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Machines Like Us

On suicide

Saturday, 10 March 2012
by Massimo Pigliucci

Albert Camus famously wrote that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” It’s more than a slight exaggeration (well, there’s existentialism for ya!), but the phrase came to mind during a recent evening of web surfing, when I found myself reading a brief essay on the ethics of suicide published by a New Zealand site providing “resources for life related issues” (of which self-imposed death clearly is one). There is, of course, a long philosophical tradition of discussions about the ethical permissibility of suicide (Plato and Aristotle: against it; the Roman Stoics: in favor; pretty much everyone in the Christian tradition: against it; pretty much every Enlightenment philosopher: in favor). But what struck me as particularly interesting is the very different takes on suicide of two of the most influential philosophers all of time: David Hume and Immanuel Kant. (For a more comprehensive philosophical look at the issue see the entry in the ever more excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Interestingly, both philosophers approached it from a deontological (duty-based) perspective. For Kant, predictably, the verdict is negative: suicide is not morally permissible on the general grounds that it diminishes the intrinsic worth of a human being to the status of an animal. I’m not sure what to make of this, since I don’t think human beings have any “intrinsic” worth. Whatever worth we have we acquire through our social interactions, and I think I could name a fair number of human beings who are less “intrinsically worthy” than your dog.

Kant considers a common argument in favor of the morality of suicide, that it may be permissible on grounds of personal freedom, since there is no (or relatively little, of an emotional type) harm to third parties. This holds no water with Kant, because he thinks that self-preservation is the highest duty we have to ourselves. Now, it is easy to argue that self-preservation is a biological imperative, but of course this does not at all translate into a duty. The problem with Kant’s general approach is that it is not clear toward whom we have such duties, other than a vague — and metaphysically highly questionable — “universal moral law.” Indeed, a reasonable retort is that a human being ought to have the freedom to decide when pain (physical or psychological) is sufficiently unendurable that one is better off terminating one’s life (let us bracket for a moment the possibility of a mental illness, to which I will return below).

Kant also proposes what appears to be a pragmatic objection to suicide, impugning the moral character of the person who contemplates it: “He who does not respect his life even in principle cannot be restrained from the most dreadful vices.” Needless to say, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case, and a pragmatic argument that flies in the face of facts doesn’t represent much of a promising avenue.

Hume, on the contrary, thinks that suicide is morally permissible, also on the grounds of his analysis of duties. He talks about three types of duties: to god, to ourselves, and to others. I will skip the first category, since I don’t think there are any gods toward whom we have any duties.