Suicide and Euthanasia

Volume 35 of the series Philosophy and Medicine pp 9-38

Greek Philosophers on Euthanasia and Suicide

  • John M. CooperAffiliated withPrinceton University

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The word “euthanasia” is not always used and understood in the same way. Nor, for that matter, is “suicide”. The first thing to do in approaching the Greek philosophers’ views about euthanasia and suicide is, therefore, to be clear about the senses of these words in which there existed for the philosophers of Greece corresponding moral categories. Which of the different kinds of action that might be called, or have by someone or other in modem discussions been called, euthanasia or suicide seemed to the Greek philosophers sufficiently interesting or problematic, from the moral point of view, so that they developed lines of argument and analysis in order to accommodate them? And which of these did they group together sufficiently closely for it to make sense to speak of Greek views on the morality of euthanasia or suicide? The answers to these questions will not just help us to avoid misunderstanding, by making it clear in what senses of these words it is acceptable to speak of Greek philosophers’ views on euthanasia and suicide. They will also constitute an important first step in the substantial characterization of the Greek tradition in moral theory: one learns a lot about the character of any moral theory by seeing how, given that theory and its intellectual resources, the different kinds of human actions are arranged in significant groupings and which ones of these groupings are seen to call for philosophical comment.