“Is There a Duty to Die” and “A Duty to Care Revisited” debate over one’s duty to others when a life becomes burdensome to others. Who is more morally obligated, the caregivers or the sick and elderly? Cohn and Lynn argue that we are morally obligated to care for the dying and allow them to take their time, while Hardwig believes that the dying have an obligation to die rather than burden their loved ones. I believe that a moderate approach should be taken to the issue. I agree with Hardwig that it should be a mutual decision between the dying and their family, but I do not believe that there may ever be a situation where a person is morally obligated to die. The right to life trumps everything, however there may be circumstances when it may be more moral to die rather than burden caregivers and loved ones.
John Hardwig believes that “there is a duty to refuse life-prolonging treatment and also a duty to complete advance directives refusing life-prolonging treatment” (35). He holds this view when one’s illness would cause death and even when one would prefer to live. He backs up his argument by reminding us that our actions affect others, not just ourselves, and he believes that our duty to loved ones is greater than our own right to life. He believes that since medical care and treatment can be financially burdensome to our families, if the benefit to the dying is minor in comparison then there is a duty to die to relieve loved ones of this financial burden. Hardwig provides two compelling examples: the case of Captain Oates and the case of the 87-year-old woman with congestive heart failure.
Captain Oates was a member of an expedition to the South Pole when he became too sick to continue on the mission. It became apparent that he would not be able to make the rest of the journey and that he also would not be capable of making the journey home. His team remained stationed with him, trying to bring him back to health even though they all knew he had basically no chance of survival. So, one night he left the tent and disappeared into a blizzard without saying a word to his crew.
Was he morally obligated to die or were his teammates morally obligated to care for him? Cohn and Lynn would say that his crew had a duty to care for him, while Hardwig believes that he had a duty to die to save the lives of his team. I find both of these approaches too extreme. Hardwig at least says that it is always circumstantial when one can be morally obligated to die. However, this is where we differ because I strongly disagree with his word choice. “Obligated” is too severe of a term to apply when life and death are being discussed. It may be more morally correct to die when it one’s life becomes too cumbersome upon loved ones, but to be obligated to die contradicts the right to life. Saying that someone is morally obligated to die is prima facie, morally wrong.
For the case of the 87-year-old woman with congestive heart failure, I would again say that it is more morally correct to be willing to die, but if the woman wanted to live no one had the right to tell her to die. The doctors told her she had less than a fifty percent chance to live for six more months. “She was lucid, assertive, and terrified of death,” summarizes Hardwig (37). The woman demanded the most aggressive treatment because she wanted to live, which she did for almost two years. Although her quality of life lessened through the incessant treatments, she still managed to survive. This sounds like a miracle until you learn that her one daughter was her only caregiver and provider. Hardwig says that her daughter lost “her savings, her home, her job, and her career” (37).
I believe that it can generally be said that the daughter lost more than her mother would have if her mother had chosen to die rather than live for those two more years, but can it be definitively said that the mother had a duty to die? I do not believe so. No one forced the daughter to care for her mother- it was her choice. True, it may have been a greedy decision on the mothers’ behalf to ask her daughter to provide the finances necessary to prolong her life, but the daughter had every right to say that she did not have the means necessary to provide for her mother. I believe that the mother and daughter both made choices that cannot be determined to be morally obligatory. The mother took advantage of her daughters’ love and kindness, but it has not been taken into account whether or not the daughter was emotionally ready to lose her mother. Perhaps the daughter wanted to have her mother as long as she could. Although this may not for certain be the case, it also cannot be said that the daughter was forced, or obligated, to provide for her mother.
However Cohn and Lynn would disagree because they believe that, “the better social policy lies not in encouraging an obligation to die but in ensuring an obligation to care for the dying” (103). They confront Hardwig’s view of the emotional impact on the family. He admits that death impacts the entire family and not just the individual, but fails to account for the trauma and guilt felt by survivors even in the case of a “justifiable” suicide. Family members often have immense feelings of grief and guilt even if they understand the reasoning behind a suicide or if they knew it was coming. There may never be a sufficient classification for how to act in situations like these. Even if the daughter of the 87-year-old woman with congestive heart failure had decided not to fund her mothers’ treatment, she would almost certainly feel remorse after her mother was gone.
People often take for granted time they have with loved ones, even if it is a few years. Had she not provided the money for her mother, she might have later realized that there is no price equivalent to a life. If her mother had been living in pain and had no sense of who she was and where she was then it might have been easier for her to say she would not fund the medications and treatments, in that case she would have had more peace of mind for saving her mother pain. However, as Hardwig stated, the woman was conscious of her surroundings and had normal functional abilities for her age, but most importantly she wanted to live. How can it be said that anyone has the right to take her right to life away from her? I do not believe that it can be.
Everyone has different dynamics within their family and it is intrusive to say that someone’s’ family member is obligated to die simply to save the rest of their family money. By saying so, Hardwig borders on saying that life can be given a value with a dollar amount. Although he scarcely saves himself by stating that no general rule may be determined because every situation is different, I do not believe that there is any situation that would appropriate saying that any person is obligated to die, let alone a family member. I think that it is much easier said than done. It would be incredibly difficult to condemn a family member to death if they still had the capacity for life. After reviewing the opinions of Hardwig, Cohn and Lynn, I found my view in the middle (or completely outside all of their views depending on how you look at it.) I do not believe that there is a reason to say that a person is obligated to die no matter how sick or old they are. Everyone has the right to life and no one has the right to take that right away.
Cohn, Felicia, and Joanne Lynn. “A Duty to Care Revisited.” Ethics in Practice: An Anthology (2007): 103-13. Web. Hardwig, John. “Is There a Duty to Die.” The Hastings Center Report 2nd ser. 27 (1977): 34-42. JSTOR. Web.
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