Bioethics News

Dusting off the Leviathan

Canada is soon to have legislation permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide, as decreed by its Supreme Court. One issue, however, over which some uncertainty hovers is how much wriggle room should be left for doctors who have ethical objections to the new regime.

One of the country’s most influential bioethicists, Udo Schuklenk, who is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics, contends that there is no room for conscientious objection in a modern health care system. Doctors have an ethical and legal obligation to provide legal and social useful services like euthanasia. If they don’t like it, they should get another job, just as other people do when they don’t like the boss’s orders.

Interestingly, the writers cite the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes in support of their attack on the rights of conscience. The subject in Hobbes’s Leviathan has no need of an individual conscience, for “the law is the public conscience by which he hath already undertaken to be guided”.

Since Hobbes laid the foundation for the modern totalitarian state, this allusion seems ominous. Yes, there will be problems in trying to accommodate conscientious objectors. But the abolition of conscience leads to problems as well. Wouldn’t Schuklenk’s ethical framework work just as well in Saudi Arabia? If a doctor there refused to amputate the hand of a thief, would he argue that he should to get another job? If he refused to perform female genital mutilation, should he be fired because he has defied the law? 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.