Question: Jeremy’s Problem


Imagine that Jeremy has an elderly relative, who is old and frail, but is in no pain, and may yet live for years. Because there is no-one else to care for her, and the family can’t afford to put her into a home, the responsibility of caring for her falls to Jeremy.

It feels like a full-time job, and leaves him no time for enjoying himself, contributing to society, seeing his friends, or, as he sees it, leading a normal life. In the end, he feel the self-sacrifice has become unbearable.

He seeks out a professional killer, who painlessly ends her life. Jeremy’s life is considerably happier, and he is able to do all sorts of socially useful things that he would have otherwise been unable to do. His crime is never found out.

Is what Jeremy did morally wrong?


6 Responses to “Question: Jeremy’s Problem”

  1. 1 mikemoceri

    The answer to this dilemma depends on the circumstances. Was the elderly relative able to work when she was young? Was it socially acceptable for her to work? If so, why did she not save for her retirement? Did she save enough, or did she run out of savings? Was she married?

    In general, people should save enough during their working years to be able to support themselves once they retire. If the elderly woman failed to fulfill her moral obligation to save herself, then Jeremy should not be burdened with picking up the slack. However, if the woman was disabled, or otherwise unable to work, the responsibility then falls first to the family, and then to the state.

  2. Thans for your comments, Mike. You seem to be suggesting that, under specific circumstances, it is morally acceptable for Jeremy to employ the assassin. The circumstances you specifically refer to somehow place the blame upon the elderly relative on the basis that she is no longer able to fulfill a responsibility to herself, as it were, and “Jeremy should not be burdened with picking up the slack”. But is this enough reason for killing somebody?

    We can think of all kinds of situations where people are, whether through their own failings or through misfortune, unable or unwilling to care for themselves. Does this mean that we no longer have moral obligations to these people?

  3. 3 mikemoceri

    Rob, in the event of a person’s “own failings” causing their inability to care for themselves, neither the family nor the state can be expected to care for them. If however, the person was made unable to work through “misfortune”, then it falls first to the family (and if they are unable), then to the state to care for the person.

    This is somewhat similar to the argument of whether or not society has a moral obligation to a bank robber. If a robber steals for his/her own benefit, knowing full well that it is to the detriment of others, then that person has forsaken their moral bond to society. In much the same way, the young worker who refuses to save for their own retirement, knowing full well that it is to the detriment of others (down the road), then they have forsaken their moral bond to society.

    So the short answer to your question is: No, we no longer have any moral obligation to those people who choose not to save for their own retirement.

  4. I suppose that many people would think that it is morally wrong for Jeremy to bring about his relative’s assassination. Mikemoceri doesn’t seem to agree. What do other people think?

  5. 5 August

    I think that, completely ignoring any said philosophical theory, or “obligations” etc to the state, that Jeremy owes it to his elderly relative to sacrifice his life to help her as she is in his family. It is basically down to love and respect.
    I think it is morally wrong to kill someone. I don’t think however that it is morally wrong to help someone die, so if it was her decision, it would be quite different.

  6. 6 oinos_kai_alathea

    Whilst it might be true that the woman had failed throughout her life to save for her retirement – and therefore be her own fault that she was in the position that she was in – she might well have looked after her own children or family during her life, or contributed to other people in her society in any other series of ways. From her point of view, those contributions might mean that she feels that she was owed care from either her family or the state. After all, there are more transactions in life than ones merely to do with money.

    Also, as Thomas Nagel argued, death itself may be negative regardless of the painlessness of the death because of the oppurtunity for futher existence that it denies the person. Jeremy could have looked after his elderly relative until she died – perhaps 20 years – and then lived the rest of his life – presumably longer than 20 years. He cutting short her life – of which he has more left than she does anyway. It seems to me that given that the amount of time in question is the same either way, but in his case he goes on living after it’s over, her loss by dying would be greater than his by continuing to look after her.

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