Car-on-fireImagine for a moment that a man wrecks his car in a rural area. The car bursts in flames and the man is trapped inside. There is no way for authorities to reach him in time before he dies. Knowing this, he reaches for his gun in his glove box and shoots himself in the head to avoid a long and agonizing death by fire.  Did he commit sin (suicide), or is this morally justified?

Now let’s change the scenario a bit. A man wrecks his car in a rural area, right in front of your house. The authorities could never reach him in time to save him.  In this scenario, however, he does not have a gun.  You hear the accident and explosion from your house and rush to the road to see what has happened.  You can hear the man writing in pain from within the car.  He sees you through the flames and shouts, “Shoot me!  Kill me please!”  Is it morally permissible for you to honor his request, killing him with a gun to shorten the amount of agony he must suffer?  Or is this murder?

I’m inclined to think that shooting the man is morally justified under both circumstances.  But this raises a problem for me since I also hold that euthanasia is morally wrong.  These two conclusions seem to be in tension, however.  Euthanasia is the practice of actively and prematurely taking the life of an individual experiencing great suffering so that they can avoid further suffering. While I would be inclined to shoot the burning man, I would not kill a cancer patient who was experiencing intense physical suffering.  This seems inconsistent, but I admit that I can’t pinpoint the morally significant distinction between the two scenarios.

I could raise other similar situations as well.  Consider the circumstance in which a person is being tortured to death.  If they were able to acquire poison, would it be morally permissible for them to ingest that poison to take their life so they could avoid further suffering on their road to sure death?  Would it be wrong for you to provide them with that poison if they asked you to?

Think of the unfortunate souls who were trapped in the upper floors of the Twin Towers.  They had no chance of escape.  Their death was certain.  They had a choice: Die in the flames or jump to their death.  Did those who chose to jump commit a moral wrong?  They did so out of a desire to die in the least painful way possible.  Isn’t this similar to the burning man who would rather be shot than to die in the flames?  But it also seems similar to the cancer patient who would rather die early than endure the pain cancer brings.  What are your thoughts?