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Philosophical views of suicide

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In ethics and other branches of philosophy suicide poses a difficult question, answered differently by philosophers from different times and traditions.

Arguments against suicide

There have been many philosophical arguments made that contend that suicide is immoral and unethical. One popular argument is that many of the reasons for committing suicide, such as depression, emotional pain or economic hardship, are transitory and treatable through therapy and lifestyle changes. A common adage in the discourse surrounding suicide prevention sums up this view: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Ken Baldwin, a depressed 28 year-old who attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, recalls his first thoughts after he jumped: "I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped" [1].

Classical Liberalism

It is important to note that the liberal view above is not associated with classical liberalism; John Stuart Mill, for instance, argued in his influential essay On Liberty that since the sine qua non of liberty is the power of the individual to make choices; any choice that one might make that would deprive him or her of the ability to make further choices should be prevented. Thus, for Mill, selling oneself into slavery or killing oneself should be prevented, in order to avoid precluding the ability to make further choices. Concerning these matters, Mill writes in On Liberty:

Not only persons are not held to engagements which violate the rights of third parties, but it is sometimes considered a sufficient reason for releasing them from an engagement, that it is injurious to themselves. In this and most other civilized countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion. The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person's voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it, beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favor, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.

Utilitarianism

William Godwin showed his extreme optimism by stating that suicide was almost always a mistake, as more pleasure is to be gained by living. As he was a utilitarian, who saw moral judgements as based on the pleasure and pain they produced, he thus thought suicide to be immoral.

Deontologism

Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the father of deontologism, argues against suicide in Fundamental Principles of The Metaphysic of Morals. In accordance with the second formulation of his categorical imperative, Kant states that "He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself." Kant then argues that if the person chooses to commit suicide that he/she is using themselves as a mean to satisfy him/herself. But a person can not be used "merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself." Therefore, it would be unethical to commit suicide to satisfy oneself.

Existentialism

The French existentialist philosopher Camus saw the goal of existentialism in establishing whether suicide was necessary in a world without God.. For Camus, suicide was the rejection of freedom. He thought that fleeing from the absurdity of reality into illusions, religion or death was not the way out. Instead of fleeing the absurd meaninglessness of life, we should embrace life passionately. In his L'Etranger, the main character, Meursault, who is condemned to death, says the following: "The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions [...] and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the 'divine irresponsibility' of the condemned man".

Social Contract

Social Contract, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argues that every man has "a right to risk his own life in order to preserve it."

Hobbes and Locke, reject the right of individuals to take their own life. Hobbes claims in his Leviathan the natural law forbids every man "to do, that which is destructive of his life, or take away the means of preserving the same". Breaking this natural law is irrational and immoral. Hobbes also states that it is intuitively rational for men to want felicity and to fear death most.

Other arguments

The writer Dorothy Parker, who attempted suicide several times, wrote a famous blackly comic poem contemplating and ultimately rejecting suicide, entitled "Résumé".

Arguments for suicide

There are arguments in favor of allowing an individual to choose between life and suicide. This view sees suicide as a valid option.

This line rejects the thought that suicide is always or usually irrational, but is instead a solution to real problems; a line of last resort that can legitimately be taken when the alternative is considered worse. No being should be made to suffer unnecessarily, and suicide provides an escape from suffering.

Idealism

Some thinkers have had positive or at least neutral views on suicide. Some of the pessimist philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Goethe and Schopenhauer, view suicide as the greatest comfort in life.

Herodotus wrote: "When life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought after refuge". Schopenahuer affirmed: "They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice... that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person". In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche discusses the importance of "dying at the right time", claiming that one must not outlive his work (or "purpose") of life.

Arthur Schopenhauer would be expected to take the subject seriously, due to his bleak view of life. His main work - The World as Will and Representation - constantly uses the act in its examples. He denied that suicide was immoral and saw it as one's right to take their life. In an interesting allegory, he compared ending one's life, when under great suffering, to waking up from sleep, when experiencing a terrible nightmare. However, most suicides were seen as an act of the will, as it takes place when one denies life's pains and is thus different from ascetic renunciation of the will, which denies life's pleasures. His ideas become confused when he talks about ascetic suicides; in one part, he claims that ascetic suicide can only occur through starvation, whilst, in another part, he talks of how ascetics have fed themselves to crocodiles and been buried alive. This seems somewhat contradictory - but it is clear that, all in all, Schopenhauer had a lot of sympathy for those who commit suicide.

In the late 18th century, Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, ("The Sorrows of Young Werther"), the romantic story of a young man who kills himself because his love proves unattainable, was reputed to have caused a wave of suicides in Germany.

Liberalism

Liberalism asserts that a person's life belongs only to him or her, and no other person has the right to force their own ideals that life must be lived. Rather, only the individual involved can make such decision, and whatever decision he or she does make, should be respected.

Philosopher and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz goes further, arguing that suicide is the most basic right of all. If freedom is self-ownership, ownership over one's own life and body, then the right to end that life is the most basic of all. If others can force you to live, you do not own yourself and belong to them.

Jean Améry, in his book On Suicide: a Discourse on Voluntary Death (originally published in German in 1976), provides a moving insight into the suicidal mind. He argues forcefully and almost romantically that suicide represents the ultimate freedom of humanity, attempting to justify the act with phrases such as "we only arrive at ourselves in a freely chosen death", lamenting the "ridiculously everyday life and its alienation". He killed himself in 1978.

Philosophical thinking in the 19th and 20th century has led, in some cases, beyond thinking in terms of pro-choice, to the point that suicide is no longer a last resort, or even something that one must justify, but something that one must justify not doing. Many forms of Existentialist thinking essentially begin with the premise that life is objectively meaningless and proceeds to the question of why one should "not just kill his or her self?". It then proceeds to answer this by suggesting the individual has the power to give personal meaning.

Neutral and Situational stands

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism can be used as a justification or an argument against suicide. Although the death of a depressed person negates his or her sadness, the person's family and friends may grieve. The Church of Euthanasia says that people should kill themselves in order to reduce mankind's stress on the environment.

Nihilism

Nihilist thinkers reject this emphasis on the power of the individual to create meaning [...] and acknowledge that all things are equally meaningless, including suicide.

Other Arguments

There are some who say that suicide is acceptable under certain circumstances, such as incurable disease and old age. The idea is that although life is in general good, people who face irreversible suffering should not be forced to continue suffering.

See also

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