Torbjörn Tännsjö Thou Shalt Sometimes Murder!

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Are there situations where it is morally permissible to commit suicide?

China Russia USA

Yes 51 % 28 % 38 %
No 43 % 66% 59 %

Don’t know 6% 5% 3 %

Suicide is a sensitive topic. When you take up a public liberal stance to suicide, people who are suicidal approach you and seek for advice. This in particular explains the initial difficulties, described in the preface to the book, when I wanted to have questions put to the public at large about the ethics of killing. I am pleased that I could order the survay and have it done, however. The result of it is interesting. The cultural differences with respect to suicide are striking. While a majority among the Chinese believe that suicide is sometimes morally permitted, a majority among the Russians and the Americans believe that there are no such situations. One is tempted to think here that there is something in the Christian moral culture that is operative in Russia and in the USA, but not, of course, in China. My hope, and belief, actually, is that neither my survey, nor what I write in this chapter, has or will provoke any irrational suicides. Judging from my own experience there is some ground for such hope. People who are suicidal may gain from discussions about their situation. The worst thing is to be left alone with your thoughts.

There are startling cultural differences in the view of suicide, then. It is not easy to say how we should interpret it, however. In particular there is a problem with the findings from Russia and the USA. As we will see in a coming chapter on assisted death, a majority among all the invested peoples, not only the Chinese, but the Russians and the Americans as well, believe that assisted death should be a legal possibility. How is this possible, if they believe that suicide is always wrong? My guess is as follows. It is not that the Russians and the Americans are inconsistent. It is rather that they conceive of suicide in a manner that doesn’t connect it to end of life decisions at all. When they claim that suicide is always wrong, they think of people who kill themselves, even though it would have been possible for them to go on with their lives. They do not think of terminally ill people at all, when they think of suicide. In this (if I have interpreted them correctly) I will follow suite in this chapter. I will discuss suicide in situations where it had been possible for the person, who took her life, to go on with it for an indefinite period of time. I will think of healthy people killing themselves. Then I must also admit that the fact that the liberal Chinese view of suicide would be explained (away) if it could be shown that their notion of suicide is broaderk, including also terminally ill people.

Are there actual examples of suicide, if we confine our interest to people who are healthy? We sometimes learn from suicide research that everyone who commits suicide is mentally ill — and hence incompetent of autonomous decision-making. However, many, especially among the old people who commit suicide — are (also) physically ill. Perhaps some of these self-killings are the result of an autonomous decision? Well, it is hard to tell, but even if it is clear that those who kill themselves are often showing symptoms of depression, in some circumstances the explanation behind these symptoms need not be mental illness, one may conjecture, but rather the impression that life is indeed meaningless. Furthermore, as we will see, people sometimes kill themselves for what one may call other-regarding reasons. It is reasonable to assume that such suicides may sometimes reflect an autonomous decision. We should not see them as signs of mental illness.

Now, be this as it may be, irrespective of whether there are suicides or not in real life it is still possible to query about the normative status of this kind of action. Even if there are no suicides in real life it is possible that there should be such cases. Until we have gone deeply into the question we cannot preclude that many, perhaps all of us, ought to kill ourselves.

In order to go systematically into the question we need to be more precise about what it means to commit suicide, however.


According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to commit suicide means ‘intentionally [to] kill oneself´. This is close to the mark. However, several clarifications need to be made.

As I noted above, many, perhaps all people who are said to commit suicide (a million each year, according to some statistics)80 suffer from a mental illness that render them incapable; they kill themselves intentionally, but they cannot help doing so. Their decision to kill themselves does not reflect any autonomous decision.81 But then we should not speak of suicide, I suggest. If they are not morally responsible for the action, it is of little interest to discuss its normative status; it lacks normative status! So let me stipulate that to commit suicide means to kill oneself intentionally and as the result of an autonomous decision. Only an autonomous agent can commit suicide, then.

It is difficult to spell out exactly what it means to be an agent capable of autonomous decisions, but I will not go into these complications here. I just take it for granted that we have some grasp of the notion.82

What are we to say of people who commit suicide under some kind of pressure? The extreme case is Socrates, who would have been killed, had he not killed himself. Did he commit suicide, when he drank the cup of poison hemlock? He did, on my account. It is reasonable to assume that his intention was to die and it is reasonable to assume that his killing of himself did — if any self-killing has ever done so — result from an autonomous decision. After all, he could have refused, and suffered the consequences of his refusal.

We often hear reports in today’s media about ‘suicide bombers’. Here is a typical report, of the blast in the Moscow’s busiest airport on 24 January 2011:
The prosecutor's office said the bomb had been classified as a terrorist attack -- the largest since twin suicide bombings on the Moscow metro rocked the Russian heartland in March.

"The blast was most likely carried out by a suicide bomber."

State television said the blast was the work of a "smertnik," or suicide bomber. State-run RIA, quoting Markin, said the bomber most likely had a belt laden with explosives. (Reuters, Alexei Anishchuk)
Do terrorists commit suicide, when they blow their deadly bombs, killing themselves as well as targeted victims (often civilians) belonging to the ‘enemy’ population? Or, are the words ‘suicide-bombers’ and ‘smertnik’ misnomers? According to the definition I will operate with here, they are misnomers. These terrorists do not commit suicide. And neither did Sampson, as it is reported in The Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), commit suicide, when he pushed the pillars over so that the building fell down on himself and the Philistines and killed them all. In all these instances, it is reasonable to assume that his own death is merely foreseen by the person who kills himself, in an attempt to kill the enemies. His own death is not intended. If it had been possible to kill the enemy, and get away with it, we must believe that the ‘suicide’ bombers, from Sampson and onwards, would have done so. Death must indeed be intended, and not merely foreseen, in order for an act of killing oneself should be counted as an instance of suicide.

What if the ‘suicide’ bomber believes that his death will result in martyrdom and a quick entry into Eden? It is still not suicide, I submit. For this cannot (must not) be the aim of the attack; the entry into Eden is (should be) a merely foreseen good effect of it. If death is indeed sought, for its sweetness, i.e. as a means to a quick entry into Eden, then the side effect will not materialise; or, so I think it is correct to understand this kind of religious belief.

This stipulation means also that supererogatory action, such as when you throw yourself on a hand-grenade about to explode, in order to save the lives of your fellow soldiers, does not count as suicide. Clearly, if you could save their lives in some other way, you would have preferred to do so, and stayed alive yourself. In such situations your own death is not intended; it is merely foreseen.

This does not mean that death you produce must be sought as an end in itself in order to count as suicide, however. It is hard to see that death could ever be seen as an end in itself. Typically, suicide means that one intentionally and deliberately kills oneself in order to obtain something. It could be to get rid of a life that is seen as meaningless and a mere burden. Or, it could be for some noble end. When some Buddhist monks in Vietnam set themselves to fire, in an attempt to stop the US aggression against their country, they did indeed commit suicide. They intended their death. Only if they killed themselves intentionally and voluntarily, they believed, would the public opinion in the US react against the war. Here it is reasonable to assume that the act results from an autonomous decision. A similar and more recent example is the event that sparkled the Tunisian uprising in 2011:

The unrest began about a month ago when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old university graduate, set himself on fire in an act of protest. Unable to find steady work, Bouazizi often sold vegetables without the required permit. After the police confiscated his vegetable cart and he was unable to lodge a formal complaint, the desperate youth attempted suicide in order to bring his frustration to light. (The Majalla, 11 January 2011)

Some suicides are heroic in this way. However, there may also exist situations where people commit suicide for more mundane reasons. They may want not to put pressure upon their close ones in a situation of economic scarcity, for example. Hence they kill themselves intentionally and as a result of an autonomous decision.

We do not commit suicide unless we kill ourselves intentionally and as a result of an autonomous decision, then. Need we also claim that, in order for an act of killing oneself to count as suicide, it should also be an act of active killing? In my chapter on murder I assumed that intentional killing of an individual is not murder, unless it is also active. I think we should be more inclusive in our understanding of suicide, however. The reason is that this is how we tend to speak.

Suppose I am standing on the tracks and see a trolley approaching me. I realise that, unless I leave the tracks, I will be killed. I could easily leave the tracks, but I don’t. It so happens that I want to be dead rather than alive. With the intention of being killed, and as a result of an autonomous decision, I stay on the tracks. Consequently I am run over and killed by the trolley. Do I commit suicide?

I believe we should count this as suicide. It is the intended/merely-foreseen distinction (which we know from the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine), not the acts/omission distinction (which we know from the moral rights theory), that we should rely on here. Or, so I will do, at any rate, in my stipulated definition of what it means to commit suicide.

This stipulation means also that, if you stop drinking and eating, in order to put an end to your life, you commit suicide. Remember, however, that I have restricted my use of the term ‘suicide’ to situations outside what we usually call end of life decisions. So when a terminally ill patient refuses to eat and drink, she is not committing suicide.

My stipulation does mean, however, that people who depend on a ventilator for their survival, and who could go on with their lives of an indefinite time, and who remove the ventilator, do commit suicide. More about such cases in the next chapter on assisted death. In a similar vain, those who for political reasons starve themselves to death, do commit suicide.

Does all this mean that Jesus committed suicide? One could argue like this. He could have escaped his fate, but, eventually, he decided not to. He allowed the Roman authorities to kill him, for what be believed to be a noble cause. He wanted to save the rest of us. And he saw his death as crucial to his mission. Merely seeming dead would not have been enough. And the fact that other people killed him does not mean that he did not commit suicide. One could compare here with the case with the person who stays on the tracks and allows the trolley to kill him. However, I do not think the analogy is close enough. The fact that someone else, an agent and not a trolley, killed him means that he did not kill himself and, hence, he did not commit suicide. In a similar vein, if a doctor removes the ventilator and the patient who could have gone on with her life for an indefinite period of time dies, then this is not suicide on the part of the patient, and hence not assisted suicide on the part of the medical doctor. Here the doctor kills the patient, if only by allowing death to come when the ventilator is withdrawn.

To commit suicide, then, is intentionally to kill oneself (for whatever reason), through an act or an omission, resulting from an autonomous decision, in a situation where one could have gone on with ones life for an indefinite time.


While capital punishment, as we saw in the pervious chapter, was taken for granted up to the 18th century, when it was questioned by Beccaria and to some extent by Bentham, the view on suicide among philosophers has from the very beginning of our intellectual history been divided. Philosophers such as Socrates (who committed suicide, we remember) and Plato believed that, at least under some circumstances, suicide was morally permitted. Aristotle had little to say about suicide, but complained that it was an offence against the state. Among the Hellenistic philosophers, many saw suicide as a natural option, however. Many stoic and epicurean philosophers killed themselves, such as Zeno, Diogenes, Lucretius Carus, Cato, and Seneca. Epictetus famously claimed:
To summarize:  remember that the door is open.  Do not be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game no longer pleases them, ‘I will play no more’, you too, when things seem that way to you, should merely say, ‘I will play no more’, and so depart; but if you stay, stop moaning.83
In Chinese, Confucian tradition, a similar view on suicide seems to have prevailed up to present time. At least what have been called other-regarding suicides were not only morally accepted but recommended under certain circumstances. These are the words of Confucius:
For gentlemen of purpose and men of ren (benevolence or supreme virtue) while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of ren, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have ren accomplished.84
It is also well known that in cultures where a strong ethics of honour was prevailing, such as in Japan up to World War II, suicide was a natural action for some people to take in certain situations, in order to avoid shame. This option was open, though, only to the privileged classes.

In a Western tradition there took place an early shift in the view of suicide with the advent of Christianity. In the Bible there is no strict and explicit rules about suicide, but in what has been known since as ‘Christian ethics’, a strict ban on suicide has been taken for granted. In particular it was St. Augustine, who came to set the standards for centuries to come. We can still see his influence, I suppose, in the answers given in my survey by Russians and Americans. Here is what he had to say about suicide:

The law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This is proved especially by the omission of the word ‘thy neighbor’, which are inserted when false witness is forbidden in the commandment there is no limitation added nor exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid!85
His view was followed up by Thomas Aquinas, and it was codified in the medieval doctrine that ‘suicide nullified human beings' relationship to God, for our control over our body was limited to usus (possession, employment) where God retained dominium (dominion, authority)’.86

In modern times in Western philosophy there have been many controversies about the normative status of suicide. David Hume argued against Thomas Aquinas on the subject in his (at the time) unpublished ‘On Suicide’ (1783), while Immanuel Kant defended a position similar to the one put forward by Aquinas. And the discussion is still a very live one.

In this book, I use suicide as one example of killing among others. One may wonder, however, whether suicide is special? Ludwig Wittgenstein, surrounded by people, many of them in his family, who committed suicide, and for whom suicide seems always to have been a live option,87 has famously made the following comment on the subject, which indicates that he believed that suicide was indeed special:
If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin. And when one investigates it it is like investigating mercury vapours in order to investigate the nature of vapours.88
This oft quoted passage is usually taken as a statement to the effect that suicide is wrong, but one need only read through it carefully to note that this is not so. No stand is taken on the issue by Wittgenstein. I suppose the best way of understanding the quoted passage is as follows. What Wittgenstein wants to claim is that, if any conventional type of action (like murder, suicide, abortion, and so forth) is absolutely prohibited (there are no permitted instances of it), then suicide is one such absolutely prohibited action. If there are morally permitted instances of suicide, then there must also be morally permitted instances of all other conventional types of actions, such as murder, or abortion as well.

Wittgenstein may be right about this, but in order to find out if he is, we need to proceed in a piecemeal manner — as I have often insisted in this book. We must work through all the putative candidates of suspect action types here and we cannot just focus on suicide. But suicide is the subject of this chapter, so let us now turn to the three theories under scrutiny and investigate their implications for the morality of suicide.

On deontology the matter is simple. Suicide means the intentional killing of an innocent human (rational) being and it is hence wrong. A possible exception comes to mind. What if a murderer commits suicide? He is not innocent. On the Kantian, retributivist, understanding of the deonotology discussed in the previous chapter, the murderer deserves to be killed. Does that mean that he has a right to kill himself? I guess that most adherents of the theory would say, no. Only someone authorised to punish the murderer has the right (and obligation) to kill him. By killing himself, the murderer cowardly avoids the punishment he deserves.


Only when necessary, I distinguish in this book between the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine as such, and a Kantian deontology, delivering the same verdict on intentional killing of innocent human beings. I made such a distinction in the previous chapter where I focused on the retributivist, Kantian aspect of the doctrine. There may be reason to do so also in this chapter. This is why.

One may wonder why the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine should put the killing of others and the killing of oneself on a par; is it not worse to kill another person, one may wonder. Of course, a defining characteristic of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine is that it makes no difference here. It is the killing of an innocent human being that is wrong. What about Kant? He too treats suicide as no better than murder. Could he perhaps provide some kind of rationale behind such very strict view of suicide? This is what he has to say explicitly about suicide:

To annihilate the subject of morality in one's person is to root out the existence of morality itself from the world as far as one can, even though morality is an end in itself. Consequently, disposing of oneself as a mere means to some discretionary end is debasing humanity in one's person ...89
The first part of the quoted passage can perhaps be understood on a metaethical constructivist view of morality — of the kind defended for example Christine Korsgaard.90 However, the addition made by Kant that ‘morality is an end in itself’ counts against such an interpretation. Yet, let us accept it for the sake of argument. Then, if I kill myself this means that no morality exists ‘for me’. If everyone were to do the same, there would be no such thing as a morality at all, one could add. This does not strike me as an argument in its own right, however. Who, then, would there be to complain? If morality is a construction, then there seems to be no need for it if there are no moral agents.

The second part of the quoted passage, therefore, must be the part that is intended to carry the substantial moral argumentative burden. But it too may seem to be hard to accept. Even if we accept that we should not ‘debase’ humanity in ourselves, why does suicide mean that we do that? Furthermore, why does killing oneself mean that one uses oneself as a mere means to a discretionary end? Let us focus on this latter question.

First of all, what are we to say about the ‘discretionary’ part of the argument? What if the end is a noble one? What if a commit suicide in order to save humanity? That could hardly count as a ‘discretionary’ end. In a sense all ends are ‘discretionary’, of course. When I act, I choose the end for which I act. However, in the passage Kant must mean that the end is not only chosen, but also somehow arbitrary. He seems to think that the person who commits suicide must act out of a whim, capriciously, or something of the kind.

But if I kill myself in order to sparkle a revolution, in the manner the young Mohammed Bouazizi did in Tunisia in 2010, the end is all but arbitrary. Even Kant would admit, I suppose, that it was an end for which it made sense to make some sacrifices. Why not an end for which it makes sense to sacrifice ones life`? Most people tend to admire Mohammed Bouazizi, I believe. Should they not also be allowed to say that, bravely, he did the right thing?

I think Kant could and should admit that Bouazizi acted for a noble cause. And yet, he would object to his suicide on principled grounds. And the grounds are that, not even for a noble end are we allowed to violate the dignity in ourselves. And this is what we do when we kill ourselves. We use ourselves, our dignity, as a mere means, when we sacrifice our rationality, and this is something we are not allowed to do, not even for a noble end. This is no different from how he conceives of murder, then. We are not allowed to murder, i.e. to destroy dignity, in order to save lives. In a similar vein are we not allowed to kill ourselves in order save lives, let alone, of course, to enhance to quality of our own lives. His stand on suicide is consistent and comprehensible, then.


On my broad definition of suicide, even cases where we allow death to befall us count as suicide, provided we allow it with the intention to die. Where does that put members of Jehovah’s witnesses, who refuse blood transfusions?

I suppose that they would argue that when they refuse a blood transfusion, they merely foresee their death, they do not intend it. And they refuse blood because of their religious reasons. They believe that God forbids them to accept to receive blood in this manner.

This does not mean that they are actually doing the right thing, when the matter is assessed from the point of view of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine, however. We must remember that there is also a requirement of proportionality between the intended good effect and the merely foreseen bad effect. They believe the requirement is met, of course. But they are probably wrong. They are wasting their lives for bad religious reasons. Objectively speaking, if the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine is correct, what they do is wrong (morally prohibited). It is hard to believe that the reception of blood from another person is morally wrong.

Finally, what are the implications of the moral rights theory of a situation where a patient refuses life-saving actual killing? Suppose a patient is offered a life-saving blood transfusion with the only blood available, which happens to be HIV-infected. Assume that we know for certain, that if the blood is accepted, the patient will survive for some 20 additional years, but then die from AIDS. Does the patient have a right to refuse this transfusion?

I think not, if we assess the matter from the point of view of the Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine. The refusal of the transfusion need not amount to suicide, since death may here be seen as a merely foreseen and not intended effect of the refusal. Once again, however, the requirement of proportionality informs us that they are doing the wrong thing. The patient wastes 20 additional years of her life. And here it is hard to think of any reason, let alone any good one, for doing so. The requirement of proportionality is not met.


The implications of the moral rights theory with respect to suicide are straightforward and at variance with what people in Russia and the USA believe. Since we own ourselves, we are free to do whatever we see fit with ourselves, so long as this does not mean that we violate any negative rights of any one else. And no one owns me, unless I have sold myself as a slave, so I can kill myself without any regard for bad side effects for others of my action.

It is true that John Locke thought otherwise. I have already quoted him, in chapter 2, when I presented the moral rights theory. This is what he had to say about suicide:

But though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of Licence, though Man in that State have an uncontrollable Liberty, to dispose of his Person ... , yet he has not Liberty to destroy himself.91
I took this to be a lack of consistency in his libertarian moral rights theory, however. This was probably just an attempt to be ‘political correct’. If doesn’t fit with his general theory.

It goes without saying that, on the moral rights theory understood in a strict libertarian sense, I have a right to refuse life-saving treatments of all sorts and for whatever reasons.

It might be thought that the crucial question to the utilitarian treatment of suicide is the general idea about how well people fare. If you are extremely pessimistic in your assessment of how our lives go, if you believe that everyone is, as a matter of fact, living a life worth not living (with a net surplus of pain over pleasure), then we should all kill ourselves. On the other hand, if we all live lives (remember we are not discussing typical end of life situations) that are considered worth experiencing (they contain a net surplus of pleasure over pain), then suicide is wrong. In particular, one may think that the typical utilitarian view of suicide would be that it is right to commit suicide if and only if the rest of your life will provide you with more pain than pleasure. It is not as simple as that, however. And the reason it is more complicated is that utilitarianism takes seriously ‘external’ effects of a practice such as suicide.


I suppose it is correct to say that, if Schopenhauer is right, if life is never worth living, then according to utilitarianism we should all commit suicide and put an end to humanity. But this does not mean that, each of us should commit suicide. I commented on this in chapter two when I presented the idea that utilitarianism should be applied, not only to individual actions, but to collective actions as well.

It is a well-known fact that people rarely commit suicide. Some even claim that no one who is mentally sound commits suicide. Could that be taken as evidence for the claim that people live lives worth living? That would be rash. Many people are not utilitarians. They may avoid suicide because they believe that it is morally wrong to kill oneself. It is also a possibility that, even if people lead lives not worth living, they believe they do. And even if some may believe that their lives, up to now, have not been worth living, their future lives will be better. They may be mistaken about this. They may hold false expectations about the future.

From the point of view of evolutionary biology, it is natural to assume that people should rarely commit suicide. If we set old age to one side, it has poor survival value (of one’s genes) to kill oneself. So it should be expected that it is difficult for ordinary people to kill themselves. But then theories about cognitive dissonance, known from psychology, should warn us that we may come to believe that we live better lives than we do.

My strong belief is that most of us live lives worth living. However, I do believe that our lives are close to the point where they stop being worth living. But then it is at least not very far-fetched to think that they may be worth not living, after all. My assessment may be too optimistic.

Let us just for the sake of the argument assume that our lives are not worth living, and let us accept that, if this is so, we should all kill ourselves. As I noted above, this does not answer the question what we should do, each one of us. My conjecture is that we should not commit suicide. The explanation is simple. If I kill myself, many people will suffer. Here is a rough explanation of how this will happen:
... suicide “survivors” confront a complex array of feelings. Various forms of guilt are quite common, such as that arising from (a) the belief that one contributed to the suicidal person's anguish, or (b) the failure to recognize that anguish, or (c) the inability to prevent the suicidal act itself. Suicide also leads to rage, loneliness, and awareness of vulnerability in those left behind. Indeed, the sense that suicide is an essentially selfish act dominates many popular perceptions of suicide.92
The fact that all our lives lack meaning, if they do, does not mean that others will follow my example. They will go on with their lives and their false expectations — at least for a while devastated because of my suicide. But then I have an obligation, for their sake, to go on with my life. It is highly likely that, by committing suicide, I create more suffering (in their lives) than I avoid (in my life).

Going on with my life in spite of the fact that it lacks meaning (contains a net surplus of pain over happiness) is not such a big deal. Even if the net balance of the rest of my life does consist of pain rather than happiness, this is something I am already used to. I have strategies to cope with it. They are not perfect. After all, given the hypothesis in this section, my net balance will be negative. However, this is a sacrifice, not too heavy, I should make in the best interest of my dear ones.

Up to now I have conducted the discussion in very broad and general terms. Are our lives in general worth experiencing or not? If not, we ought all to kill ourselves, but each and every one ought to go on with their lives, I have concluded from utilitarianism. If they are worth living, we ought all to go on with our lives. And this applies to each and every one of us as well. However, there may exist exceptions from these general rules.

Suppose there are some people who lead terrible lives, even if they are not suffering from identifiable diseases that would qualify them for assisted death (to be discussed in the next chapter); should they not kill themselves, if we assess the matter from the point of view of utilitarianism? Certainly, even when they commit suicide, they cause suffering among their close ones. However, if their suffering is terrible, would it not still be permissible for them to kill themselves?

To the extent that they have communicated to their close ones how terrible their lives are, and to the extent that they have convinced their close ones about the fact that there is nothing that could be done to improve the quality of their lives, they could very well kill themselves. Their close ones too may see a point in their suicide. So perhaps, on balance, there will be no bad side effects if they kill themselves. Their close ones will be sad, of course, when they commit suicide, but the close ones will no more have to suffer from the knowledge that they are living terrible and irreparable lives. They have put an end to their suffering, the only end available.

It strikes me as plausible to conclude here, that these people, if such people exist, have a right to kill themselves. In fact, if there is really no way of making their lives better, this is what they ought to do. This seems to be the message sent from utilitarianism about suicide.93

Finally, there may exist rare historical situations where, by committing suicide, you may turn history into a better direction. This may well have been true of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam during the war, and it may well have been true of Mohammed Bouazizi, who sparkled the Tunisian revolution in 2011 with his suicide.


We have seen that the cultural variations are important when it comes to suicide. So here we should not rely on our gut feelings. We should try to transcend our narrow cultural horizon when we contemplate the matter. Here are some preliminary results, when I attempt to do so.

The moral rights theory strikes me as clearly wrong. The fact that it doesn’t count external effects of acts of suicide as morally relevant is not acceptable.

Deontology may well be close to the mark in its verdict that suicide is always wrong. It is close to the mark, if all lives are, as a matter of fact, worth living (setting end of life decisions to one side and setting altruistic suicides to one side). However, it is yet too strict, as I see it. While the general permission issued from the moral rights theory is insensitive to possible bad external effects of suicides, deontology is insensitive to possible good external effects. There seem to be actual cases of altruistic (other regarding) suicides that are not only right, but praiseworthy and courageous as well. The ban on such suicides, issued by deontology, therefore counts heavily against this doctrine. Moreover, it is also insensitive to the possibility that there are cases where people just happen to lead very bad lives, and where it strikes me as cruel not to allow them a possibility to escape from their plight through suicide. It doesn’t matter whether there are such case, the mere possibility of such cases, and the strict verdict from deontology, is enough to cast doubt upon it. In such situations, it seems to me, it is morally all right to use oneself (one’s dignity and rationality) as a mere means to a better total life.

The fact that deontology doesn’t concur in the utilitarian verdict, that we should all commit suicide, if it would surface that we all lead lives worth not living, is also a problem for the deontology, even if this matter may be seen as of little practical importance.

Chapter 6. Assisted Death
Should a person who suffers from an incurable fatal disease and who doesn’t want to live any more have the right to request and receive a lethal injection which terminates his or her life?

China Russia USA

Yes 85 % 75 % 65 %

No 13 % 19 % 35 %

Don’t know 3 % 5 % 3 %

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