[Article revised on 4 May 2020.]
The Roman Catholic Church has long 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 philosopher David Hume, is that, if such is the case, then to save someone’s life is also to deride God’s prerogatives.
Most religions share the Church’s belief in the sanctity of life, although a few have come to regard at least some suicides as honourable.
For example, a number of Tibetan monks have killed themselves in protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, although this is perhaps more a case of self-sacrifice than suicide proper.
Legal systems have historically been informed by religion, such that in many jurisdictions suicide and attempted suicide remain illegal. The very expression ‘commit suicide’ implies, or at least suggests, a crime or sin.
In late 2014, the Indian government moved to decriminalize ‘attempt to suicide’ by deleting Section 209 of the Penal Code from the statute book. Under the said section, a suicide bid could lead to a prison term of up to one year.
Unlike most people, some philosophers prefer to think of suicide less in terms of ethics and more in terms of a finely balanced calculation.
But the reality is that suicide is seldom the product of cool-headed deliberation, the so-called ‘rational suicide’, but mostly an act of uncontrollable anguish and despair.
Regardless of the legality or morality of suicide, suicide entails death, and so the question arises as to whether death should or should not be feared.
In his influential paper of 1970, tersely entitled Death, the philosopher Thomas Nagel addresses precisely this question: if death is the permanent end of our existence, is it an evil?
Either death is an evil because it deprives us of life, or it is a mere blank because there is no one left to experience this deprivation. Thus, if death is an evil, this is not in virtue of any positive attribute 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.
While we are alive, we ‘accumulate’ 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. Thus, if death is an evil, this is not because it involves a period of non-existence, but because it deprives us of life.
Nagel draws three objections to this view, but only so as to later counter them.
- 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 we exist, we have not yet died; and once we have died, we no longer exist. So there seems to be no time at which we might suffer the evil of death.
- 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 us depends on our history and possibilities rather than on our momentary state, such that an evil can befall us even if we are not here to experience it.
For instance, if an intelligent person suffers a head injury that reduces her mental state to that of a contented infant, this should be considered a serious evil even if the person herself (in her current condition) is oblivious to her fate.
In short, if the three objections are invalid, it is essentially because they ignore the direction of time.
Even though we cannot survive our death, we can still suffer evil; and even though we do not exist during the time before our birth and the time after our death, the time after our death is time of which we have been deprived, time in which we could have carried on enjoying the good of living.
The question remains as to whether the non-realization of further life is an absolute evil, or whether this depends on what can naturally be hoped for. The death of Keats at age 24 is commonly regarded as tragic, but that of Tolstoy at age 82 is not.
‘The trouble,’ says Nagel, ‘is that life familiarizes us with the goods of which death deprives us... Death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive goods.’