- Consider someone with unusual opinions or unusual goals in life, for example, someone who chooses never to marry. How does this person's decision relate to existentialist ethics (as in Sartre's radical freedom and radical responsibility)? How should this person behave toward people he or she dates? Explain your response.
- How would you weigh economic arguments in favor of same-sex marriage? For example, consider the argument that when people pair up and take care of each other in old age, it decreases financial burdens on our society and government as a whole. Or, consider a student who is applying to college and filling out their financial aid paperwork. If the student is the child of a same-sex couple, then is that student only obligated to report the lower income of one parent, because both parents are not legally married? Is this fair to other students who must report the income of their opposite-sex married parents who need the same financial aid resources?
- Should the state be able to involve itself in cases where citizens, who are adults and who are able to give informed consent, choose to harm themselves? For example, note the different state policies on physician assisted suicide/euthanasia. Explain your response.
Existentialist ethics emphasize the rejection of external norms and the establishment of an identity from within. Someone whose life goals do not conform to societal expectations is most likely doing exactly that. For example, since marriage is common in our culture, or at least has been historically, someone who decides to never marry is probably pursuing the identity they found within themselves.
How does one’s own unique goals, in line with one’s self-created identity, affect one’s interactions with other people? Some may think that, because in existential ethics the individual is to seek their identity from within and ignore external expectations, one might simply use others for one’s own ends. In other words, in our example, does existential ethics justify ignoring what others want out of a relationship and merely using them for short-term pleasure?
Existential ethics actually argues against using other people. It instead makes the case that we should respect in others the same freedom that we wish to claim for ourselves. So in our example, one should not ignore others’ expectations for relationships and use them for pleasure. One should rather respect the fact that some people’s self-identity will lead them to seek a more committed relationship. This would lead the person in our example to be open and honest about their own goals and expectations for relationships.
Economic arguments in favor of same-sex marriage are only relevant to the degree that economic considerations are part of the case for and definition of marriage in general. Let us take, for example, the argument that when people in a committed relationship take care of each other into old age, it decreases societal burdens as a whole, and therefore same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Would we make the same argument for more traditional, heterosexual marriage? Is the reason that people marry really to share economic burdens among themselves and to decrease their burden on the rest of society?
This is a pragmatic argument, which may be useful for swaying the undecided. However, it seems less helpful in reaching a core philosophy of marriage, unless that philosophy is that marriage is merely an arbitrary social institution arrived at for economic reasons. And if that is the case, then surely the economic arguments are secondary to the argument that marriage is an arbitrary social institution.
Let us consider another example. Does the current situation unfairly advantage a child of a same-sex couple who is applying for financial aid to college, in that the child need only report the income of one parent, while the child of a heterosexual married couple must report the parents’ joint income? In a situation like this, if the legalization of homosexual marriage would actually result in a more level playing field for non-homosexuals, this argument could be quite compelling. However, again, the underlying assumption of this argument is that marriage is an arbitrary social institution, which we can alter as the greater good of society dictates. And if the opposition to same-sex marriage does not agree with that assumption, then arguments as to why this alteration of marriage would benefit society (i.e. economic arguments) are moot, and the real debate is still over whether marriage is an arbitrary social institution.
Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are very controversial topics, as evidenced by the various state policies regarding them. One concept that virtually all ethical theories hold in common on such a topic is that of consent. Generally, if an ethical theory does allow for something like physician-assisted suicide, it demands that the patient’s choice be free, and not coerced in any way, so that individual agency remains inviolate.
Building from such a theory, what role ought the state to have in such practices? It may seem unnecessary for the state to be involved at all. After all, once the patient has chosen, freely and without coercion, that is the end of the debate.
The potential problem lies in the vital stipulation that the choice be free and without coercion. Questions of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia generally arise in times of poor health, whether due to disease or old age. These are vulnerable times in a person’s life, in which what counts as uncoerced, informed consent may not be so clear-cut. It is possible for physical pain, loss of hope for the future, pressure from family members, financial difficulty, and many other factors to influence this decision in the moment, in a way which the patient would not choose in a clearer state of mind.
Therefore, if physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are to be allowed (which is still controversial), it is necessary, at a minimum, that the state be involved to safeguard free and informed consent. The state should have a role by establishing requirements to be met in order for the decision to be considered informed and uncoerced.
It is also worth considering that, if a physician were to assist in a freely-chosen suicide, the patient’s family members might disagree with the patient’s choice, and may blame the physician for it. Legal requirements for informed and uncoerced consent would serve to help protect the physician in such a case.