Can Suicide Be Meaningful?

Making sense of suicide.

Posted May 12, 2010

Suicide is tragic. It hurts those left behind, who are often left wondering why. It represents the ultimate, irreversible act of giving up, running from problems rather than facing them. Some would say—and some have said—that, for these reasons and more, suicide is stupid, pointless, and meaningless. This is far too casual a judgment, too dismissive of the pain the suicidal person experienced (or is experiencing), and grossly insensitive to the living who lost a loved one in this horrific and bewildering way.

I certainly have my questions about meaning in life, which I'm still working through (on a personal level as well as academic), so it may seem odd that I've chosen to write about meaning in death—in particular, meaning in suicide. I have experienced the pain of suicide on several levels, and I've talked about it in my classes (very carefully, as you might imagine), which has helped me think through some of the issues. I'd like to share some of those thoughts here, in case they may be of help to anyone dealing with the suicide of a family member or friend, or who may be contemplating ending their own lives (in which case, please talk to somebody—anybody—if you're not already doing so).

For philosopher Immanuel Kant, suicide is one of the examples of immoral behavior he used to illustrate the categorical imperative, his version of the "moral law" for which our basic duties can be derived. He argues that a person who kills herself uses her reason against itself, which is contradictory, true, but otherwise not a very satisfying argument to me. His stronger argument (in my opinion) is that such a person crucially fails to respect herself, by sacrificing her moral nature and all of her future potential and possibilities to end (mere) physical or mental suffering. To Kant, each person has an immeasurable and incomparable dignity, which should never be compromised even to end the most profound suffering. (See also Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning for a very similar view.)

This argument against suicide applies to the person who wants to kill herself because she's miserable, depressed, or doesn't see any joy in living any longer. It may even apply to supposedly "altruistic suicide," in which a person wants to end her life because she thinks it will make other people happier, or because she feels she does more harm in the world than good. (Heroic self-sacrifice, such as a solider leaping on a grenade to save his or her comrades, is a different matter entirely, largely because the person is not thinking of him- or herself at all.) To Kant, dignity is something that cannot be traded for other goods or benefits; it is above price and exchange. Each person has an intrinsic worth that is more valuable than any measure of happiness or sadness, benefit or harm, whether to herself or to other people, and recognition of this dignity prohibits suicide for the sake of preventing pain to oneself, or even pain to others (which the person may think she causes).

But in later work, Kant acknowledges some circumstances under which suicide may not be immoral, and may in fact be noble—but this depends on dignity itself. His example is of a man who is bitten by a rabid dog and starts to lapse into dementia, and worries that he will become violent and hurt other people when the disease robs him of his will. Kant wonders if the man's killing himself before he loses his autonomy (the source of his dignity) would be permissible, or even moral. He doesn't answer (it was offered more as a question for discussion), but if he believes it is allowed, it is specifically because the man is about to lose his dignity, and may (or should) take measures to make sure he doesn't do harm when it happens.

But the harm itself may be irrelevant; Kant's larger point may be that when faced with the loss of one's autonomy and will, and therefore dignity, suicide may be an honorable way to leave this world with your dignity intact. Thomas E. Hill, Jr., a contemporary Kantian philosopher, suggests the following principle as being consistent with Kant's moral philosophy (if not every literal word of his writing):

A morally ideal person will value life as a rational, autonomous agent for its own sake, at least provided that the life does not fall below a certain threshold of gross, irremediable, and uncompensated pain and suffering. (Hill, "Self-Regarding Suicide," in Autonomy and Self-Respect, p. 95)

The last part may seem inconsistent with what we said before, but what Hill means by this is a pain so severe that the person cannot make use of his rational, autonomous faculties, and cannot express his dignity in thought or action—again, it all comes back to dignity. This still rules out suicide as a response to misery, sadness, or even profound depression, as long as these conditions can be addressed and lessened with the appropriate help (and time).

How does this emphasis on dignity lend meaning to suicide? Later in the same chapter, Hill considers three ways of looking at one's life. The first is the Consumer Perspective, which sees life as a series of pleasurable or painful moments or experiences, from which life derives its value. The implication of this view is that once no more pleasurable experiences are seen in one's future, the person may see no reason to live any longer. The second is the Obituarist Perspective, which looks at your life as if writing your obituary when it's over, tallying up all the good and bad in a life and judging the end result. But again, in this view what matters is what a person did or experienced, not who she was (or is), and if a person does not foresee a valuable result from going on living, she will want to end her life.

Neither of these views values the person him- or herself; both see the person as merely a receptable of other values (experiences, pleasures and pains, good and bad acts). (This is a frequent criticism of utilitarianism, with which both of these views are linked.) But Hill suggests a third way of looking at life, the Author Perspective, in which the person is writing the story of her life by making choices and acting in the world, expressing who she is, who she wants to be, and the values and standards she holds dear. In this view, a person's life, and the person herself, assumes central importance (rather than what she did in or with it).

This is one way that a person ascribes meaning to her life, by "writing" her life story, living as she chooses and expressing her goals, dreams, and values. But in this way, too, a person can choose to end her story before it is ended for her, with her dignity intact and in control of her own passing. "Death with dignity" is a phrase normally associated with voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, but it applies more broadly here, and outside of the specifically medical context.

At the end of his chapter, Hill asserts the Kantian nature of the Author Perspective on life (and suicide), writing that ending one's life before autonomy is lost "can be manifestation of autonomy, an ultimate decision of the author of a life story to conclude it with a powerful expression of the values he autonomously chose to live by" (p. 101). Not all suicides meet this standard; some are rash or impulsive, and because of this it is hard to find meaning in them. But if a person's suicide can be interpreted as an expression of her core values, and can be believed to be her rational, considered choice how to end her "story," then that can supply the meaning that is so important to the loved ones that she left behind.

I'll finish with what I consider to be the most powerful sentence of Hill's chapter (also from p. 101):

If you value being an author and have just one story to write, you should not hurry to conclude it. But sometimes, to give it the meaning you intend, you must end it before you spoil it.