The following are thoughts about suicide. Albert Camus once famously said that he wondered not why people committed suicide, but why more people did not. He was speaking of the suffering inherent to the human condition. As a psychotherapist, there are many emotionally charged encounters with people who have fleeting, but intense, thoughts of their death, which prompts a quick intervention of some kind. There are those patients who steadfastly maintain the option for suicide, despite their religious beliefs against it or their partner’s despondency over the conversation about it. One patient argued the rational process for suicide, given suffering in the world, and exclaimed that he was confused why more people did not kill themselves. This essay is an attempt to more thoroughly elucidate myself on the moral and interpersonal reasons for staying alive, and the philosophical ideas against suicide, in order to better help those who are erroneously thinking that suicide is a good and only idea.
The Self in Suicide?
George Herbert Meade introduced the concept of the self, rising as a function of the “me” and the “I.” The “me” is regarded by Symbolic Interactionists as the part of the self that develops early in one’s lifespan from the interactions with others in their community and environment; whereas the “I” as the active part of the self, corresponding to Freud’s concept of the ego. Consequently, suicide is an option to destroy the “me” and “I” from the world. Through this framework of the person’s psyche, an individual, through suicide, is attempting to eliminate the “me” through the use of the “I,” which ultimately destroys the “I” as well, making suicide the least rational option in the vast majority of situations. While the tenets espoused during psychotherapy sessions maintains as the foundation for rising above a problem is the notion of “always a way out” - suicide as an option is the last resort.
Nevertheless, suicidal ideation and its completion are prevalent across the world and are present in all cultures, suggesting that the individual, regardless of culture, possesses a rational component in favor of suicide or it may exist as a failure by the community’s rules and values in establishing a viable condition for the development of a stable ego across all members of the community. The argument for the irrationality of suicide is sourced from historical teachings on moral, interpersonal, and metaphysical considerations. In beginning with the rational, thinking by philosophers is a good place to begin. Socrates, for example, as he is described in the Phaedo, affirms suicide as wrong through moralistic reasons and with a metaphysical stance, stating that death through suicide was erroneously obtained before the gods permitted the death. In essence, a violation of natural processes. Plato, on the other hand, as described in Laws, argues four exceptions to the inherent immorality of suicide described by Socrates, based on four conditions: (1) When the person’s mind is corrupted by past immoral actions; (2) When it is done because of an order by the court; (3) When it is compelled by extreme and unavoidable misfortune; and (4) As a result of shame for having carried out immoral actions. Plato’s stance is that death by one’s own hand is forgivable when the reason for suicide is strongly associated with the corruption of the “me” and outside the control of the “I.”
Suicide invariably impacts others in the community, through the immediate family, and into the zeitgeist of the community. The thought that suicide is harmful to the system of individuals involved in a person’s life also finds its source in historical philosophical thought. Aristotle, for instance, considered suicide inherently wrong because suicide negatively impacts society, releasing the individual from responsibility through his/her ultimate and consensual act against society. The Stoics, who believed that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, however, viewed suicide as permissible when a society fails to act in the interest of the individual, such as when a person is inhibited from pursuing a lifestyle that is conducive to his/her happiness. The stoics appear to believe that life continues as long as the “I” is capable of promotion – the ability to act - rather than the body’s ability to continue to function, and when the “I” is in congruence with the development of the “me.” The idea is clearly described by the Roman Stoic Seneca – a proponent for suicide as an option – who stated, for example, in support of the ability to act that “a wise person lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can.”
How is Ones Community Related to Suicide?
A person’s “me” includes metaphysical or religious beliefs espoused by their culture and community onto its members. Religions are often regarded as fundamentally against suicide, with religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, containing strong prohibitions against suicide. However, biblical writings are not specific in admonishing suicide, but Christian scholars and philosophers detailed arguments against suicide based on biblical writings. For example, Augustine of Hippo thought that prohibiting suicide is an extension of the Fifth commandment (Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother), and therefore making suicide out of the question because it brings dishonor to one’s parents. The sixth commandment has also been argued as a testament to the preservation of life, as taking the life of a person is a mortal sin, even if the life you take is yours.
From among the smaller, prominent religious groups, Buddhism has a more complicated view. It views suicide in relationship to the mental state behind the act, and the consequences of suicide. The act of suicide is in relationship with the suffering it produces as opposed to the assistance in solving the problems of suffering, which will not then complicate the rebirth of the actor. Killing, as in other faiths, is the most extreme form of violence, and the Buddhist abstains from purposely or intentionally bringing harm to another. St. Thomas Aquinas furthered the argument of freedom from suffering espoused by the Buddhists by articulating three reasons against suicide: 1) It violates the human natural process of self-love or, rather, self-preservation; 2) Suicide brings injury upon the community; and 3) Suicide is a direct rejection of the gift of life given by God: the three arguments integrating the views of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.
Not until David Hume was a well-articulated response to Aquinas’ argument written, as is found in his Essay on Suicide. Hume made a number of points, addressing the violation of self-preservation in suicide, with the observation that since God does allow us to act counter to natural law in some cases (e.g., in advancing life or sail the ocean or fly through the sky unhurt), then on what grounds is it unacceptable to violate the dictum of self-preservation in particular? Then are not all of them equally innocent, or equally criminal.
Hume addresses the benefits suicide may have on society. He argues that if our conditions, physical or psychological, are sufficiently horrible, then our life may be more of a burden on society than a benefit to society, so that suicide would actually be helpful to others through the preservation of finances or allowing professional resources to focus on those who more likely will benefit. As for the duty to ourselves, much like with the Stoics, if our living conditions are bad enough, then suicide actually helps us, and it is therefore the rational thing to do. The problem is the method and criteria to be used in deciding what constitutes benefits and who will benefit, as well as the judgement that establishes a living condition as “bad enough.”
A modern argument against suicide is the social utilitarian argument, which disagrees with suicide because it violates our duty to others. For example, suicide will directly affect other people, causing sadness, guilt, and confusion. For those closes to the individual, modern social scientific research is clear when indicating that completed suicides can cause long-term psychological issues and, in some cases, financial and economic problems for surviving friends and family.
The immorality of suicide appears tenable from the standpoint of the effect on others in a community. Research conducted over the past fifty years on the family survivors of completed suicides support the impact on mental health brought on by suicide, with those closest to the deceased impacted the heaviest. Partners, siblings, and children of the person who committed suicide will be most affected and experience any of several emotions or reactions. They may be traumatized, feel extreme guilt from not preventing the suicide, and feel like failures because the person who committed suicide felt unloved by loved ones. Children of people who committed suicide are at a significantly greater risk of attempting suicide themselves. They may feel abandoned, confused, and rejected. Partners may feel rejection and betrayal from the deceased for leaving them, or feel as if they did not do enough, and many feel blamed by the partner’s family for not doing enough to prevent the suicide. Even those who deal with the person who committed suicide in a professional capacity will be negatively impacted. They may also feel guilt, as if they let the person down or failed to address the person’s issues adequately.
However, even if the utilitarian argument is used against a suicidal person, the harm the suicide does to others has to be weighed against the harm done to both the self and to others by the person continuing his/her life. For example, a person may have written instructions to allow for death in the event of an incurable injury that requires consistent life support efforts, which serves no purpose other than prolonging the physical life of a person and draining much needed finances. Unfortunately, a case can also be made that appeal to the side of suicide, especially when the person who wants suicide does 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, such as when a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades or — more controversially — in the case suicide for political reasons, such as suicide bombings or, the Vietnam monk who set himself on fire as protest against the war. These examples, however, seeks to improve “the greater good” through their actions, thereby justifying their destruction but, on any other set of conditions, the actor will not act in his/her self-destruction.
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, a very good argument can be made that if a person is depressed or otherwise not in full possession of his rational powers, paternalism is justified given the very high stakes of being wrong.
When Can Suicide Possibly Make Sense?
The morality and psychology of suicide is complicated, but the answer to the above question is no. An unpopular, but rational, observation is that people do have a moral right to commit suicide, and others have no right to interfere in a coercive way only….that is only if two conditions hold: 1) The person is in a psychological and material state that allows him to make an informed decision about whether to terminate his life (e.g., he is not clinically depressed, or he is not under financial duress for which he could be helped by friends, family or society at large); and (2) The person has weighed the consequences of his act on other people, chiefly his friends, business partners, and family.
These conditions, however, are almost universally not met. Psychotherapists, counselors, and physicians consider these conditions in congruence with state laws that indicate when a “paternalistic” approach to intervention is required to intervene on the person’s rights.
Under the first condition, people who have attempted or completed suicides almost exclusively have some form of thought disorder (i.e. schizophrenia, Borderline Personality, Bipolar disorder), Major Depression, or on-going physically progressive, painful illnesses or injuries that siphon their will to continue fighting for life because of the intolerable pain and perpetual discomfort.
In terms of the second condition, a suicidal person fails to consider the widespread impact their death will have on significant others. They may assume that parents/children do not care, which is a function of depression or a thought disorder, or the person will assume that he lacks caring friends or loving extended family. Common among teens who attempt suicide is the consideration that their death will hurt their parents, so it is considered as an act (final) of rebellion against their parents.
Under a narrow set of situations these conditions apply. The most obvious are cases of (assisted, if necessary) suicide as a result of terminal illness, and broadly speaking, the argument appears applicable, though Hume’s arguments apply as well: if the individual determines that her probability for happiness in life would be better served by ending it, she has the moral right to do it. 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.
The argument does not apply to an under-aged person, who has not reached the society’s age of consent or who has not fully developed and matured. What are the rights of a suicidal preteen? The age of consent leaves the responsibility on the state and the parents to decide the child’s fate, which almost exclusively is on compelling an intervention. A teen is incapable of considering all arguments for a given case of suicide, and their psyche continues to develop into their early adulthood, allowing for interventions to have a greater likelihood of promoting a consistent desire to live. Even for the young adult suffering from a painful thought disorder, medication will often curb the pain and help restore an interest in life
PART 2: What to do?