An Ancient Debate: Voluntary Euthanasia in the school of Socrates


As WYA’s North America Journalism Extern in Europe, I came to Belgium to research the societal trends of euthanasia and assisted suicide. It’s trajectory has been swift and the rising numbers alarming.

In 2014, the Belgium government made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalize voluntary euthanasia for children without any age restriction, this followed legalization for adults in 2002. Now after 16 years of legal access to request death by the hands of physicians, Belgium’s Federal Commission for Euthanasia Control and Evaluation reported in July that three minors were euthanized in the past two years.

As many European countries debate new initiatives for euthanasia and assisted suicide legislation, the onslaught appears unremitting and unprecedented. Yet an unexpected discovery in my research may surprise many that our “modern” debate over the morality of euthanasia is not so modern after all.

The Hemlock Society is the predecessor of America’s largest and most powerful  pro-euthanasia lobby, Compassion & Choices. It’s name commemorates the hemlock poison that Socrates drank to end his life in the 5th century BCE and provides an image of a “rational death,” according to the organization. While one can easily challenge the association of Socrates’ death as a fitting figurehead for the euthanasia and assisted suicide movement, the dispute between Socrates’ own students reveals that this polarizing issue fundamentally speaks to the dignity of the individual in the eyes of the state.

In his seminal work on Medical Ethics in Antiquity, Paul Carrick, professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, splits Plato and Aristotle into opposing sides on voluntary euthanasia. Fascinatingly, further research indicated that their disagreement reflects a fissure in these philosophers’ conceptions of justice.

Plato devotes the Republic to defining the nature of justice through the dialogue of Socrates with his students–discussions in which students will recognize famous images such as the cave (an analogy that frequently came to my mind when leaving the basement floor of the library bleary-eyed many late nights), the philosopher king (insert name of favorite professor), and the astute reader will remember Gyges’ invisible ring (no one saw you jump through that classroom window).

Another one of these famous discussions describes justice in the analogy of a functioning city to a well-ordered soul. Describing the soul as constituted of three parts, Plato draws a comparison to society as being composed of three classes. Just as the individual must strive to order the soul, Plato defines justice as the ordering of these three classes in the ideal society.

According to Michael Patuluk, professor of philosophy at Clark University, Aristotle finds a “grand confusion” in Plato’s description of justice of society and the human soul. In this confusion, Plato defines justice solely as an ordering of parts, where the individual’s well-ordered soul ultimately serves the well-oiled machine of an ideal society. Aristotle instead separates Plato’s general conception of justice from a particular form.

“Call the character-related virtue which involves virtuous action all round “general justice”; call the character-related virtue which aims at a restricted type of good action “particular justice,” Patuluk writes in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction.

Aristotle does not constrict justice to the same one-dimensional description as his teacher but by distinguishing particular from general justice, elevates the dignity of the individual over the interests of society. He does this by emphasizing the development of particular virtues, where each virtue has its own internal system of justice. For instance, the virtue of temperances seeks the mean between gluttony and starvation. As an individual learns “to be good” by practicing virtue, his capacity for true friendship grows, the existence of which signifies a flourishing political community. With the demands of particular justice on an individual, Aristotle effectively turns Plato’s relationship between the individual and the state on its head: society requires virtuous citizens first.

The difference between the particular and general forms of justice carries over into the debate over euthanasia and assisted suicide and reveals a nefarious picture of autonomy.

As Plato defined justice as ordering of the society, the individual citizen ultimately answers to justice’s demands in the interests of the state. This means that if the individual is unbearably suffering–and externally this may look like the citizen is not contributing to society–then voluntary euthanasia is a just action. Since the standard of virtue is the flourishing of society, then the elderly or sick can not give in proportion to what is due to the state. Moreover, we can identify this conception of justice in the arguments of those “who don’t want to become a burden to society.”

For Aristotle, a person can have a “good” death. Death’s approach serves as the testing point of a person’s commitment to developing virtuous habits or vices in their lifetime. Aristotle firmly held that in the face of suffering or even heartbreak, to voluntarily end one’s life is a cowardly act.

Although they do not couch their viewpoints so viscerally, the theme of personal autonomy advocated by pro-euthanasia groups leaks through the position of Plato. His ideal society illustrates that much more is at stake than purely free choice when voluntary euthanasia is permissible. Society as a whole transforms, and beseeches the question–who’s in charge?

By Lillian Quinones, a North America B3 Extern based in the WYA Brussels office