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The philosophy of suicide

The philosophy of suicide

In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia and I discuss the philosophy and science of suicide, i.e. what empirical inquiry tells us about suicides (who commits them, how, what are the best strategies for prevention) and how philosophical reflection may lead us to think of suicide. In this post I will focus on the philosophical side of the discussion, for which an excellent summary source, with a number of additional references, is this article by Michael Cholbi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I will keep referring below.

Suicide is an important, even urgent, topic, as the number of suicides has increased over the past 50 years, with about 1 million people taking their lives annually. In the United States, that amounts to about one suicide every 14 minutes (i.e., on average, three during our podcast). And yet, at first sight even a concept  as seemingly obvious as suicide poses some significant problems right at the outset, when we consider a proper definition of the term. For instance, I think we would all agree that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker toward the end of World War II, but what about Socrates, or Jesus? They didn’t directly take their lives, but they very purposefully did not take any action that could have easily avoided their deaths either.

One might be tempted, then, to define suicide simply as self-caused death, but this won’t do either, unless one wishes to include smokers who die of lung cancer knowing full well the risks carried by their habit. Moreover, there are cases that are usually recognized as suicide where the individual is not the actual causal agent of death, as in instances of “suicide by cop.” Cholbi concludes that for an action to count as suicidal (even when it fails) it has to be non-accidental, the result of a conscious choice by the agent to terminate his life, even by indirect means.

What about the moral aspect of the issue? Is suicide moral, immoral, neither? Does that depend on circumstances? How, exactly? In order to evaluate the moral worth (positive or negative) of suicide one needs to look at the motivations and consequences of the act. After all, people don’t seek death for death’s sake, but rather for a wide variety of reasons, from relieving physical pain or psychological anguish to avoidance of judicial punishment, from martyrdom for a cause to (perceived) societal shame. Which is why the history of philosophical analyses of suicide is complex, and begins — naturally — with Plato.

In the Phaedo Socrates agrees with the idea that suicide is wrong because it releases us prematurely from a condition in which the gods put us (thus anticipating Christian objections as well). But in Laws, Plato manages to find no less than four exceptions to the idea that suicide is immoral: i) When the individual’s mind is morally corrupted; ii) When it is done because of a judicial order, as in the case of Socrates, and of course Jesus (though Plato didn’t mention the latter, obviously); iii) When it is compelled by extreme unavoidable misfortune; and iv) As a result of shame for having carried out immoral actions.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, disagreed with his master on this as well as a number of other matters. For him suicide is a wrong toward society or the state, but not toward oneself, for the simple reason that it is the ultimate consensual act. As for the Stoics — who were famously friendly to the concept of suicide — it is permissible when we are impeded from pursuing a eudaimonic life. As the Roman Stoic Seneca (who himself committed, ahem, emperor-compelled suicide), aptly put it: a wise person lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can.

Let’s jump to the Middle Ages, and therefore to Christian thought. Augustine of Hippo thought that prohibiting suicide is an extension of the Fifth commandment, and therefore out of the question, but it was Thomas Aquinas who articulated three reasons against suicide: a) It is contrary to natural self-love (we would put it in terms of instinct of preservation nowadays); b) It injures the community (notice the Aristotelian echo); and c) It is a rejection of god’s gift of life (and here the echo is Platonic).

Perhaps not surprisingly, we have to wait until David Hume, in his very modern (and posthumously published) essay on suicide to get a well articulated response to Aquinas. Hume made a number of points, and the full text is well worth reading (and very accessible to a non specialist audience) including the observation that since god does allow us to act counter to natural law in some cases (e.g., in fighting disease), on what grounds is it unacceptable to violate the dictum of self preservation in particular? Here is how he puts it in the essay: “It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator: and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in non of them do we any more. They are all of them therefore equally innocent, or equally criminal.”

In terms of our obligations to society, Hume argues that if our conditions are sufficiently dire we may be more of a burden than a benefit to society, so that suicide would actually be helpful to others. As for the duty to ourselves, again if our living conditions are bad enough then suicide actually helps us, and it is therefore the rational thing to do.

Of course one can’t mention Hume without also talking about Kant, who, predictably, disagreed. The sage of Koenigsberg, however, made a rather convoluted and altogether unconvincing counter-argument here (especially when compared to the clarity and force of Hume’s reasoning). He basically said that, since moral authority stems from inside ourselves (the famous “moral law within”) committing suicide is equivalent to unleashing an attack against morality itself, and it is, therefore, immoral. Make of that what you wish or can…

What about contemporary arguments about suicide? Here is where Cholbi’s essay becomes more surprising, since it casts doubt on both the most commonly heard defenses and criticisms of suicide from a moral standpoint. Let’s take a quick look at some to get a flavor of how answers about suicide are anything but obvious.

A modern deontological argument can be based on the idea of “sanctity” of life, even when the term is to be understood in a secular, nor religious sense. The problem is that, if applied consistently, the argument would prohibit also — for instance — capital punishment, or death caused by self defense (remember, deontological systems are prone to make broad generalizations and are not friendly to nuanced distinctions). And of course one can reasonably argue that there is nothing inherently valuable about life, since its value comes from it being of a certain quality, as the Stoics argued.

Perhaps the most common among skeptics and freethinkers is the so-called “libertarian” argument (which also connects all the way back up to Stoicism): individuals have a right to suicide, and any state or medical intervention amounts to coercion. This, in turn (like many libertarian arguments), is rooted in the idea that we own our bodies, in pretty much the same way as we own any other kind of thing. The problem is that claim to self-ownership is, shall we say, metaphysically dubious. We own other things (like a watch) precisely because they are distinct from us. Which means that we can’t really “sell” our bodies (at most, we can rent them). This in turns means that self-ownership in the libertarian argument is more like a metaphor, and therefore a somewhat shaky basis for an argument. And even if we somehow buy the ownership metaphor, not much follows from it, since we typically have limited rights of disposal of objects we own, for instance if the disposal causes harm to others (okay, that wouldn’t be true in a libertarian paradise, but that place would be hell for most people anyway).

Then there is the social utilitarian argument, that suicide is wrong because it violates our duty to others, for instance in the form of induced grief, long term psychological issues and in some cases practical (i.e., financial) problems for surviving friends and family. But of course even if one buys into the utilitarian framework, the harm done to others has to be weighed against the harm done to both self and others by continuing one’s life, and in several cases that balance sheet may come down squarely on the side of suicide, not to mention that some who commit suicide do not have friends or family, which drastically alters the utilitarian calculus.

There is also the act utilitarian argument that suicide may even be valuable, in terms of its consequences, so that it could be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, under certain circumstances, as when a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades (see the first Captain America movie), or — more controversially — in the case suicide for political reasons (which, needless to say, includes suicide bombings).

Finally, we have what can be termed a modern version of the social contractarian argument, reminiscent of Aristotle’s position, and already rejected, under certain circumstances, by Hume. The basic idea is that we have a social contract that binds us to contribute to society, and to deprive society of our talents and efforts violates that contract. True, as far as it goes, but contracts are of course always conditional: if society, for instance, is not providing us the means for living a fulfilling life (within reason) whatever duty we may have had toward that society has in turn been nullified.

Talk of suicide also naturally raises the issue of what are other people’s duties toward those who attempt to take their lives. At one end of the spectrum, it seems like simply trying to talk someone out of committing suicide is morally unproblematic, since after all there is no coercion involved in just presenting reasons for not doing something. There is more of an issue with so-called paternalistic approaches, such as medication, physical restraint, or institutionalization. Even so, according again to Cholbi, a very good argument can be made that if a person is depressed or otherwise not in full possession of his rational powers (but are we ever?), paternalism is justified given the very high (literally, terminal) stakes. And if you harbor some kind of libertarian-inspired principled objection to paternalism, keep in mind that the morality of assisted suicide is also grounded on a paternalistic approach, with the reasoning applied in reverse.

Making my way through Cholbi’s essay clearly brought home to me just how complex, philosophically speaking, the issue of suicide really is. (And I haven’t touched on the psychology, sociology, neurobiology or genetics of it!) It has also helped me clarify my own thinking on the matter, which of course is the entire point of engaging in philosophical reflection. It seems to me that people do have a moral right to commit suicide, and others have no right to interfere in a coercive (as opposed to a discursive way) if two conditions hold: i) The person is in a psychological and material state that allows her to make an informed decision about whether to terminate her life (e.g., she is not clinically depressed, or she is not under financial duress for which she could be helped by friends, family or society at large); and ii) The person has weighed the consequences of her act on other people, chiefly her friends and family.

These conditions would apply most obviously to cases of (assisted, if necessary) suicide as a result of terminal illness, and broadly speaking I’m with the Stoics here, though Hume’s arguments apply as well: if the individual determines that her eudaimonic life would be better served by ending it, she has the moral right to do so (I am not at all concerned here with legal rights, which in this case ought to follow directly from moral considerations).

However, friends, family and even the state do have a compelling interest in intervening — in a compulsory manner if necessary — in all cases in which these two conditions do not hold, and the philosophical justification for such intervention can arch back to an extended and updated version of Aristotle’s position.

One thing I definitely don’t go for is any kind of “sanctity” argument in opposition to suicide. I do not even consider for a moment, of course, any religious version of it, since I reject religion as a source of either knowledge or wisdom. The secular version, however, owes us an explanation of why, exactly, life is sacred, and no, Kant’s bizarre argument about the source of the moral law just isn’t going to cut it. Again, both the Stoics and Hume, seems to me, got it exactly right: life is valuable to the individual who is alive if it can be pursued according to certain conditions (e.g., it yields sufficient pleasures, the possibility of pursuing one’s own goals, is characterized by meaningful relationships, and so forth). To quote Hume again, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Meaning and value are human concepts, and it is up to human beings — individually and societally — to make of them what they wish.

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