Keown on Buddhist attitudes to Euthanasia

I was just reading a journal article from 1995 which referenced to two occurrences in the Buddhist tradition of which I was previously unaware. Both of which are valuable in outlining how the tradition arrives at its opinions on the validity (or more accurately non-validity) of helping someone to die. This will be of more use to students sitting the exam at Higher and Advanced Higher Levels.

The first case was recorded by Buddhaghosa where some members of the sangha had recommended, it seems out of compassion or at least benevolence, that  it may have been better for a dying monk to end his life prematurely. Of course this argument, that death may be preferable to suffering, is still common (sense?) today. Buddhaghosa records that these Buddhists were found to be guilty of breaking the first precept as they ‘made death their aim‘ in speaking. This idea when further developed clearly prizes the sanctity of life over personal autonomy.

The second case is even older and found in the Vinaya where the origins of the monastic precepts are explained. It appears that the Buddha himself included a further precept explicitly excluding the taking of human life after an ascetic community was discovered where monks had committed suicide or ‘sought help’ from the laity.

Again here we can see that the principle of autonomy is thought of as secondary to the sanctity of life. This idea has nuances in Buddhism that set it apart from the formulations with which we are perhaps more familiar. Belief in samsara involves a recognition that there is something special about being human, not least as it it the only realm from which one may attain enlightenment. For many of us, this may not impact our ethical outlook but it is nonetheless a valuable warning. Today, explicitly in Singer and Warnock, sanctity (though they might not use this word) is often understood as being underpinned by one’s autonomy, not the reverse.

‘Killing, Karma and Caring’ in Journal of Medical Ethics Vol. 21 No.5 (Oct 1995), pp 265-269.