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Can It Be Right to Commit Suicide?

A sharp look into the ethics of suicide.

The Suicide, Edouard Manet

The Roman Catholic Church has consistently argued that one’s life is the property of God and thus that to commit suicide is to deride God’s prerogatives. The counterargument, by the empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) is that, if such is the case, then to save someone’s life is also to deride God’s prerogatives. Most religions share the Roman Catholic Church’s belief in the sanctity of life, although some have come to regard at least some suicides as an honorable death. Some Tibetan monks, for example, have committed suicide in protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Legal systems have historically been informed by religion, such that in many jurisdictions suicide and attempted suicide are still illegal. Some jurisdictions even go so far as punishing attempted suicide by death, although this is thankfully more in the spirit of the law than in its observance. In the UK the Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalized attempted suicide and suicide, but voluntary euthanasia is still a crime. This may change as the voice of pro-choicers becomes louder than that of pro-lifers. Broadly speaking, pro-choicers argue that a person’s life belongs to no one but him, and that his decision to commit suicide, especially if justified as a rational solution to real problems (for example, chronic and disabling pain), should be respected and assisted. Pro-lifers on the other hand believe that his life is not his to take, regardless of the circumstances. Some of the stronger arguments in favor of voluntary euthanasia are that people should be free agents, that it preserves dignity and prevents unnecessary suffering, and that it frees up valuable healthcare resources. On the other hand, a person with a physical or mental disorder may lack the mental capacity to make a rational decision about such an important issue and—of course—cannot change his mind once he is dead. On top of this, voluntary euthanasia is difficult to regulate and may be open to abuse by relatives and doctors.

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Jean-Paul Sartre

Unlike most people, some philosophers do not think about suicide in terms of ethics. Existentialist philosophers ‘turn the tables round’ by arguing that life has no meaning and so there is no reason not to commit suicide. Instead, a person must justify not committing suicide by giving his life a meaning and fulfilling his unique potential through this meaning. As Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), the leading exponent of existentialism, once noted, ‘One lives one’s death, one dies one’s life.’ Nihilistic (from the Latin nihil, ‘nothing’) philosophers differ from existentialist philosophers in that they believe that a person cannot justify his life even by giving it an individual meaning. For nihilistic philosophers nothing can have a meaning, not even suicide itself … Interesting as all this may be, psychiatrists believe that more than 90 per cent of cases of suicide are not the result of a rational decision (the so-called ‘rational suicide’), but of mental disorder.

Around 1755, David Hume, who himself suffered greatly from depression, published On Suicide and On the Immortality of the Soul in a book of essays called Five Dissertations. Unfortunately, pre-release copies of Five Dissertations stirred up such controversy that both essays had to be removed and replaced with a single but still influential essay in esthetics, Of the Standard of Taste. In On Suicide Hume argues that, despite the fact that only ‘one step’ could put an end to his misery, man dares not commit suicide because of ‘a vain fear lest he offend his Maker’. This, combined with his natural fear of death, makes it ‘all the more difficult for him to be free’. Hume proposes to ‘restore men to their native liberty’ by examining all the common arguments against suicide and demonstrating that suicide is ‘free from every imputation of guilt or blame’.

David Hume

For Hume, God established the laws of nature and enabled all animals—including human beings—to make use of them by entrusting them with certain bodily and mental powers. As a result of this interaction between the laws of nature and the powers of animals, God does not need to be involved in the world: ‘…the providence of the Deity appears not immediately in any operation, but governs everything by those general and immutable laws, which have been established from the beginning of time’.

Given this state of affairs, man employs the powers with which he has been entrusted to provide as best as possible for his ‘ease happiness, or preservation’. If this should involve committing suicide, then so be it: the interaction between the laws of nature and the powers of man clearly enable it, so why should it be any exception? Thus suicide is permissible even if one adopts a religious stance. ‘The life of man,’ says Hume, ‘is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster … I thank Providence, both for the good which I have already enjoyed, and for the power with which I am endowed of escaping the ill that threatens me.’ The natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23–79) goes one step further than Hume in his Natural History by regarding the ability to commit suicide as the one advantage that man possesses over God. ‘God cannot commit suicide even if he wishes, but man can do so at any time he chooses’.

A common argument against suicide is that it is selfish and harms the people and society that are left behind. For Hume, a man does no harm in committing suicide, but merely ceases to do good. Even assuming that he is under an obligation to do good, this obligation comes to an end once he is dead. And even if it does not, and he is under a perpetual obligation to do good, this must not come at the expense of greater harm to himself—at the expense of prolonging a miserable existence because of some ‘frivolous advantage that the public may perhaps receive’. In some cases a man may have become a burden to society, and so may actually do the most good by committing suicide. In such cases, Hume argues, committing suicide is not only morally neutral but morally good.

Thomas Nagel

Regardless of the permissibility or morality of committing suicide, suicide entails death, and so the question naturally arises as to whether death should or should not be feared. In his influential paper of 1970, tersely entitled ‘Death’, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel (born 1937) asks precisely this question: if death is the permanent end of our existence, is it an evil? Either death is an evil because it deprives a person of life, or it is a mere blank because there is no person left to experience this deprivation. Thus if death is an evil, this is not in virtue of any positive attributes that it has but in virtue of what it deprives us from, namely, life. For Nagel, the bare experience of life is intrinsically valuable, regardless of the balance of its good and bad elements.

The longer one is alive, the more one ‘accumulates’ life. In contrast death cannot be accumulated—it is not ‘an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust’. Most people would not consider the temporary suspension of life as an evil, nor would they regard the long period before they were born as an evil. Therefore, if death is an evil this is not because it involves a period of non-existence, but because it deprives us of life.

Nagel points out three objections to this view, but only so as to counter them later. First, it is doubtful whether anything can be an evil unless it actually causes displeasure. Second, in the case of death there is no subject left on whom to impute an evil. As long as a person exists, he has not yet died; and once he has died, he no longer exists. So there seems to be no time at which the evil of death might occur. Third, if most people would not regard the long period before they were born as an evil, then why should they regard the period after they are dead any differently?

Nagel counters these three objections by arguing that the good or evil that befalls a man depends on his history and possibilities rather than on his momentary state, such than an evil can befall him even if he is not here to experience it. For example, if an intelligent person receives a head injury that reduces his mental condition to that of a contented infant, this should be considered a serious evil even if the person himself (in his current state) is unable to appreciate this. Thus if these three objections are invalid, it is essentially because they ignore the direction of time. Even though a person cannot survive his death, he can still suffer evil; and even though a person does not exist during the time before his birth or during the time after his death, the time after his death is time of which he has been deprived, time in which he could have continued to enjoy the good of living. 

The question remains as to whether the non-realisation of further life is an absolute evil, or whether this depends on what can naturally be hoped for: the death of Keats at 24 is commonly regarded as tragic, but that of Tolstoy at 82 is not. ‘The trouble,’ says Nagel, ‘is that life familiarises us with the goods of which death deprives us … Death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive goods.’

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.


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