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I have heard some atheists support euthanasia, on the grounds that death is preferable to agony. But I don't understand this; if there is no afterlife, death isn't a relief. It's true nothingness, the deceased won't experience painlessness, they won't experience anything at all. To me, this seems like euthanasia doesn't "put them out of their misery", it just hides their misery from us. It doesn't benefit the dead at all, only the living.

Euthanasia proponents seem to be stating the following:

Agony < Death < Bearable life

Why, if there is no afterlife, isn't the hierarchy this:

Death < Agony < Bearable life

I'm an atheist, and this is the conclusion I reached. I had emergency surgery several years ago. I remember laying in the operating room as they prepped me for surgery. I remember the anesthesia technician hooking up my IV to the drugs that would render me unconscious, and then the next moment (from my point of view anyways), I was in the recovery room. I had no sense that time had passed or any memory from during the surgery. It seemed like one instant I was in the OR, the next I was in the recovery room. I think that is what death is like, except there's no recovery room afterwards. Just infinite nothingness. I can't imagine anything scarier. I say this as someone who has dealt with disability for my whole life, chronic pain for about a decade, and as someone who has watched multiple family members die from horrible diseases.

I think this life is all we get, and I don't see how you could ever want to cut it short, no matter how bad it gets.

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    I think your ranking might be true for an immortal being--suffering for even a long time in the hope that someday it might end, and begin a long period of better life. But if I'm certain that I'm going to die anyway before my suffering ceases, why not minimize its duration? – Lee Daniel Crocker Jan 13 at 22:14
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    It's very simple. Agony/suffering gets a negative score, whereas nothingness is zero. Therefore nothingness is the relatively positive result. – Rebroad Jan 14 at 5:45
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    I think that is what death is like, except there's no recovery room afterwards. Just infinite nothingness. I can't imagine anything scarier. Your question seems to distil down to a fear of death. But you acknowledge that nothing can be experienced after death, so logically there is nothing to fear. Once you accept this logic, death, which represents a cessation of suffering to which there is no alternative, appears to be the right choice. – Igby Largeman Jan 14 at 5:51
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    I can't add an answer, but not believing in an after life, means I want the best life there is. If there is prolonged suffering before I die, I will try to skip that suffering. But if I were to believe in an afterlife where me killing myself has a negative impact, I would prefer a short while of pain for infinite good times. – Dr_Bunsen Jan 14 at 7:44
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    euthanasia doesn't "put them out of their misery", it just hides their misery from us I don't understand the logic here, if there is no afterlife then euthanasia has surely ended their misery and not just hidden it...? – Anentropic Jan 14 at 12:16

19 Answers 19

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I think you have the logic of this backwards. In theism (and some other religious doctrines) life continues after the death of the physical body. They believe euthanasia is a negative act that can impact that ongoing spiritual life in unpleasant ways, so they have a motivation to endure even the worst suffering during their physical lives. Atheists do not believe in life after death, they have no paradigm of ex post mortis salvation, so perpetuating a life in agony would be (to them) a meaningless and perverse act.

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    Plus, it is not some random atheist people just thinking that's how it's supposed to be, it is based upon the observation that people living in agony without any prospect of relief (most of them know it will only get worse) do want to put an end to it since they consider it meaningless to live on. Judging from the outside that "it's better to live on" is typical armchair philosophy and moral paternalism just as saying "it's better to die (full stop)" would be. Oh, and no serious proponent would dare to omit differentiation in that quite diverse spectrum of cases. – Philip Klöcking Jan 13 at 7:44
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    "so perpetuating a life in agony would be (to them) a meaningless and perverse act" both perpetuating a life in agony and euthanasia would be their last act, of which the first may last longer. The first may contain hope, while the latter definitely does not. After all, for an atheist life is supposed to stop at death. There is nothing after that. Nothing. I'd guess that life has to be quite extreme to favour nothingness over even the tiniest bit of hope. – Mast Jan 13 at 10:39
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    @Mast — Sometimes hope is a solid potential; sometimes a delusional flight from reality. The fact is that everyone's physical existence ends, sooner or later. A 20 year old who expects decades more of healthy, vibrant existence is realistic; a 90 year old who does the same is foolish. The only people who consider euthanasia are those who see the writing on the wall, and recognize that it's foolish to believe there is health left in the body. No one will cut their time short if they think there is goodness left to be had in life, but we all reach a point where things are irreversible. – Ted Wrigley Jan 13 at 14:50
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    @Mast It may be worthwhile to differentiate euthanasia from suicide. The majority of suicides are rash, impulsive acts, taken in a brief period of utter despair. Interrupted suicide attempts are usually not (immediately) repeated (though the patient may well be disproportionately prone to such periods of despair that could trigger a later attempt, if the underlying causes are not addressed). This is why suicide hotlines work, why signs and nets on bridges work, and so on. – KRyan Jan 13 at 22:41
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    @Mast Euthanasia, in contrast, would be a calm, purposeful act made after personal contemplation and consultation with medical professionals, as well as friends and family. Those assisting in the euthanasia would serve as a buffer to ensure that the patient is making this decision with sound mind and with the correct understanding of the details—among other things, that their judgment that things will not improve is a sober judgment of reality, and not merely the emotional tunnel-vision of despair. – KRyan Jan 13 at 22:43
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I think it's important to note that in cases where this is considered, death is already approaching. It isn't a choice between life and death. It's a choice between dying now or going through a few months of agony and then dying. To most people those months of agony are quite undesirable, where they will be in terrible pain and without hope of recovery. To put it in your terms:

(Agony + Death) < Death < Agony < Bearable life

You may disagree with that conclusion, but the only thing requested by proponents is that the person suffering should be able to chose themselves whether there's any meaning in suffering further. Since atheists have no religious reasons to believe the victim will suffer in some afterlife based on how they die, they'll tend to support giving people freedom of choice over forcing them to live in pain against their will.

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    I'd argue against your "death must be imminent" qualifier, I think euthanasia is still a reasonable choice if death is not imminent but the agony will not abate within the natural lifespan of the individual. – Borgh Jan 13 at 10:25
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    @Borgh windblade didn't actually use the term "imminent", only "already approaching" and "a few months". I think a better summary for this position would be if death is inevitable (reasonably soon.... all death [so far] is inevitable). – TripeHound Jan 13 at 13:40
  • 1. Death is always inevitable, at least until now. 2. that is my exact problem. You and windblade both argue from a "death within a year" standpoint, which sounds pretty imminent compared to the natural lifespan for an adult. There are many illnesses that will not kill or even shorten life significantly But I think they might still qualify. – Borgh Jan 13 at 13:46
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    @Borgh I'm not arguing for "within a year" or any such timescale, I was merely indicating that I think your characterization of windblade's answer as requiring "imminent death" was somewhat inaccurate. In practical terms, such questions arise most often when death is somewhat near (for some unspecified value of "somewhat")... in such cases, to me, inevitable doesn't just mean (or even have to mean) "soon" but also (and perhaps more-so) means "with little-to-no-hope of relieving the pain/cause". – TripeHound Jan 13 at 14:41
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    As unpleasant a thought as it is, there's also often a cost associated with continuing to live. So it's agony + death + leaving less for your loved ones. There's also the burden and strain that you might be putting on them while they watch you suffer. – JimmyJames Jan 13 at 20:35
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I have personally known two friends who, when faced with incurable cancer, elected to end their own lives at a time and in circumstances of their own choosing.

Both made this choice when it was abundantly obvious that death was near and inescapable, and their suffering had become unbearable. In one case, the victim's pain was so great that the sheer quantity of drugs necessary to relieve the pain was sufficient to render him unconscious. His choice was between unconsciousness and unbearable pain. In the other case, the quantity of morphine required to allow him to breathe was shutting down all his other bodily functions. His choice was between drowning slowly in the fluids filling his lungs or having his body simply stop functioning.

Both these people took their own lives to end their suffering and not to hide it from anyone. Until one has witnessed such things first-hand, one is in my opinion unqualified to philosophize on this topic.

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    This does not answer the question of why certain people believe what they do; rather, it seems to be little more than an attempt to shut down debate by anyone who does not have The Right Experience™. – jwodder Jan 12 at 23:11
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    What an incredibly insensitive way to express yourself to a complete stranger, Mr. Wodder. Surely(r) you can do better than that(tm). – niels nielsen Jan 13 at 0:18
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    @nielsnielsen "Until one has witnessed such things first-hand, one is in my opinion unqualified to philosophize on this topic. " while a bit harshly formulated, jwodder's comment just expresses the core of this sentence (at least how it easily can be understood). I feel perfectly capable to philosophize on things I haven't personally experienced, especially on this. If we couldn't most of philosophy would not exist, because nobody could prove that he has seen the afterlife or the non-afterlife etc. But the 'funny' thing is, that OP apparently has "the right" experience anyway. – Frank Hopkins Jan 13 at 0:29
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    @FrankHopkins In applied ethics, there is a difference between being able to say something about the relevant theories and how they could apply to a certain case and writing a theory about what should be done in a given case. I would take the pragmatist stance (and William James' writings are more than a century old, so not exactly "new") here and say that it is pointless to write a theory about something where you lack a true understanding of the language since you miss the bodily experience of the corresponding context. That's not arbitrarily shutting down debate, that's how language works. – Philip Klöcking Jan 13 at 7:59
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    @nielsnielsen correct , the experience does provide you insight, however you have not proven that experience is a necessary condition for philosophizing on the subject – Yaakov Pinchas Jan 13 at 14:01
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I upvoted niels nielsen's answer, but I'd like to expand on it.

Yes, death is an individual choice! I, too, have known people who have been forced to suffer for years with problems that could only have been cured by miracles (which never happened).

Death is inevitable. Therefore, whatever follows is inevitable, whether it's an eternity of shopping in some celestial Walmart or nothingness.

Suffering, however, can be optional. We can choose to endure or pull the plug.

And it isn't just about personal suffering. Some may want to end their lives partly to spare their loved ones the pain that comes with watching them suffer. Who wants to be a burden on the world?

So an atheist may view it as two choices:

1) Live a dignified life, then die. Hopefully, your loved ones will have good memories of you.

2) Live a dignified life, then take a sidetrip and endure untold torture before you die. Now, your loved ones will remember your hideous ending.

The man who does away with himself performs the most estimable of deeds. -- Nietzsche

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Where's the illogic in preferring (1) not to exist to (2) existing and suffering in agony? It's true, from an atheist standpoint, that after euthanasia I will not know that that I have ceased to exist and that I am no longer suffering in agony. But again, where's the illogic in preferring (3) not knowing that that I have ceased to exist and that I am no longer suffering in agony to (4) existing and suffering in agony?

A minor caution: it's logically possible for an atheist to believe in survival after death, i.e. an afterlife, and even (not at all the same but an extra condition) immortality. Survival of death may be for a finite time, not so immortality. The only thing an atheist can't logically believe in is the survival of death or immortality courtesy of God or gods. But an atheist might, for example, accept (I don't) the cogency of the first, two-stage argument for immortality in Plato's Phaedo (70C-72E, 72E -77D) which does not rely on the existence of God or the gods. There is also the Buddhist tradition, which posits survival without assuming the divine.

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  • i wonder [otloud] if e.g "the cyclical argument" can be rephrased in terms of pain and its absence. – user38026 Jan 12 at 18:54
  • Do you mean in connexion with Buddhism? – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 12 at 19:00
  • no i meant plato's argument, really – user38026 Jan 12 at 19:08
  • On the lines of agonistic pain/ death/ cessation of agonistic pain/ rebirth/ agonistic pain/ death/ cessation of agonistic pain... with some intervals of pleasure between rebirth and agonistic pain, one hopes ? Would it be better or worse, I wonder, if one knew that one were in such a cycle or were merely in it without knowing. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 12 at 19:21
  • i haven't thought it through -- just always felt that there was aporia thinking about the absence of pain not being pleasure – user38026 Jan 12 at 19:51
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Atheists supporting euthanasia might argue the following:

  • Death is inevitable.

    Living simply for the sake of trying to avoid death is illogical.

  • Death is timeless / infinite.

    Dying tomorrow instead of today wouldn't "extend" the nothingness after death.

    When you die everything just stops.

  • Death is neutral.

    There is no joy or suffering in nothingness.

  • At some point life may no longer be worth experiencing.

    Some people just think at some point the rest of the life would no longer be worth experiencing.

    Looking forward at all the likely joy and suffering they may still experience, they came to the conclusion there's too much suffering and not enough joy. So it's ultimately not worth it.

    This may not quite make sense to you, but I don't think this can be explained beyond this. It's simply their opinion.

    Since death is inevitable, timeless and neutral, ending their life isn't choosing death over life, it's choosing less life.


Or:

  • Death is "the great unknown".

    This still uses the last point above, but instead of considering death to be nothingness, it is considered to be simply unknown.

    Ending their life would now instead be choosing the unknown over suffering.

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  • I strongly agree with this answer's list which covers my thoughts in a simple way. I myself find interest in wondering how it "feels" to not feel forever and if such would trully last forever or if something unknown other than nothingness might ever happen in one's death. Since not feeling makes time not perceptible then if there is anything other more than nothingness to death that might ever happen ("the great unknown") then at least it shouldn't "feel" like it takes an eternity to reach it in the case that it does take a long time. (I'm not talking about possibility of reincarnation). – user7393973 Jan 13 at 8:33
  • As for the "life may no longer be worth experiencing" part I do believe that's something that some people do think about even if they're not in great suffering such as in the above answers. Either from past unfortunate events or really just because they think a lot about different things. Though I'm talking from personal experience and don't know almost any other peoples' views to be honest (since why I find this page interesting) so this is bias to my own thoughts. (P.S.: Please don't delete my comments, even if opinioned or if something is wrong, I think they add a little to the answer). – user7393973 Jan 13 at 8:40
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    @user7393973 wondering how it "feels" to not feel forever . I have a pretty good idea of what I will feel after death, and that's exactly the same as I felt before my birth. I have already experienced 'no experience' of the formation of the solar system, or the reign of the dinosaurs, or the Roman Empire. I expect I will have no experience of the political turmoil caused by rising sea levels displacing millions of people from London, Shanghai, Florida, Bangladesh, or how/whether we deal with the Sun expanding out to our orbit in 5 billion years time. – Neil_UK Jan 13 at 15:17
  • @Neil_UK Thank you for your input. These things certantly make me think a lot about life and everything. I feel like nobody ever explained to me any of them and that I only found myself thinking of them deeply recently. – user7393973 Jan 13 at 16:31
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Death is inevitable.

Dying in indignity and pain is not.

If you have never experienced the indignity of lingering, painful death I understand why you would not see what is wrong with your relative value equation for some people.

If you really want to understand more volunteer to visit a terminal hospice to do good things like read to the people or whatever you feel able to do that is wanted.

You will be making the world better and learning at the same time.

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  • Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site. – J D Jan 13 at 1:17
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    Upvoted for your emphasis on experience. I'm horrified by people who preach philosophy from their ivory towers, seemingly without a clue about what the real world is like. – David Blomstrom Jan 13 at 5:43
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    Euthanasia is not only about terminal cases. – Mr. Boy Jan 13 at 15:13
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    @Mr. Boy - What are some of the other cases you are thinking of? – jwpfox Jan 13 at 19:49
  • @jwpfox, Netherlands allows assisted suicide for psychiatric cases (even if the barrier seems somewhat higher than purported in the press). Depression etc. is not "terminal" as the word is commonly understood. – Eike Pierstorff Jan 14 at 10:03
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In addition to some excellent answers I would question a fundamental part of your question that assumes there is a hierarchy from the atheistic point of view. Death is not seen ubiquitously as better than suffering but that individuals are granted the choice free from judgement or punishment.

The theistic point of view, in some religions, may state effectively that life is better than death regardless and to reject it is therefore punishable.

The atheistic view maintains choice not a given hierarchy of life, death and agony (I.e., life is agony but you don't have to end it, or you can). The theistic view maintains belief/faith over choice (I.e., life is agony but you must continue it).

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    Welcome to Philosophy SE! It would greatly enhance your answer if you could supply some references, maybe you have read someone that hold these views... – christo183 Jan 13 at 7:43
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    @christo183 thanks. Honestly that was my own answer but the general background would be from authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Michael Sandel. I'll be a bit more rigorous with specific references in the future though. Thanks! – QAsena Jan 13 at 8:01
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    If only "free from judgement or punishment" were true - sadly, humans do a good deal of that themselves, toward those who might have been suffering and chose to complete suicide or euthanasia. @christo183 I read QAsena's answer that there's no need to prove that one proposed hierarchy is better than another, since there isn't one. Your desire for a proof-of-absence is familiar to atheists... :-) – Rich Jan 14 at 0:59
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    @Rich agreed! For certain 'free from judgment or punishment' is probably not part of human nature. I guess it is an idealised argument in that sense. – QAsena Jan 14 at 1:41
  • @Rich Not asking for any specific proof, just commenting on the requirements of a good post on the site. ;-) – christo183 Jan 14 at 6:26
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These are my neccessary and sufficient conditions for suicide. I'm a two-pronged atheist (Any Holy Books are non-predictive, inconsistent nonsense; the Standard Model is the best description of reality so far - there is no God effect).

Warning: Absolute honesty is required.

  1. My life is unacceptably bad.
  2. There is insufficient (or No) hope of improvement.
  3. I have no responsibilities I'm unwilling to abandon.

YMMV

Beyond this point it's an engineering problem.

Remember what it was like before your parents met? Nonexistence. Death is like that.

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    I like that last paragraph about trying to remember what life was like before being born. It's certantly something I have never thought of before which in a way is experiencing finite non-existence until the point of being born. Upvoted. – user7393973 Jan 13 at 8:52
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    "experiencing finite non-existence"? What non-existent thing does the "experiencing"? How do you tell it apart from some other non-existent thing that STILL does not exist? There are more of the second type. – waltinator Jan 14 at 0:01
  • Yup. Besides, it's only finite when measured from the Big Bang. Prior to that, it was infinite. Which brings us two other interesting engineering problems: the nature of time; and given that there are living things which do not exhibit signs of experiencing their lives, what is "experience"? – Rich Jan 14 at 1:03
  • @waltinator While I didn't exactly experienced not existing before I was born since I didn't existed, I think it does help to think that death being the non-existence after life is about the same as the non-existence I had before life started, which makes it easier to think what its like in a way. – user7393973 Jan 14 at 10:35
  • @Rich It might be infinite backwards but what I meant was that it was finite as in, that regardless of the finite or infinite past of non-existence, I was then at that point born, putting an end to the non-existence period and making me exist. – user7393973 Jan 14 at 10:37
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Animal Suffering

If you were walking through the forest, and you came upon a wild animal that was seriously injured but might not die for several days, do you think it is ethically superior to euthanize the animal right then and there, or let it live out its last days in agony and terror? What options do you think the animal might prefer, if it could express them?

It might seem that the question above is unanswerable, but it is not. While this is but one example, do you believe it to be an exception, or could you imagine any number of random replacements might exhibit the same behavior?

Human Suffering

I think humans and animals are more alike than different when it comes to their preferences on suffering and death. Where they begin to differ is in the matter of hope. When any creature faces the prospect of indefinite suffering with no relief until death, then hope is extinguished, and just from a utilitarian point of view, death has higher utility (because of the negative value of suffering combined with the absence of any positive-value experiences anticipated). However, humans have a kind of hope which other animals do not: the possibility that science or technology might relieve their suffering in their own lifetime, especially given the increasing pace of progress in our times.

Furthermore, humans have a variety of mechanisms by which to mitigate suffering, which animals do not. I think the combination of these factors explains the difference between your experience, and that of the people described by niels et al. While you have undoubtedly experienced more suffering than the average person, you have not described said suffering as debilitating. The fact that you are asking this question on StackExchange is a testament to your ability to function. If, on the other hand, suffering consumed all of your attention all day long, every day, for months at a time, I think your perspective would be quite different.

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    The article cited doesn't really show that the bear understood it was killing its cub or committing suicide. It seems possible that it accidentally hugged the cub too tightly, then attempted to break through the wall to escape, but died from the impact. We cannot assume existential motives in animals like the article does. – Ryan_L Jan 12 at 22:26
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    As for my own pain, I have no reason to believe there is any truly insurmountable amount of pain. I am sure that my continued suffering has increased my tolerance for pain. Just as an example, I no longer ask for novocaine at the dentist's office. I don't think my suffering could conceivably consume all my attention indefinitely. Given enough time, I would get used to it, so to speak. As Milton said in Paradise Lost, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." – Ryan_L Jan 12 at 22:26
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    I think it requires a religious level of belief to suggest that human brains but not other mammalian brains contain the circuitry necessary for empathy. While I cannot objectively prove that a bear feels emotion, I also cannot objectively prove that any other human feels it, either. So I am entitled by your logic to ascribe your actions to unknown forces completely unrelated to suffering. As for unbearable suffering, I would say you can tolerate your suffering because it is not terminal. If you had, say, stage IV cancer, you would likely feel differently. – Lawnmower Man Jan 12 at 22:30
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    I didn't say the bear didn't have emotions. I believe it did. I believe it loved that cub, and I believe it was scared and angry enough to ram the wall in an attempt to escape. But until we find a suicide note from that bear, I think declaring it suicide is premature. My explanation of the events is just as sound. I absolutely believe my suffering could temporarily consume all my attention, but sooner or later I would eventually get used to it. One week before my dad passed away from stage 4 cancer, we went to the gun range one last time. I'm sure he was in agony, but it didn't stop him. – Ryan_L Jan 12 at 22:42
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    @LawnmowerMan, there is evidence in the story of Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language, that she understood the sadness of a human who lost a loved one. – WGroleau Jan 13 at 0:57
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I don't know if anyone can really justify their relative level of fear of death and pain.

But since we're looking at this from an atheist viewpoint, we should consider the effect of evolution. There's nothing intrinsically scary about the concept of nothingness, or a big spider, or the roar of a tiger. Whether we find them scary or not is probably based on social cues, on our own life experiences, and on whether people in the past who were prone to fear similar things were able to survive and reproduce.

One possible attitude to death is, "Just infinite nothingness. I can't imagine anything scarier." Thinking that way is, for the most part, an evolutionary advantage. It prevents you from killing yourself the first time you feel unhappy and have the opportunity.

Another way of looking at death is, "I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do, I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it – you've got to go sometime." (Gerry O'Driscoll, on The Dark Side of the Moon) For the most part, this seems like an evolutionary disadvantage. But risking your life (for example, to protect your family) is often rewarded, so excessive fear of death isn't always useful.

I suspect that the most advantageous trait is the ability, based on your situation, to flip between: (a) thinking that death is the worst thing possible, and (b) accepting that death is inevitable so you shouldn't worry about it too much.

If one's life still has value, of course one should want to live as long as possible. But it's not impossible that the situation will change, and death will no longer seem so terrifying.

Ultimately we can't be sure how we'll feel in the future. One person might think, "No amount of pain could ever make me wish I was dead." Then later they could think, "I was wrong! This pain is a worse than I ever imagined was possible. I could never learn to tolerate this." Hopefully this doesn't happen too often...

More commonly, a person will think, "I want the option of a painless death, because if (some bad thing) happened my life would no longer be worth living." And then that bad thing happens, and they usually find out it's not as bad as they thought it would be: "I'm paraplegic, but I just feel lucky to be alive." There's more evolutionary benefit to fear of disability than there is to despair.

People will fear death a little, or a lot. Some people will change their minds, and others won't. We just have to accept that's how they feel, because we have little power to change it.

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Your example of anesthesia during surgery is a good one. For most people, the trade off between the suffering incurred during surgery versus giving up a few hours of consciousness is an easy one: they take the anesthetic. This is a rational choice that people are making that non-experience is better than a bad experience. So you could naively continue this train of thought inductively on for infinity if you expected the rest of your existence to be at such a level of suffering.

There are a few objections to this simple argument, but I argue that they are all resolvable.

Objection 1: There are diminishing returns on additional suffering.

I don't entirely disagree with this point, I think people tend to adjust to bad conditions and can learn to be happy even in objectively horrible situations. However, there a few considerations. Many people who choose euthanasia are terminally ill. This leaves little time to adjust to the poor conditions under which they are living, so what might be a relatively brief period of suffering for someone with their whole life ahead of them is actually a life consuming amount of time.

Walking into conjecture territory, I suspect that the diminishing returns for some conditions bottom out at somewhere nonzero. That is to say, even though it gets better it doesn't necessarily get good or even bearable.

Objection 2: This only applies to finite timescales, but death is infinite.

As I understand this objection, a terminal value against permanent nonexistence. As such, it is difficult to argue against without discussing more meta-ethical considerations.

Fortunately for my argument, we all die eventually anyway. Dying now instead of later is still only a finite loss of consciousness similar to going under anesthetic (though generally longer). When the transhumanists achieve immortality or if the theists end up being right about the afterlife, it will become more important to discuss whether it is a good terminal value or not.

Objection 3: There is a moral difference between being unconscious and being dead.

I'm going to unpack this one with care, because this is moral rats nest.

In one sense, this is trivially true. A person who is unconscious will eventually wake up. This has some obvious moral implications, like it being okay to bury a dead person underground but not an unconscious person.

There is also the question of whether they are experientially different. This is true in the case of sleeping, since most people dream. Under anesthetic people rarely remember dreaming. In the end, I do not think this is an important distinction because people would choose anesthetic whether or not they experienced anything (as demonstrated by the apparent lack of sensation)

A relevant question is whether it is acceptable to pull the plug on brain dead individuals. I don't know if I have ever heard anyone say that this is unacceptable, but YMMV.

In the end I don't have an irrefutable counterargument against this, but I fund it unconvincing.

Objection 4: Anesthesia is helps the future, not just the present.

There are two ways to go with this.

One way is the argument that even temporary pain has lasting effects, so preventing pain in the short term enables greater happiness in the future. While this is not a contradiction, I do not think it matches reality. Consider the choice between taking an anesthetic so you experience nothing, and undergoing surgery without anesthetic but taking an amnesiac after so that you forget the experience (for the sake of the thought experiment, assume it works perfectly). It is a rare person who would choose the second one, even though by the assumption of the argument it ought to be strictly better.

The other line of argument is that being under anesthetic makes surgery less likely to go wrong. This is actually actively false for many surgeries, and anesthetic increases the risk of complication (this was especially true in the past). This fails to pass a reality check.

Conclusion: If you accept that undergoing anesthesia is a rational decision, it directly follows that euthanasia can also be rational, unless you strongly value existence in a vegetative state.

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I think you are wrong that "atheists support euthanasia". (taken as a large general group).

Instead, atheists support the right to self-determination of ones own fate, which includes euthanasia.

The situation is not merely living in agony, it is being forced to live in agony without hope of recovery within ones own body, against ones own will. I don't think I need to present an argument why that is not desirable.

Some atheists (and theists, for that matter) fear their own death enough that they would suffer rather than face oblivion. But not many would force that choice on to others.

If an individual chooses to live in agony to stave off the nothingness of the void, that is their choice.
If a different individual chooses to accept and hasten the inevitable by a final act of self determination, that is their choice.

But the way you describe it, that there are proponents of euthanasia who believe that death is the "right" choice at a pre-determined level of discomfort, just doesn't exist in the real world.

Its about individual self-determination, not death-versus-pain.

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    How do they argue against suicide then? Why should psychologists stop people who plan on hurting themselves? If there is any reason to stop people from hurting themselves, then clearly there is some part of the decision being made with no regard to the person's self-determination. There clearly IS some line somewhere. I don't think anyone would let someone commit suicide because they stubbed their toe. Why is this, if self-determination is what matters, not severity of pain? – Ryan_L Jan 14 at 4:34
  • @Ryan_L Because suicide is often a rash and irrational decision when someone is not mentally well like when someone hurts another in a fit of rage or when drunk etc. But in places like Canada people have the right to end their life because of their right to bodily autonomy. The typical cases in euthanasia are not rash decisions and so many places respect the wishes of those that want to end their life. – Cell Jan 15 at 15:14
  • @Cell who are you to decide any suicides are rash and irrational? – Ryan_L Jan 15 at 16:45
  • @Ryan_L I never said I was. But the trained psychologists and psychiatrists that have a record of convincing those with suicidal thoughts to not kill themselves through therapy make a convincing point. – Cell Jan 15 at 16:58
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    @Ryan_L The line in Canada, like I said, is that you have the right to kill yourself without forced intervention. But that doesn't mean that professionals can't offer their help to people with suicidal thought, but they can't stop you either. What's the line between trying to help with suicide vs. euthanasia? Well suicidal thoughts are often accompanied by mental illness i.e. depression, bipolar disorder. So obviously judgement is impaired in those cases. Ever see drug commericals that say "If you have depression or suicidal thoughts see a physician"? Because judgement can easily be impaired. – Cell Jan 15 at 17:31
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The foundation of the basis of euthanasia views is that a patient should have a right to decide on his own medical sustenance or his assisted end of life, if he is incapacitated while suffering an incurable condition which promises them an agonizing or miserable end to their life.

The foundation of the view is not that suffering is better or worse that relinquishing life. It is that the patient who is experiencing the condition be master of their own fate.

Take a 97 year old lady that falls on her head in the bathroom and has serious brain damage and migraines. In 2020, doctors will force feed her to and medecite to make her heart beat for as long as possible. Whether or not it is a religiously "right thing" thing to do is for you to decide. Those are some of the very many scenarios and conditions to which atheists accept euthanasia better than religious people.

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This is a situation most pet owners face. Eventually a pet reaches a point where it cannot enjoy its life due to injury or illness, and the choice universally is to euthanise it. Not only is this standard for pet ownership, but failing to euthanise a suffering pet is directly considered animal abuse.

Animals are incapable of long-term thought and abstract concepts. They cannot have a meaningful life in the mind which allows them to find satisfaction regardless of pain or disability. Humans are able to, but the degree to which this is possible will depend on the person and their situation. You and I cannot say that that choice is not correct for the person who takes it.

Life involves actively living. If all you are doing is enduring, unable to do anything else, and waiting for death, for many people that isn't living. If you're able to do some things anyway, then perhaps you don't make that decision. But if you're just trapped in a torture cell of your own flesh, unable to do anything, what is the purpose to continue living and enduring the pain? If we euthanise animals when they're at that point, why is the same logic not acceptable for you with people?

More interestingly though, logically it's clear that your fear of "nothingness" is not based on anything real. I don't doubt it scares you, but it comes from after-the-fact imagination and not anything which actually happened to you. You did not experience "nothingness" under anaesthetic, and you were not scared during it. In fact you had no experiences at all under anaesthetic. Your imagination ran wild when you woke up in an unfamiliar situation, sure - but as you say, after death you aren't waking up. The imaginative view of "infinite nothingness" is only frightening if you think you might be aware of it. But you're dead, so you can't be. (Assuming no afterlife, of course.)

Like people who are afraid of spiders (I'm in the UK, and we have no spiders that can hurt you) it's a very normal fear, but that doesn't make it rational. So your viewpoint is not going to be the same as the majority who don't suffer from that irrational fear. Which is fine, until you say "everyone else is wrong". :)

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  • "Animals are incapable of long-term thought and abstract concepts." Do you have a source for that claim? Humans are animals, but even when you exclude humans, i think some smarter non-human animals, like pigs, are capable of long-term thoughts. – 12431234123412341234123 Jan 14 at 12:43
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This is my second answer.

A man is dying and all the higher ups want is philosophy.

I think there should be no philosophical conflict if both sides can come up with medication that puts people to into a coma where they feel no pain. Euthanaisa proponents get to end the pain while they are in coma. Opponents to euthanasia still have their loved ones living until either they die or they get a cure.

This answer is not meant to be a guarantee that we will be able to do this. It is practical philosophy in the service of the Hypocratic Oath.

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    One of the problems with this (dare I say "simplistic"?) answer to the problem is: what do you do with all the people in this induced-coma state? While many people who are in near-death pain may only live a limited time in an induced coma, with all that medical science can do, I suspect there would be a great many more that could be kept alive in a pain-free coma for an extended period. At some point, it becomes less and less practical to keep everyone in a pain-free coma "just" to avoid letting people choose euthanasia. – TripeHound Jan 13 at 13:57
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    @TripeHound I would even argue that some people who want to be euthanized would find it morally irresponsible to be kept in a coma for extended periods. Using resources to keep someone in a coma who doesn't want to continue living could easily be seen as a misuse of resources. If the coma deprived them of all experience, I could see many people opting not to go down that route. – JMac Jan 13 at 14:47
  • @JMac Fully agree. – TripeHound Jan 13 at 14:48
  • I recognize that this is more of a thought experiment than a practical answer, but consider before you personally accept this coma: how certain are you that it will be painless? Are you absolutely, 100%, beyond any doubt, certain that you won't (perhaps not right away) be trapped in agony forever and unable to communicate it? I can hardly imagine a worse hell. – Jon of All Trades Jan 13 at 17:46
  • Hi all, I was kind of waiting for some guys yo walk right into this lol puddle. The beauty of this coma is that it guys time for getting to a cure from the pain. Talk about gotchas. – Singleminded Compass Jan 14 at 0:08
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I think the idea of "infinite nothingness" does not make sense. It's quite reasonable given what we know, to assume that we are algorithms processing information. Despite all the unknowns about what consciousness really is and how the brain gives rise to it, it's reasonable to assume that it's the processing of information that gives rise to all our experiences at any given moment. This then includes our sense of identity.

So, if you are in pain, then the fact that it is you who is feeling this pain is the the result if all the processes that are implemented by your brain. If somehow your brain would by some miracle, process the signals in the way as how my brain would do that if I were suffering from the illness you are suffering from, then this would give rise to me experiencing that pain instead of you. This thought experiment then does raise the side issue of how to deal with two copies of a person, but let's stay clear of that issue here.

So, what is really going on when I'm experiencing something, is that there happens to exist a brain that's running an algorithm that processes information in a certain way, consistent with this being me. If I were to decide to euthanize myself because I'm in agony, then this guarantees that there won't be states where I experience existing in a similar state where I also know about having taken the decision to euthanize myself in the past and having gone through the euthanization process.

This programmed self-destruction preventing a physical brain to naturally exists that renders me in such a state, is similar to there not being versions of me or other persons in states whose existence would be inconsistent for any other physical reason. For example, one can imagine brain states rendering a given person to experience living in paradise. This person would experiences eternal well being without having to expend any effort for this.

But unfortunately, it's unlikely that such a person exists in such a state. The reason is then that the way the laws of physics work are unlikely to yield a brain that would render the person in such a state. This unlikeliness is the result of evolutionary path toward such brains being blocked a long time ago in our evolutionary history. For example children born who can't feel pain tend to not live very long.

So, the result of Nature doing its business is not an "eternal nothingness" for things that don't exist, rather it are the things that do exist.

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No one who has ever experienced intractable pain could ever ask this question. Beyond a certain point, pain is in fact unbearable. I would never suggest that anyone undergo torture voluntarily or otherwise, but the fact is people experiencing continuous torture will in fact beg for death. The question really has nothing to do with any theist viewpoint. To say, "I don't see how you could ever want to cut it short, no matter how bad it gets", merely suggests you do not know how truly excruciating "bad" can get. At some point, one simply can no longer bear it. You say you have lived with chronic pain, and I have no evidence to suggest I should disbelieve you, but I also live with chronic pain, and if I were not able to alleviate the level of pain to the extent I can, I would no longer be living.

I am an atheist, also, but I am not afraid of dying. You say it scares you. OK. The fact I am not afraid of death does not mean I will choose to die the moment living becomes uncomfortable. Not being afraid of death does not mean I do not want to live. I do. At the point the pain in my life becomes stronger than my will to live, with no means to alleviate it, then I will choose to die. I feel certain that at some point, which I sincerely wish you never reach, the pain in your life could become far stronger than your fear. At that point I stringly suggest you would indeed choose death.

Meanwhile, I hope you can overcome your fear of death. It might possibly have the effect of keeping you alive longer, but living with such a fear will impact the quality of your life, and it will do so more and more the longer you live. The end result is likely to be a truly miserable death filled not only with incredible pain but terror, as well.

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  • "[...] the fact is people experiencing continuous torture will in fact beg for death." How does this answer the question? Torture is designed to make people act against their principles and best interests. That says nothing about the value or validity of what they're being tortured to do. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jan 13 at 10:59
  • @RutherRendommeleigh The fact that torture is designed to cause suffering doesn't mean that equal or worse suffering can't be felt through "un-designed" circumstances (like a disease or an accident). Leslie is simply giving a "well known" example of people wanting death over life. – Echox Jan 13 at 14:15
  • @RutherRendommeleigh Torture in that case can only achieve results if the torturer can stop the suffering happening though, and it is application of suffering for a purpose. Burning someone until they give you information, for example. If you light someone on fire for no reason and then walk away and leave them to burn to death, that is not torture for a purpose. Knowing that your only options are to die quickly or to die slowly in agony, begging for a quick death is entirely in your best interest. Diseases such as cancer entirely fit that situation. – Graham Jan 13 at 15:03
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    @Echox I think you misunderstand my point. I don't doubt that intense pain, regardless of who or what caused it, can make someone want to die. But, philosophically, that tells us nothing about the relative value of death. Most people who attempted suicide and survived later regret their attempts, so people clearly aren't infallible. Wanting to die is not automatically the same as death being a good thing. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jan 13 at 16:48
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    @Graham That's the point, It is not clear to me, (and, I suspect, the OP), how "not pain" is "clearly preferable" to "pain" if "pain" is all there is. I understand that you think it is, and I'm not saying that you're wrong, but the question is asking for why. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jan 13 at 17:39
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This is an utilitarian-rational answer, which might not reflect the truth (actually, I don't agree with it). I just want to point out that under that paradigm, the ordering is "rational".

Assume the current value of an individual' utility of being alive ("happiness"), denoted by U, is given by the sum of the expected value of every period t's happiness, u_t, between now and the time of death. "Expected value" reflects the fact that the individual does not know the future. (for simplicity, let us remove discounting from the problem, which reflects the fact that the value of something now is much greater than the value of the same thing 10 years ahead). So, the value of being alive is: enter image description here

Let's also assume the individual has a certain threshold level of discomfort below which his/her utility is negative (ut<0). Above it is positive (ut>0). Importantly, this threshold is subjective, and already incorporates moral dimensions, perceived by him/her, about the value of suffering, consequences on loved ones, financial cost of euthanasia treatment, etc.

Importantly, let us assume the person believes there is no after-life with probability 1. Being dead provides him/her with a forever utility of X. This level of utility is subjective. For some is negative, as they very much prefer to be alive, but for others is zero or even positive.

Furthermore, assume the person is legally allowed to terminate his/her life.

Finally, the person is utilitarian, which means s/he wants to maximise happiness (U vs X).

So, what can this model tell us?

First, a healthy person, although might expect some future health problems (or maybe not, given advances in modern medicine), assumes the most likely case which is to remain healthy for the most of life (here is where discounting makes a difference too). In this case, ut is mostly positive. Unless this person really enjoys to be dead (very high X), s/he will not engage in euthanasia. This is, U>X.

Now, consider a healthy person who suddenly has a very bad sickness. The prospects is for u_t to be negative most of the rest of life. So, U is negative, perhaps significantly. Unless this person really dislikes to be dead (X>U), s/he will prefer euthanasia. This is even not believing in after-life (including being an atheist).

Thus, it might be rational for an utilitarian atheist to prefer euthanasia.

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