Ping-Cheung Lo

Ping-Cheung Lo, “Confucian Ethic of Death with Dignity and Its Contemporary Relevance”

According to the Confucian tradition, one’s biological life may be sacrificed to protect a moral good. The main moral values or virtues in Confucianism are ren (benevolence) and yi (justice), so suicide is sometimes jusfiable to avoid betraying these high moral values.

During China’s cultural revolution of the 20th century, officials were frequently faced with the betrayal of the traditional values of ren and yi when they were forced to lie in defense of the ruling party and injustices inflicted on many people. Suicide would have been justified, according to a central part of the Confucian tradition, for those officials faced with betrayal of the traditional values. An alternative to suicide, according to one line of thought in Confucianism, would have been to pursue one’s vocation to uphold the moral virtues by resisting injustice—by expressing their opposition, for example.

Death with dignity legislation in the West is often supported by the argument that physical or mental deterioration is an evil and should be avoided. The Confucian tradition joins other religious traditions in regarding moral degradation as a significant evil that must be avoided. Physical or mental deterioration is part of a natural process, according to Confucianism, and is not in itself an evil. Confucianism accepts physician-assisted dying that avoids moral evil, but it does not accept the practice when the main intent is to avoid physical or mental deterioration. If one courageously commits suicide to prevent indignity or a life worse than death, the suicide may be justified.