This essay reexamines the issue of euthanasia from the perspective of Confucian ethics. The author, as a Confucian scholar, responds to and analyzes the ethical challenge posed by euthanasia. In this way, the essay constitutes a preliminary attempt to establish a Confucian understanding of and attitude towards euthanasia.
Confucians generally see death as the end of life in this world, leaving open the question of the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. This view differs little from that generally held in the secularized modern world and seems close to a pro-euthanasia position, making Confucianism different from any other great ancient tradition. On the philosophical level, however, Confucianism views a meaningful life as the process of becoming a saint or sage, which entails the cultivation of important virtues, including endurance and strength. In this sense, attempting to seek death as a means of escaping suffering is not encouraged, however neither is it viewed as evil, for Confucians do not have such an absolute transcendental standard as the Christian Decalogue to prohibit suicide. Rather, for Confucians, the moral sense of an action can only be determined through the context of ethical relations.
Hence, it is necessary to rethink euthanasia in the sociopolitical dimension of Confucianism. For Confucians, ethical relationships constitute not only communities and societies but also humanity. In this sense, it is essentially wrong to advocate the autonomy of individuals because to do so ignores the relational network in which and by which decisions emerge on the individual level. Confucianism stresses the dependence of individuals upon the ethical network such that people are responsible for their family members’ and friends’ “own” decisions. Euthanasia, then, cannot be reduced to suicide because it contains the element of homicide.
Nevertheless, Confucianism supports respect for human dignity, which is a pro-euthanasia argument. In the Confucian tradition, it is vitally important to ensure the dignity of dying people, not only for their own comfort but also for the consolidation of their ethical relationships, in which they have experienced love and care and which will last long after their death. For Confucians, what is at stake in the issue of euthanasia is whether it can consolidate the ethical relational network on which dying people depend, and whether thereafter a meaningful death can shaped for the patient.