Whether suicide can be permissible

The applied ethical issue of suicide focuses on two problems: whether suicide is permissible, and, if so, whether suicide intervention is permissible.

  • Plato opposed suicide since it "frustrates the decree of destiny"
  • 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
  • Augustine opposed suicide - it violates the commandment "thou shalt not kill." Augustine notes some exceptions, but not self-killing as it lacks any parallel justification.
  • David Hume gives a philosophical defense of suicide in his essay "Of Suicide."
  • NZ Crimes Act laws recognise an obligation to assist. Varied philosophical arguements both oppose and support this obligation
Suicide is defined as an intentional and uncoerced self-killing in which the conditions causing death are self-arranged.

The applied ethical issue of suicide focuses on two problems:

(a) whether suicide is permissible, and, if so,
(b) whether suicide intervention is permissible.

The latter problem involves a question of balancing the agent's autonomy against paternalistic concerns of society.

The main issue of suicide intervention is seen to lie in the distinction between self-killings that are deliberately decided upon (autonomous) as opposed to non-autonomous. Non-autonomous self-killings are done involuntarily, or without the person knowing what he/she is really doing.

Accepting death (martyrdom) rather than making a formal retraction or disavowal of a previously held statement or belief, is regarded as non-autonomous self-killing.

Socrates' death is an example of non-autonomous self-killing. Technically, although he drank the hemlock, it was self-administered execution rather than suicide. Another example was the child with Downs syndrome, in Iraq in 2005, who was used by insurgents as a suicide bomber.

Philosophers commonly agree that intervention is always justified with attempted non-autonomous self-killings. For those who have deliberately and consciously decided to commit suicide, however, the justification for intervention is less clear. 

Decisions about some suicides are complicated in that they take place in hospitals or under the supervision of health care workers. In these situations workers are guided by the Principle of Beneficience, which is about caring, not just treatment. It means acting in the best interest of clients. 

The justifiability of suicide intervention in such situations rests on which moral consideration is weightier: autonomy or "weak paternalism" (acting in the best interest of the patient). Given the unique duties of health care workers, respect for life outweighs the principle of autonomy and suicide intervention is considered justified in health care settings.

Mill's principle has been challenges in the area of suicide and self-harm, on the grounds that what we ordinarily regard as different time-segments of the same person can more appropriately be viewed as different persons. Therefore, a person wishing to inflict harm, or death, upon himself, today, may, if prevented, later develop into a person who would change his attitude towards self-harm. In this case, it is argued, there is a different person who has been harmed.

Classic Theories on the Morality of Suicide
The moral permissibility of suicide has a long history of philosophical discussion.  Plato opposed suicide since it "frustrates the decree of destiny" (Laws, Bk. 8, 873c); 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" (Phaedo, 62). Aristotle also opposed suicide since it is "contrary to the rule of life" (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 5, Ch. 11). Later Greek and Roman philosophers approved of suicide as a means of ending suffering. 

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." [De Ira, 1:15]

The principal moral theme of Stoic philosophy is that we should resign ourselves to whatever fate has in store for us. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests Epictetus (60 CE - 120 CE) taught 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. It refers to Discourses, Book 1, Ch.24, 25:

... 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. 

However, Epictetus appears to have explicitly condemned suicide in Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 9, in the following passage:

You should come to him [your teacher and instructor] and say, "Epictetus, we can no longer endure being bound to this poor body, and feeding it and giving it drink, and rest, and cleaning it, and for the sake of the body complying with the wishes of these and of those. Are not these things indifferent and nothing to us, and is not death no evil? And are we not in a manner kinsmen of God, and did we not come from Him? Allow us to depart to the place from which we came; allow us to be released at last from these bonds by which we are bound and weighed down. Here there are robbers and thieves and courts of justice, and those who are named tyrants, and think that they have some power over us by means of the body and its possessions. Permit us to show them that they have no power over any man." 

And I on my part would say, "Friends, wait for God; when He shall give the signal and release you from this service [life], then go to Him; but for the present endure to dwell in this place where He has put you: short indeed is this time of your dwelling here, and easy to bear for those who are so disposed: for what tyrant or what thief, or what courts of justice, are formidable to those who have thus considered as things of no value the body and the possessions of the body? Wait then, do not depart without a reason."

Something like this ought to be said by the teacher to ingenuous youths.
Christian philosophers
In The City of God, Augustine (354-430) opposes suicide on the grounds that it violates the commandment "thou shalt not kill."  

Augustine, who did not consider fighting in 'divinely' ordained wars, or executions by judicial order as violating this commandment, wrote that self-killing 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.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, gives three arguments against the permissibility of suicide.
  1. suicide is wrong since it is contrary to the natural life asserting purpose of humans
  2. suicide is not justified because of the greater social harm that is done
  3. suicide is wrong since it is like stealing from God (our lives are property that belongs to God, and we are merely the trustees of that property)
Renaissance philosophers (1300 - 1650)
For the most part, Renaissance intellectuals, generally affirmed the Church's opposition to suicide. Although Thomas More is sometimes said to have condoned suicide, in his book Utopia, for those suffering from painful and incurable diseases, the book is written as a satirical parody. It was a negative attack on what More saw as European wickedness. 

Michel de Montaigne, who lived in the 1500's, wrote in his Essais, several anecdotes of individuals taking their own lives. He put into these anecdotes quotations from Roman writers praising suicide. Montaigne, a skeptic, did not take a firm moral position on suicide. With reference to the orthodox Christian position, he saw the issue as a matter of personal judgment or conscience.

The Protestant Reformers
The Protestant Reformers were as adamant in condemning suicide as the Roman Catholic Church. They did however consider the possibility that God treated suicide mercifully and permitting repentance. This view held until the late seventeenth century, with the liberal John Locke claiming that though God bestowed upon us our natural personal liberty, that liberty does not include the liberty to destroy oneself (Locke 1690, ch. 2, para. 6).

An exception was John Donne, who drew upon a number of classical and modern legal and theological sources to argue that Christian doctrine should not hold that suicide is necessarily sinful. Donne's reasoning was that, not only does Biblical Scripture lack a clear condemnation of suicide, Christian teaching permits other forms of killing such as martyrdom, capital punishment and killing in wartime.

The Enlightenment
The intellectual movement called "The Enlightenment", generally believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Enlightenment philosophers tended to look at suicide in nonreligious terms, as resulting from facts about individuals, their natural psychologies, and their particular social settings.

François-Marie Arouet, (1694-1778), wrote under the pseudonym of Voltaire, and is widely regarded as the undisputed leader of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire wrote in favor of suicide, opposing the medieval arguments of divine providence. 

Like most modern scientists, Voltaire saw humans as being part of a natural continuum with animals and plants. He suggested that religious teachers (by "supernatural help") are the sole source of the notion of the soul, that it could not be found by reason alone. Living beings, he said, are simply physical beings, one of whose characteristics is life, not because they have souls which animate them. He rejected life after death altogether.

In Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu's work, The Persian Letters, he has Roxana, the favourite and most trusted wife of his character Usbek, commit suicide to escape her cruel, despotic husband after being discovered with another man. The suicide of Roxana, separated from the man she loves and forced to live in slavery, is presented as a noble act. It is also as a condemnation of the despotic institutions and conditions that make such an act seem necessary.  

David Hume (1711-1776) gives one of the most famous philosophical defenses of suicide from this period in his essay "Of Suicide." 

In his essay, Hume approached 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 the benefits 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". Hume argues further that "if my continued existence is a burden on society, then suicide is permissible". For Hume, most people who kill themselves do so in such situations. 

If Hume's arguments were pushed to his logical conclusion, utilitarianism would require social indigents to kill themselves. And this, some believe, is a decisive refutation of Hume's utilitarian defense of suicide, since requiring suicide is a clear violation of the principle of autonomy. 

Finally, concerning whether suicide violates a duty to oneself, Hume argues that all suicides have been done for good personal reasons. He considers that 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."
Source:The Internet Encylopedia of Philosohpy Suicide Intervention

Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought several developments that appear to have shaped philosophical thought about suicide. The first was with novels that 'romanticised' suicide. In gothic and dramatic novels, suicide often became the inevitable response of a misunderstood and anguished soul jilted by love or shunned by society. 

Jean Paul Satre (1905-1980), a pioneer of modern existentialism, believed that suicide afforded humans an opportunity to stake out our understanding of our essence as individuals in a godless world For the existentialists, suicide was not a choice shaped mainly by moral considerations but by concerns about the individual as the sole source of meaning in a meaningless universe.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. In basic existentialist beliefs, man is the only animal defining itself through life. Without life, there is no meaning. Existentialists believe in life and fighting for it. While fighting for life, each person must face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions.

John Stuart Mill, one of the foremost nineteenth-century spokesmen for liberalism, advocated Utilitarianism in ethics, i.e., the view that we should each act so as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. He taught that we can only limit a person's conduct when it presents harm to others, irrespective of whether it presents harm to the agent himself. 

Mill's principle of liberty maintains that "strong paternalism", the intentional limitation of a person's autonomy, exclusively for that person's own good, is never justified. Taking this view, an initial suicide intervention may be justified, solely to establish whether the attempted suicide was autonomous or non-autonomous.It would also hold that if the attempt was autonomous, then no further intervention is justified.

Obligation to intervene
Arguments about whether or not one has an obligation to intervene, can be discussed in either a legal or a philosophical framework.

Legal Discussion:
The laws relating to this subject are s157 and s179 of the Crimes Act. They contain law pertaining to failing to do something, which would have prevented suicide or euthanasia, and failing to render assistance to save the life of a person trying to commit suicide e.g. standing by and watching. They also relate to inciting or counselling suicide.

They are:
  • S157 Duty to avoid omissions dangerous to life
    Every one who undertakes to do any act the omission to do which is or may be dangerous to life is under a legal duty to do that act, and is criminally responsible for the consequences of omitting without lawful excuse to discharge that duty
  • S157.1 Cross reference
    If death results the case will be one of culpable homicide within s 160; if death does not ensue, there will be an injuring by an unlawful act within s 190
  • S179 Aiding and abetting suicide
    Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years who — (a) Incites, counsels, or procures any person to commit suicide, if that person commits or attempts to commit suicide in consequence thereof; or (b) Aids or abets any person in the commission of suicide
  • S179.1 Cross reference
    See the commentary to S66, in particular paras S66.4 - S66.7 ('aiding', 'abets', 'incites', 'counsels', 'procures')
In order to explain these laws here are quoted pieces from 'Garrow and Turkington's Criminal Law in New Zealand' and 'Adams on Criminal Law'. (This is a limited discussion, not a comprehensive one.)

'Section 157 provides that every one who undertakes to do any act the omission to do which is or may be dangerous to life is under a legal duty to do that act. The section imposes a legal duty, but only where the duty has been specifically 'undertaken', though the undertaking may, no doubt, be express or implied.'

'There is no general duty to save life (for example, to rescue a stranger from drowning) even if no more is necessary than the holding of a hand. However, if one has induced a person to risk drowning by promising any necessary assistance, a withholding of such assistance may, by virtue of the section, lead to a conviction for murder or manslaughter if death ensues. While there is, as stated, no general duty to save life, there are certain specific duties directed to the preservation of life (ss 151-157) and there is also, in s 204, a provision penalising the prevention or impeding of efforts to save one's own or another's life.'

Section 179 tells us that 'A person who aids and abets the commission of suicide of any person, or who incites any person to commit suicide, is liable for up to 14 years' imprisonment. In respect of inciting a person to commit suicide, the offence occurs if the other person commits or attempts to commit suicide.

Adams suggests that we 'See the discussion of inciting, counselling, procuring, aiding, and abetting in relation to ss 66, 68, 69, 174, and 311' in his other work.

Philosophical discussion:
In philosophical terms we refer to the responsibility principle and moral obligation. Our consideration of whether or not a person has a moral obligation to another, depends (in part) on how responsible that person is for the other's adverse situation; that is, on the extent to which the other's situation is a consequence of that person's voluntary action. We would usually consider our moral obligation to another to be stronger in cases where we are fully responsible, than in cases where we are not.

Whether or not a person has a moral obligation to assist a hungry person depends (in part) on how responsible that person is for the other's starvation; that is, on the extent to which the other's situation is a consequence of that person's voluntary action. In every day terms, we tend to base our moral obligation to assist a suicidal person on the level of relationship we have with them and on how adequate we feel to assist. We should also consider how responsible we are for them or for their situation.

According to Judith Thomson, in the most general terms, the greater the degree of responsibility I have for another's adverse situation, the greater my obligation to that person. If I have no responsibility to that person, then, presumably, I have no obligation to that person. To use her example, if Henry Fonda's cool touch on my fevered brow were all that could save me, and if Henry were in the room with me (and if he didn't somehow cause my illness), then he would have no obligation to touch my brow. Now, he might be "indecent" if he didn't touch my brow, but he's not obligated to do it. So, if I'm not responsible, then I'm not obligated.

We can compare this to Peter Singer's analogy of a drowning child. If I pass a pond in which a child is drowning, and I choose not to wade in and save that child because doing so would, say, get my clothes muddy, then, according to Singer, I am responsible and blameworthy for the death of that child.

But the question is, ‘what is the difference between the child in the pond and Henry Fonda in my room?' According to Thomson's model, it would seem that since I am not responsible for the child being in the pond, then I'm in no way obligated to save that child. If I don't, then it would seem that, according to Thomson's model, the worst one can say about me is that I'm indecent.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website reaches the following conclusion:
Suicide has been and continues to be a rich field of philosophical investigation. Recent advances in medical technology are responsible for the extensive philosophical attention paid to one kind of suicide, euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide (PAS), while more "run-of-the-mill" suicide motivated by psychological anguish is somewhat overlooked. 

This is somewhat unfortunate: Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide raise issues beyond those associated with other suicides, including the allocation of health care resources and the patient-physician relationship. However, many of the same issues and concerns that surround PAS and euthanasia also surround run-of-the mill suicide, and many writers who address the former often disregard the vast literature on the latter.

Not only is suicide worthy of philosophical investigation in its own right, it is source of insight for various philosophical subdisciplines: moral psychology, ethical theory, social and political philosophy, the metaphysics of personhood, free will and action theory.

Suicide is also an area where philosophical interests intersect with those of the empirical sciences. The collective efforts of philosophers and others continue to illuminate what has struck many people as the most incomprehensible and most troubling of human behaviors.