IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > Vision > Staff > Kyle Munkittrick > Technoprogressivism
Euthanasia, Immortality, and The Natural Death Paradox
Kyle Munkittrick   Jun 14, 2011   Science Not Fiction  

Dying is a touchy subject. Euthanasia makes people upset. Whichever side of the debate you are on, you are caught between the hard place of human suffering and the rock of informed autonomous free choice.

Euthanasia is really a debate about not dying of natural causes. For so long, we’ve understood death to be OK only if it was natural or demonstrably accidental. Anything else was murder, manslaughter, or war.

Not only God, but we humans, have set our canon against self-slaughter. Voluntary Active Euthanasia [PDF], as Daniel Brock denotes it, is not natural, nor is it demonstrably accidental. Thus, we instinctively categorize it as morally wrong.

Instead of attempting to root out the source of that instinct and investigating whether or not voluntary active euthanasia actually violates morality, many use the blurred line created as reason enough to oppose a chosen death.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues that Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian’s efforts to provide assistance to those suffering created a moral slippery slope:

And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?

Note that Douthat doesn’t consider Parkinson’s a medical disease. But more to the point – Douthat’s argument is that we don’t know what degree of suffering makes the choice to die morally palatable.

Degree of suffering is the wrong criterion. None but the sufferer can define it and it can never be truly communicated. What is at stake here is not only the free and informed choice of the dying, but our very understanding of what it means to “die of natural causes.”

So how do we determine that the person choosing to die is doing so of sound mind, with all the necessary information and without coercion? Thankfully, Sir Terry Pratchett has a suggestion:

That is why I and others have ­suggested some kind of strictly non-­aggressive tribunal that would establish the facts of the case well before the ­assisted death takes place. This might make some people, including me, a little uneasy as it suggests the govern­ment has the power to tell you whether you can live or die. But, that said, the government cannot sidestep the ­responsibility to ensure the protection of the vulnerable and we must respect that. It grieves me that those against assisted death seem to assume, as a matter of course, that those of us who support it have not thought long and hard about this very issue. It is, in fact, at the soul and centre of my argument.

The members of the tribunal would be acting for the good of society as well as that of the applicant – horrible word – to ensure they are of sound and informed mind, firm in their purpose, suffering from a life-threatening and incurable disease and not under the ­influence of a third party. It would need wiser heads than mine, though heaven knows they should be easy enough to find, to determine how such tribunals are constituted. But I would suggest there should be a lawyer, one with ­expertise in dynastic family affairs who has become good at recognizing what somebody really means and indeed, if there is outside pressure. And a ­medical practitioner experienced in dealing with the complexities of serious long-term illnesses.

I would also suggest that all those on the tribunal are over 45, by which time they may have acquired the rare gift of wisdom, because wisdom and compassion should, in this tribunal, stand side-by-side with the law. The tribunal would also have to be a check on those seeking death for reasons that reasonable people may consider trivial or transient distress. I dare say that quite a few people have contemplated death for reasons that much later seemed to them to be quite minor. If we are to live in a world where a ­socially acceptable “early death” can be allowed, it must be allowed as a ­result of careful consideration.

Douthat attempts to build a slippery slope argument out of the variety of human experience. Pratchett embraces that diversity and attempts to build a moral mechanism for dealing with the unpleasantness that comes with dying.

But there is a second problem with death. What if I don’t want to die a natural death? What if I want to live for a long long time, say 10,000 years?

Interestingly, the same people who don’t want me to die when I want to don’t want me to live longer than I am “supposed to” either. To use technology to live beyond the statistical average lifespan is to violate some other set of values of humility in the face of death or some such pap.

Bioconservative authors like Leon Kass and Frances Fukuyama have repeatedly argued that mortality is part of what gives human lives value. But here comes the twist. If you get sick, we’ll pump you full of chemicals and strap you to whatever machine your health care plan will begrudgingly pay for, but don’t live beyond the average. As Douthat says above, “We’re all dying, day by day.” What are our options here?

Again, the draconian mores of “nature” rear their ugly head.

Natural death as a concept binds us in the shackles of paradox. To make choices around death seem to violate a natural law to which we’ve all unconsciously agreed. None of us know when our time will come, but don’t try die too soon, and don’t try live too long. Death, it seems, is too important a decision for us to make. Like many anti-enhancement arguments, the answer is all too familiar: the most critical choices – those that impact our basic genetic code, what type of children we have, and how we die – ought be left to chance.

Transhumanism is, in large part, an opposition to the mentality that creates the paradox of death. Death by natural causes is not good, it’s just no one’s fault. But in a world where so much death is caused deliberately, maliciously, and pointlessly, a death by natural causes can seem not just a mercy, but a blessing. Thus, we have come to cherish and value that which is but a morally neutral necessity.

When another person chooses our death against our will, that is a moral wrong.

Death by natural causes is morally acceptable because we cannot choose otherwise. But it is not morally good.

Volitionally and autonomously choosing when one dies, now there is a moral good. There is no reason the circumstances of one’s biological make-up and environment that determine one’s expiration date must be abided by. If technology can allow us to stop short in the face of years of suffering or overcome an untimely gentle passing for another 20 years, why not?

A fetishization of natural death should not hold us hostage to the quality and duration of our lives.

Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


If technology can allow us to stop short in the face of years of suffering or overcome an untimely gentle passing for another 20 years, why not?

A fetishization of natural death should not hold us hostage to the quality and duration of our lives.

I agree totally with the above formulation - BTW the illustration is a pretty close likeness to me currently.

Peace to ALL

I’m in support of full Autonomy, including choosing the point of one’s death.

However, I find Pratchett’s idea of ‘Tribunals’ terrifying. So much potential for corruption.

I can’t find it anymore, but there was an article a few years ago about a guy who took LSD on his deathbed, I’m not sure if he was also getting assisted suicide or not, or just at the end of his rope, but it was an interesting article regardless.

I am a research scientist who has had to deal with progressive loss of their cognitive abilities and memory due to multiple sclerosis for the past 25 years and who has been on extended disability leave for 11 years.  So believe me that I appreciate the desire to die and end one’s fruitless efforts to continue trying to contribute to those who are now intellectually superior to me.  But believe me that I also appreciate the good feeling I get after completing a simple task which helps others.  And believe me that I also appreciate the good feeling I get when helping or simply interacting with those who are in worse condition that I.  Finally, believe me that I understand that my wife’s love for me and my love for her is certainly the greatest thing that keeps me alive and looking toward the next day of my life.  So, I believe that it won’t be worth struggling to live when there is nothing a person can do to help others and when there is no one left who cares for that person.

When there is nothing a person can do to help others and when there is no one left who cares for that person then I also support full Autonomy, including choosing the point of one’s death.

The idea of needing to convince a ‘Tribunal’ that one should die sounds barbaric to me.

I find the moral argument for choosing death unassailable despite its unpleasant implications. We should have the ability to check out as painlessly as possible. However, I suspect this system would dramatically increase suicides were it established. I know I’d jump on the opportunity to go to sleep and never wake up against. In the existing society, suicide booths would inevitably be super-creepy and would most likely lure people in for profit. Only when we smash oppression and enable greater human happiness will voluntary death become a positive thing.

I would suggest an alternative to euthanasia that may eventually be more palatable. Cryopreservation achieves the goal of ending the patient’s suffering without permanently ending their life, effectively a prolonged induced coma. The government is willing to fund many expensive lifesaving procedures such as organ transplants through Medicare, so since cryopreservation represents the best chance for those who would otherwise choose euthanasia, it should be encouraged as an alternative.

a person in favor for autonomy would never suicide, killing yourself is ending all that is known,today is semantic, live for pleasure and u will die for it , euthanasia satisfies this lifestyle, in my opinion its just another way to put money in someones pocket, nothing is worse than assisted suicide, NOTHING, if someone wants to suicide , it is our responsibility to ensure that they do not , it is humanities problem and a mental problem of the person, they have no reason to live? that is the biggest case of depression i have ever heard,  and delusion ,

Voluntary Active Euthanasia or Physician Assisted Suicide should be legal, if a patient is terminally ill and is fully competent in making decisions.

Scenario: Hippocratic Oath is a one-sided perspective.

The Hippocratic Oath represents a one-sided perspective, failing to consider other alternatives regarding patients who are losing the battle to live, ultimately, fading closer and closer to death. According to, the modern Hippocratic Oath states, “I will neither prescribe nor administer a lethal dose of medicine to any patient even if asked nor counsel any such thing nor perform the utmost respect for every human life from fertilization to natural death and reject abortion that deliberately takes a unique human life.”  Even though, opposing arguments of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide claim that doctors have a moral responsibility to uphold, due to the preservation of life; I believe doctors are acting immoral when they refuse to prescribe a lethal dose to a terminally ill patient enduring agonizing misery. Personally, I can’t stand the thought of anybody suffering. There shouldn’t be inhumane restrictions for terminally ill patients who are capable of determining their fate.  Those responsible who determined the restrictions of terminally ill patients most likely have not experienced a terminal illness, and cannot fathom why this can be extremely beneficial for the patient. My viewpoint believes doctors salaries and their hierarchical position within the US Healthcare system is an immoral. There currently is a tremendous business representation within the healthcare system, which reflects privatization rather than the principles of the Hippocratic Oath. The modern Hippocratic Oath, according to writes, “I will treat without exception all who seek my ministrations, so long as the treatment of others is not compromised thereby, and I will seek the counsel of particularly skilled physicians where indicated for the benefit of my patient.” The Hippocratic Oath upon these terms is certainly not being practiced word for word. Millions of working class Americans who have little or no medical insurance are restricted to County hospitals, where the conditions portray more administrative procedures than moral responsibility.

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