Throughout history, suicide has evoked an astonishingly wide range of reactions—bafflement, dismissal, heroic glorification, sympathy, anger, moral or religious condemnation—but it is never uncontroversial. Nonetheless, many of the most controversial questions surrounding suicide are philosophical. For philosophers, suicide raises a host of conceptual, moral, and psychological questions. Among these questions are: What makes a person’s behavior suicidal? What motivates such behavior? Is suicide morally permissible, or even morally required in some extraordinary circumstances? Is suicidal behavior rational? This article will examine the main currents of historical and contemporary Western philosophical thought surrounding these questions.
The first major work on the topic of suicide was William James’ essay Suicide (1909), followed by several subsequent articles by other philosophers. In recent years, however, this area of philosophy has received increasing scholarly interest as a result of advances in psychology and logic theory. Theories of mind have been developed that can explain why people commit suicide, and theories of rationality have advanced to address whether suicide is rational. These developments have led to new questions about the ethics of suicide. How should we respond when someone commits suicide out of despair over their situation? Should we condemn them for being depressed or suicidal? Or do they deserve our compassion because they are human beings who made a mistake in life?
In addition to these new theoretical issues, there are also practical concerns regarding suicide. Are suicides preventable? Do we need laws against suicide? Should we be more concerned about the mentally ill committing suicide than others? And what about those who kill themselves out of boredom or frustration with their lives? What role does culture play in determining how we view and respond to these situations?
A Brief History of Suicide
Despite the frequent appearance of suicidal characters in popular fiction and drama ( Romeo and Juliet , for example), suicide was long regarded as unmentionable in public and dangerous in private. The Greeks, among the first Western thinkers to address suicide systematically, regarded it as a violation of the natural order. The Romans saw it as a cowardly escape from the responsibilities of life. For most of Western history, religious authorities have forbidden Christians from suicide, condemning it as self-murder, and often considering it a form of demonic possession. In England during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church burned suspected suicides in public as a form of spectacle. Not until the 17th century did English society begin to treat suicide with more measured response.
In the ancient world, the Greeks believed that people should live their lives according to reason and nature. Aristotle claimed that suicide was a violation of both. He argued that nature requires us to preserve our lives since they are essential to our well-being and our ability to achieve eudaimonia (“human flourishing”). On this view, suicide is irrational because it is contrary to one’s own long-term interests. Moreover, it is also a rejection of the gifts of the gods since life is a precious thing that should not be cast aside easily.
What are some common reasons people consider suicide? We discuss them below.
One reason people commit suicide is to escape from an unbearable present or future. A tragic but familiar example of this is a person who commits suicide to avoid the pain of a terminal illness. Another example might be a person suffering from severe depression who feels her life will always be terrible, and so ends it to put an end to the misery. People may also commit suicide to protest something or to send a message. For instance, protesters often kill themselves to call attention to a cause they believe in. Japanese soldiers sometimes committed suicide rather than be captured by opposing forces, such as during World War II.
Another major reason for suicide is a personal crisis of meaning or self-identity. A person may question the meaning of life so much that they see no point in continuing to live. Existential crises often trigger suicidal feelings in people, but not always. A person may also lack a sense of personal identity or feel detached from the world and everyone in it.
Common Judgements on Those That Commit Suicide
People often view suicide as an act of “selfishness.” Though there is some truth to this, it is not entirely accurate. On the one hand, people sometimes kill themselves to end their own suffering. On the other hand, people sometimes kill themselves because they see no reason to continue living, either due to nihilism or due to a feeling of detachment from the world. In these cases, it is arguable that the act is really “selfish” in the sense that the person is prioritizing their own needs (not feeling pain, having personal freedom, etc.) over the needs of other people (such as family members and friends who would be affected by the suicide).
Despite this, people may still consider suicide an act of selfishness because it deprives others of their presence and the presence of someone who may have been helpful in the future. This is a judgment that is hard to prove either way. For instance, if a person with a college education commits suicide, they deprive the world of the wisdom and knowledge they would have provided as a philosopher. Had they lived, they might have provided value or contributed to minimizing world suffering in some way. These are things the world will now be deprived of by their death.
The same can be said in the case of a mother who commits suicide. She deprives her children and family members of her presence and support. If she had lived, she would presumably help take care of them when they are older, or contribute to society in some meaningful way (or both).
Conversely, if the same mother was suffering from an incurable, painful, and disabling disease then killed herself, she would not be depriving the world of anything as her life would effectively be over. Her children and family members would still presumably be deprived of her presence and support, but that would be true whether she committed suicide or died of natural causes.
These are all judgments that can reasonably made based on your worldview and value system.
Religious Views on Suicide
If you believe in the Christian concept of “eternity in heaven,” then a person killing themselves deprives them of their heavenly reward. If you do not believe in such a concept, then suicide merely deprives people of a loved one’s presence in this world, but nothing more.
Most religions have taken stances on suicide at one time or another. In some cases, the religion takes the position that suicide is wrong or a sin. For example, the Roman Catholic Church historically took this stance for many centuries and still maintains this position today (though the reasons for it have changed). Other religions have no such prohibition. In some cases, a religion takes a “neutral” position on the matter and allows the individual to decide for themselves. While other religions actually encourage (or at least don’t prohibit) suicide in some situations.
There are also different worldviews outside of religion that offer opinions on the ethics of suicide as well. For example, Immanuel Kant’s moral theory states that suicide is only ever morally permissible if a person is out of any means of escape from inevitable suffering and death and yet still retains their free will (e.g. a prisoner about to be executed). This is contrasted with situations where a person has a choice to take their own life or continue living, such as in the case of people who suffer from a painful and incurable disease.
Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether suicide is right or wrong depends on your own moral framework. What does or doesn’t constitute “wrong” will vary depending on your beliefs. It is not necessarily that the act of suicide itself is good or bad, but rather how our moral principles reflect on those that engage in it.