A Philosopher's Blog

The Case for Death Panels

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2009
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In the United States, Obama’s call for national health care reform has ignited a firestorm of controversy. One rather interesting result of the furor has been the accusation that Obama plans to create death panels. While the accounts vary, the general idea is that these alleged panels are intended to review cases and decide whether care (and the patient) should be terminated or not. Not surprisingly, this accusation is not true-there is nothing in the actual proposals about such death panels.

As I do every semester, I am teaching an ethics class in which the students have to write an essay on a  moral issue. When the students ask what position they should take, I generally suggest that the argue for what they believe (rather than vainly trying to guess my view in the hopes of getting a better grade). But, I also suggest that they consider writing an argument against what they actually believe. Since I am against death panels, I thought I’d try my hand at my own suggestion and make a case for them. When reading, please keep in mind that what follows is not my actual view. Hence, there is no cause to accuse me of Nazi (or even socialist) leanings.

From an intuitive moral standpoint, private citizens are rather restricted in regards to when they can ethically end the life of another person. In general, such killing is restricted to clear cases of self defense. For example, if someone pulls a gun on me while I am out for a run and demands my fancy GPS watch, it would be morally acceptable for me to kill him on the spot. After all, he presents a clear and present threat to my survival (as Locke would say, I have no reason to think that someone who would rob me of my property would not take the next step and try to rob me of my life).

In the case of the death panel matter, it does not seem that this sort of individual right can be used as a justification. After all, a patient who is in need of critical and expensive care is not likely to be a clear and present threat to my survival.

Of course, it could be argued that such a person would be a threat because he is using resources that could save my life. However, killing an innocent person because they happen to have resources that could save my life does not seem to be morally defensible. For example, if am in a ship wreck and at risk of drowning, I have no right to kill another passenger and strip her of her life vest. As such, there seems to be little support for death panels here.

Perhaps, however, the matter changes when the focus is expanded to include society as a whole. After all, actions that would be  blatantly immoral for an individual can often be transformed, by the “magic” of the collective, into acceptable actions. For example, what would be murder on the individual level becomes transformed to acceptable killing in the context of war (although, obviously, not everyone buys this).

In many cases, the moral transformation is brought about by an appeal to the general good (essentially an appeal to utilitarian considerations). For example, killing folks in war can be morally justified by appealing to the advantages of the war to “national security” or “national interest.” Not surprisingly, more cynical folks might point out that “national interest” is often the interest of a select few and it might be contended that such actions are no better than those of any organized gang of criminals.

Now, if such things as war can be morally justified, then justifying death panels should be easy enough on the same sort of grounds.

In the case of war, killing folks is most often justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, some folks must be killed (including the inevitable innocent bystanders) in order for the collective good (national security, for example) to be served. Now, let us turn to applying this sort of approach to the death panels.

While the United States and other Western countries have significant medical resources (enough so that certain folks, such as Michael Jackson, can have their own personal doctors) these resources are not unlimited. In fact, it can be contended that the resources are not sufficient to provide adequate health care to everyone.

Now, it is obvious that people who are in need of critical care use far more resources than other folks. It is also obvious that the elderly have more health issues than younger folks. Now, looking at the matter by the numbers, it seems likely that the resources used to maintain a critically ill person or an elderly person could be used to provide health care to a significant number of folks with less serious conditions. Typically, these would often be younger folks as well-folks who also still have years to contribute to the good of the state.

Looked at in terms of the general utility, it would seem to make practical and moral sense to allocate medical resources so that they do the most good for the general populace. As such, it would seem to be acceptable to terminate the care of the critical ill in favor of the less ill. It could also, on similar grounds, be argued that the focus of health care should be on the younger folks rather than the harder to maintain elderly folks. To use a car analogy, it makes more sense to spend less on maintaining a new car than to pour large sums of money in order to keep an old clunker going.

Since the United States is supposed to have a free market economy, the critical ill and the elderly who have the funds to purchase the medical care they need should be allowed to do so. After all, they are paying for the resources they are consuming and hence are not creating an undue burden on the health care system. Naturally, folks who are lacking in such funds would be imposing burdens on the system by consuming beyond what they can afford to pay for. As such, they would be robbing society of valuable resources.

Naturally, it might be pointed out that some critically ill people or elderly folks might have made valuable contributions that justify their being treated at the public expense. There might also be such folks who are making ongoing contributions or who can be expected to make such contributions in the future. For example, a medical student who is badly hurt in a accident may be expensive to treat, but it is likely that she will be able to contribute more than he treatment would cost.

This is, of course, where the death panels come in. These panels would serve to assess the relative worth of each patient and decide who will receive the medical resources and who will not. For those who balk at such an approach, the obvious reply is that this sort of thing is done in the case of triage. In this case, it is a triage of a different sort but would still seem to be justifiable on similar grounds. In this case, the person’s place in the medical queue is based not on her likelihood of survival but based on the value of her survival to the national good.

Of course, some folks might contend that the idea of having folks decide who lives and who dies is a horrific idea. It might also be wondered where people could be found with the adequate experience to make such calls. Fortunately, the United States has plenty of people who have experience in such things. For example, Governors in states that have the death penalty already serve on death panels. As another example, the folks who make decisions about going to war already are on a death panel as well. After all, they have an active role in deciding who will live and who will die. As a final example, folks in insurance companies sometimes make decisions that deny care to people. Since such decisions about life and death are fairly routine, there should be little problem finding people to serve on such panels.

So, death panels seem like a great idea and the United States should hope that Obama makes the rumors a reality. Obviously, philosophers and runners should get an automatic exemption from being reviewed by death panels. This is so obvious that there is no need to even argue.

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2 Responses

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  1. kernunos said, on September 7, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Obama talked of ‘rationing’ health care. What would that mean Mike? Who would lose out. There may be no panel specifically named ‘Death Panel’ that lives on the Death Star but who wins and loses with rationing? I think this was the point.

  2. kernunos said, on September 8, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Sooooo, I still wonder who would decide on the rationing? Obama already said Grandpa should just suck it up and take the pain pill in a nicer way.


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