue to do so partly because I cannot take the mental anguish or moral burden of assisting in her/his death).
Being a person who does feel a great deal of empathy for his fellow man, I see the many moral difficulties that arise from the debate over assisted dying from both sides of the argument. I also understand that many such cases will have different circumstances that call for different considerations. But I simply cannot bring myself to insist that a suffering person (whether their pain has a physical or psychological source) must continue to exist in torment in order to appease any personal moral hangups I have on the topic. And I find it hard to see an intellectual means to get around this problem without descending into gross oversimplifications on a very sensitive issue.