The principal moral issue surrounding suicide has been
- Are there conditions under which suicide is morally justified, and if so, which conditions?
Several important historical answers to (1) have already been mentioned.
Note that this question should be distinguished from three others:
- Should other individuals attempt to prevent suicide?
- Should the state criminalize suicide or attempt to prevent it?
- Is suicide ever rational or prudent?
Obviously, answers to any one of these four questions will bear on how the other three ought to be answered. For instance, it might be assumed that if suicide is morally permissible in some circumstances, then neither other individuals nor the state should interfere with suicidal behavior (in those same circumstances). However, this conclusion might not follow if those same suicidal individuals are irrational and interference is required in order to prevent them from taking their lives, an outcome their more rational selves might regret. Furthermore, for those moral theories that emphasize rational autonomy, whether an individual has rationally chosen to take her own life may settle all four questions. In any event, the interrelationships among suicide's moral permissibility, its rationality, and the duties of others and of society as a whole is complex, and we should be wary of assuming that an answer to any one of these four questions decisively settles the other three.
Classic Theories on the Morality of Suicide
Although many applied ethics issues emerged only recently, the issue of the moral permissibility of suicide has a long history of philosophical discussion. Plato opposed suicide since it "frustrates the decree of destiny"; he also argued that "the gods are our guardians, and that we are a possession of theirs. ... Then there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me".
Aristotle also opposed suicide since it is "contrary to the rule of life". Later Greek and Roman philosophers approved of suicide as a means of ending suffering. For example, the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BCE - 65 CE) condones suicide in cases in which age takes its toll on us and prevents us from living as we should:
“I will not relinquish old age if it leaves my better part intact. But if it begins to shake my mind, if it destroys my faculties one by one, if it leaves me not life but breath, I will depart from the putrid or the tottering edifice. If I know that I must suffer without hope of relief I will depart not through fear of the pain itself but because it prevents all for which I should live”.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus (60 CE - 120 CE) also endorses suicide. The principal moral theme of Stoic philosophy is that we should resign ourselves to whatever fate has in store for us. Epictetus suggests that, for some of us, there may be limits to what we can endure in this life and, so, when things get too intolerable, we may wish to end our lives.
He describes our options poetically:
“... Above all, remember that the door stands open. Do not be more fearful than children. But, just as when they are tired of the game they cry, "I will play no more," so too when you are in a similar situation, cry, "I will play no more" and depart. But if you stay, do not cry.
... Is there smoke in the room? If it is slight, I remain. If it is grievous, I quit it. For you must remember this and hold it fast, that the door stands open.”
Attitudes about suicide changed in the writings of Christian philosophers. In The City of God, Augustine (354-430) opposes suicide on the grounds that it violates the commandment "thou shalt not kill."
Although Augustine notes some exceptions to this rule, such as divinely ordained wars or government sanctioned executions, self-killing is not is not an exception since it lacks any parallel justification. It is not justified because of personal suffering, fear of possible punishment, or even on more lofty grounds such as high-mindedness. For Augustine, the more high-minded person is the one who faces life's ills, rather than escapes them.
In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gives three arguments against the permissibility of suicide. The first argument is based on natural law, or the natural purpose of a thing: suicide is wrong since it is contrary to the natural life asserting purpose of humans.
Aquinas's second argument against suicide is a utilitarian type argument: suicide is not justified because of the greater social harm that is done. Aquinas's third argument is that suicide is wrong since it is like stealing from God. Our lives are property that is owned by God, and we are merely the trustees of that property.
Renaissance and modern philosophers such as Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Voltaire wrote in favor of suicide, opposing the medieval arguments of divine providence.
David Hume gives one of the most famous philosophical defenses of suicide from this period in his essay "Of Suicide." The essay was printed for publication in 1757 in a collection of five dissertations, but, for reasons of political pressure, Hume pulled dropped the essay on suicide. The work eventually appeared in 1783, seven years after Hume's death. In this essay, Hume approaches the question of suicide from the standpoint of the traditional duty-based ethics championed by Grotius and Pufendorf.
If suicide is immoral, then it must violate some duty to God, self, or others. Hume systematically goes through each of these possibilities and concludes that we have no such duty. The bulk of his argument focuses on whether suicide violates duties to God.
We can reconstruct Hume's main argument against such a duty as follows:
There is a self-rule established by God in two forces of nature (i.e., physical laws of the natural world, and purposeful action of the animal world)
As a rule, God has given humans the liberty to alter nature for their own happiness
Suicide is an instance of altering the course of nature for our own happiness
There is no good reason this instance should be an exception to the rule
Therefore, suicide does not violate God's plan
Much of Hume's argument focuses on premise four. One possible criticism to premise four is that human life is uniquely important. In response, Hume argues that in the larger scheme of things our lives are of no greater importance than that of an oyster. Hume also considers the criticism that it is up to God to determine when someone should die.
In response, Hume contends that if determining the time of death is entirely up to God, then it would also be wrong to lengthen our lives, such as through medicine. Another possible criticism is that suicide interferes with the natural order of things that God ordains. We build artificial shelters to protect ourselves from harsh weather conditions, we artificially irrigate barren land and we construct artificial means of transportation.
Clearly, we interfere with the natural causal order all the time. For Hume, arguments from providence fails because there is no relevant difference between, say, diverting the Nile river from its natural course and taking one's life by diverting blood from its normal channel. Hume also argues that when life becomes so unbearable, an all good God would not prevent us from ending our miseries through suicide.
Concerning whether suicide violates our duty to others, Hume offers a series of arguments, such as the following argument from social reciprocity:
When we die, we do not harm society, but only cease to do good
Our responsibility to do good is reciprocally related to benefit we receive from society
When I am dead, I can no longer receive the benefits
Therefore, I do not have a duty to do good
He also argues that I am not obliged to do a small good for society at the expense of a great harm to myself.
Using consequentialist reasoning, Hume argues further that if my continued existence is a burden on society, then suicide is permissible. For Hume, most people who kill themselves in such situation.
According to Alan Donagan, if Hume were pushed to his logical conclusion, utilitarianism would require social indigents to kill themselves. And this, Donagan believes, is a decisive refutation of Hume's utilitarian defense of suicide, since requiring suicide is a clear violation of the principle of autonomy.
Tom Beauchamp defends Hume against Donagan's charge by arguing that (a) Hume is a rule utilitarian, and (b) in normal circumstances, no rule requiring suicide could be established which would produce more good than harm for society.
Finally, concerning whether suicide violates a duty to oneself, Hume argues that all suicides have been done for good personal reasons. This is evident since we have such a strong natural fear of death, which requires an equally strong motive to overcome that fear.
In his essay "Suicide," Immanuel Kant argues that suicide is wrong because it degrades our inner worth below that of animals. Kant considers two common justifications of suicide, and rejects them both. First, some may argue that suicide is permissible as a matter of freedom, so long as it does not violate the rights of others.
In response Kant says self-preservation is our highest duty to ourselves and we may treat our body as we please, so long as our actions arise from motives of self-preservation. Some also might give examples from history that imply that suicide is sometimes virtuous.
For example, in Roman history, Cato, who was a symbol of resistance against Caesar, found he could no longer resist Caesar; to continue living a compromised life would disillusion advocates of freedom. Kant argues that this is the only example of this sort and thus cannot be used as a general rule in defense of suicide.
Kant's main argument against suicide is that people are entrusted with their lives, which have a uniquely inherent value. By killing oneself, a person dispenses with his humanity and makes himself into a thing to be treated like a beast. Kant also argues on more consequentialist grounds that if a person is capable of suicide, then he is capable of any crime. For Kant, "he who does not respect his life even in principle cannot be restrained from the most dreadful vices."
Sources and Additional Information: