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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 4, 1998

Bioethics and Medical Ethics

Mary B. Mahowald
Pages 69-75

On Helping People to Die
A Pragmatic Account

Helping people to die may involve killing and/or alleviation of pain in a dying person. A dual commitment to the avoidance of killing and the alleviation of pain raises the question of whether these two ways of helping people are always compatible. This paper addresses the question through use of sources in classical American pragmatism and contemporary bioethics. First, I apply Charles Peirce’s notion of pragmatism to the concept of killing through consideration of the empirical consequences of alternative interpretations. James Rachels’ account of the distinction between active and passive euthanasia is critiqued in this analysis. Second, I examine what it means to relieve pain by relating Jane Addams’ concept of maternal nurturance to an ethic of care and opposition to killing. Utilizing these concepts, I apply William James’ notion of pragmatism as a method of mediating or straddling different theoretical approaches to resolve the apparent incompatibility between pain relief and the avoidance of killing. To address social concerns raised by the practice of helping people to die, I propose a corrective insight of Addams, along with John Dewey, about the role of the philosopher as social critic. Thus understood, pragmatism is a means of avoiding abuses that may occur in the process. I conclude that so long as permissive practices are restrained sufficiently to avoid injustices, it is morally both possible and desirable to resist killing while relieving pain.

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