Should Suicide be an Alternative to Prison?
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During the course of this semester one of the most controversial themes was the ethics of suicide. Over the past several decades there has been an outstanding change regarding the view of suicide in terms of if it can be considered ethical. One thesis I wrote about earlier on in the semester was in defense of the philosopher David Hume’s view on suicide. Hume believes that we have duties to God, our neighbors, and ourselves, but if suicide doesn’t impede on these responsibilities then it is not wrong. In this paper I will take my conclusions from Hume’s thesis and add it to my second conclusion which comes from the work of John Stuart Mill. For the second thesis I wrote in favor of Mill’s belief that liberty and freedom bring happiness. The conclusion I want to apply to suicide from this is that society benefits most through following the maximum utility approach. In this paper I would like to combine the two thoughts and argue that suicide is a justifiable alternative to life in prison because it can increase the maximum utility of the community and the individual is no longer a productive member of society. To test this thesis I will discuss my previous two theses and then test is against the philosophy of Immanuel Kant who argues that this is wrong because that prisoner would be using his life as a means to ending his punishment. These are two opposing views that each have their own merit, but throughout the course of this paper I will show that there suicide should be a just alternative to spending life in prison.
To introduce this theory I will begin my argument by explaining the definition of a just suicide as according to David Hume. He believes that the central goal of ethics should be the utility each action produces. To Hume a good man is benevolent and a contributing member of society, but a bad man would be someone who reduces the overall well-being of that same community. It is through this notion that Hume sees justice as the result of acting in favor of what best affects the community1. We can see this reasoning in Hume’s view of suicide which rationalizes someone ending their life as being acceptable as long as it doesn’t harm God, himself, or his community. According to David Hume a man who can no longer contribute to society has no obligation to staying alive and can therefore commit suicide if he feels it is in his best interest.2
John Stuart Mill’s view of humanity is based on the harm principle which states that everything we do is to limit our suffering and seek out pleasure. This line of thinking is known as hedonism which means that we ultimately base our actions on avoiding pain. Mill is very similar to David Hume and believes that our actions do not matter because of morality but instead focus on how others will be affected. Mill would see suicide as something that should be avoided because it would render a person no longer useful to society, but in the case of a prisoner he is already no longer able to contribute. Mill believes that there are two necessities for happiness which wisdom and selflessness. This is because utilitarianism seeks to better mankind by seeking the greater good and envious men will never be satisfied without comparisons.3
When combining the two theories of utilitarianism I have deduced that it is almost more of a duty than an option for a prisoner sentenced to life to commit suicide. This is because when we look at the utility of death verses guarding a prisoner for several decades it benefits the community by saving money and time. In David Hume’s essay on Suicide he argues that a felon should have the right to commit suicide because there is no intrusion of his fate because he is essentially sentenced to die. Due to the fact that he will escape his suffering as he waits for his time of death and that the community would be rid of an evil character. In this case Hume sees death as a mutually beneficial solution which acts in favor of both the felon and society.
While Hume’s justification of suicide for a prisoner seems rational and in the best interest of all parties, Immanuel Kant would disagree with this belief. Kant is a philosopher who writes about metaphysics which means that he uses logic to explain morality which means that morality and rules shape the way our society permits things. Kant was also a Lutheran which means his ethical views focus largely on the teachings of the bible and the Church. In terms of suicide, Kant writes that suicide should never be used to escape from a difficult situation which includes a prison sentence. The reason for this is that humans should not use their lives as solutions to end problems because they are things.4 Furthermore, according to the laws of society killing a man is illegal and this extends to killing one’s self. Kant believes that it is man’s duty to preserve himself and obvious suicide is counterproductive to this. This rationale is called the “categorical imperative” which means that people are bound to protect and take care of the things provided to them which in this case is God’s gift of life. To Kant suicide a contradiction of self-love because it destroys life which is against the nature of life.5
When looking at Immanuel Kant’s philosophy there are several counterpoints that can be brought up that argue in favor of John Stuart Mills. The most important is that Mill wants to see a system of maximum utility which is in favor of the greatest happiness. Immanuel Kant is not trying to prevent someone from committing suicide because he inherently disagrees with the principle, his view in metaphysics is that killing is against the moral codes of society and also a way to end suffering. Mill’s philosophy does cover the intentions of suicide to say that no sane person who feels that they have something to live for will actually commit suicide. This is also acknowledged where he says a suicide can be justified if that person does not feel any commitment to himself.
In the end it seems that John Stuart Mill not only gives the best description of when suicide can be justified, but he also explains his reasoning which fully articulates why a prisoner sentenced to life should be allowed to commit suicide. David Hume’s view of utilitarianism helps this reasoning when he describes how a man who can no longer contribute to society and is prepared to die he will not suffer while society benefits from his death. Immanuel Kant’s theory of metaphysics serves as a sound justification against suicide; however, it lacks the emphasis on the result. In both philosophies the prisoner has nothing to lose and his death has the same effect, but Kant fails to explain why his life would be worth living. In the end it is clear that the theory comprising of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian justification of happiness and David Hume’s defense of suicide show that a prisoner sentenced to life should be allowed to commit suicide.
Hume, David. "An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals." An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals (n.d.): 1-8. May 2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. .
Hume, David. "Suicide." Four Dissertations; And, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's, 2001. 20-26. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. "The Moral Law, or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." Ed. Jonathan Bennett. 25.92 (1950): 85-86. July 2010.Web. 6 Dec. 2015. < http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785.pdf>.
Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism”. Jonathan Bennett. 2005. p. 1-17.
Oazeri, Onur. "A Brief Comparative Analysis of Kant's and Mill's Ethical Systems." Kent.edu. Kent University, 2 Mar. 1997. Web. 08 Dec. 2015. .