Suicide Research Paper

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Suicide is a ubiquitous human phenomenon. It can be found in all living human cultures and is already a topic in early works of literature of mankind. Intentional self-killing requires self-awareness and awareness of one’s mortality. As far as we know, only human beings display intentional self-killing. A major moral concern regarding suicide in all human cultures addresses the question of whether a suicide is justified or not. From a philosophical point of view, suicide is primarily an indifferent act. Its ethical evaluation draws on the two moral principles of autonomy and welfare and depends both upon personal and situational (social, cultural, or religious) circumstances connected with this very suicide of this person in this special situation as well as on the judging of person’s values.


After discussing historical and religious arguments regarding the morality of suicide, some conceptual clarifications will focus on a distinction of suicide as intentional self-killing and parasuicide as intentionally using the gesture of suicide. Self-awareness will be addressed as necessary condition for suicidal behavior. A more thorough definition of suicide shows liberty as a focus of philosophical debates on suicide and points out questions concerning the moral justifiability of suicide, suicide prevention, and assisted suicide as their major concerns. In the main body of the entry, the ethical dimensions of suicide and the arguments deployed in this debate will be discussed in four subsequent sections: “The Suicidal State of Mind and the Medical Argument of Mental Illness,” “Actual Deontological Arguments Against Suicide,” “Social Arguments Regarding the Morality of Suicide,” and “Can Suicide Be Authentic?” Some short conclusions will be given at the end of each of these sections. The closing section of the entry will offer rather general conclusions concerning the three major philosophical questions regarding the moral justifiability of suicide, suicide prevention, and assisted suicide.

Historical And Religious Arguments Regarding The Morality Of Suicide

Understanding and judging suicide has a long, explicit tradition in high cultures since around 2000 BC but may have been performed and debated already earlier. The general connotation of suicide is typically ambivalent. While it is agreed that suicide is a behavioral option, usually taken into account only in a personal crisis, the act itself can either be good or bad. This implies that most cultures and worldviews (including religious faiths) define certain conditions under which suicide is accepted or even glorified. The first text dealing explicitly with this topic is The Report about the Dispute of a Man with his Ba (Papyrus Berlin 3024 from 1800 BC). According to the cosmic order during those times (Egypt in the Middle Kingdom), human beings need time in order to prepare for their life after death, while the Ba (soul) achieves greater freedom from the human being after death. Hence, suicide in this life denies the cosmic order if one’s death is not prepared adequately. Accordingly the man rejects the Ba’s offer of an early death.

Since 500 BC more explicit debates on the topic of suicide are handed down to us in different cultures. For example, in the Jewish faith suicide is violating the gift of life, given and taken by YWH. Hence, suicide violates the cosmic order of life as God’s gift. There are, however, nine cases of suicide in the texts of the Old Testament (written between 500 and 200 BC). As is prominently displayed in the case of Samson, suicide seems acceptable if the person’s wish to put herself to death is endorsed by God. In this vein, the person’s suicide becomes a glorification of God. This raises, of course, the question how God’s endorsement is given and correctly perceived by the involved human beings. Since this is most difficult to decide, and cannot simply depend on the suicidal person’s perspective, it is understandable that suicide was – and is – usually not accepted from a Jewish perspective. This position is furthermore undergirded by social arguments, especially the argument that one’s intentional death does no harm to one’s community, society, or state (see below). There are exceptions of an acceptable suicide, as has constantly been argued from more Orthodox Jewish perspectives, drawing, i.e., on the abovementioned cases in the Old Testament. This complex moral position – suicide is morally unjustified, except a divine sign has been given – was adopted by Christianity (especially by Paul, being originally a Pharisee Jew himself).

In ancient Chinese philosophy (Confucianism) suicide can also be the “right” thing to do under certain conditions. According to the cosmos’ (heaven = tian) order, the highest value for the “right way of living” is righteousness, ideally acknowledged and adopted by human beings. In order to keep on the right way in one’s life, one might be obliged to choose life-endangering behavior or even suicide, as Mengzi (cir. 370–290 BC) argued:

——So, I like life, and I also like righteousness. If I cannot keep the two together, I will let life go, and choose righteousness. [.. .] There are cases when men by a certain course might preserve life, and they do not employ it; when by certain things they might avoid danger, and they will not do them. Therefore, men have that which they like more than life, and that which they dislike more than death. They are not men of distinguished talents and virtue only who have this mental nature. All men have it; what belongs to such men is simply that they do not lose it [righteousness J.S.]. (Mengzi Gaozi I, 10)

In the classical Brahmanian perspective, suicide is usually taken as violating the cosmic order. According to the later texts of the Dharma-sutras, such as Manusmriti written by the mythical figure Manu between 200 BC and AD 200, suicide is only acceptable if performed in a certain manner (performed through fasting, called prayopavesa) and under certain conditions (i.e., elderly person). In all other cases, it is an unseemly act, violates the “right way of living” (dharma), and creates bad karma to face in the future. According to the wheel of samsara, reincarnation of one’s immortal atma (soul) takes place in accord with one’s karma. Therefore, suicide brings a series of immediate lesser births and requires several lives for the soul to return to the exact evolutionary point that existed at the moment of suicide. In today’s Hinduism, this manner of killing oneself is still accepted, while in Buddhism suicide is usually seen as contradicting the path to enlightenment.

If we consider these metaphysical perspectives on the moral justifiability of suicide, three arguments can be distinguished: (a) the property argument, (b) the providence argument, and (c) the cosmic or natural law argument. All three arguments argue suicide as usually not acceptable but specify also acceptable manners of suicide under certain conditions:

(a) The property argument claims that our life does not belong to us, but to a different and more powerful entity (i.e., God, YWH, Allah), and is given to us as a gift. Hence we are not allowed to reject it. From this vantage point, every (mental) crisis is a part of this gift and hence challenges us to throw our hopes on this powerful entity (i.e., crisis as a chance to demonstrate one’s steadfastness of one’s religious faith). This argument is adopted in Christianity by Paul (unknown, cir. 60 AC), who denotes God’s love as experienceable heaven on earth and as the ultimate shield against one’s wish to enter eternal life immediately (ca. 54/55 BC, Philipper 1, 21–26), and in the Qur’an (Sura 4, 29). Basically, these arguments can be transferred into the sanctity of life argument, the classical deontological argument against suicide (see below).

(b) The providence argument claims that our lifespan and time of death (in this life) are laid out for us by a greater (transcendental) entity or power. This argument, already given in a certain sense in the Brahmanian and Hinduistic claim of bad karma caused by suicide, is put forward for Christianity by Paul and most explicitly by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who argues that killing oneself usurps God’s prerogative in determining when we shall die. This argument is also inherent in Allah’s mercifulness toward Muslims: “O you who have believed, do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly but only [in lawful] business by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful” (Qur’an Sura 4,29).

(c) Both arguments are present in antique Greek philosophy as well, highly influential at least for the Christian and, later, enlightened perspective. Plato (348/7–228/7 BC) argues in Phaidon that suicide is like deserting the flock without allowance of the herd. He draws on the property argument (“Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we men are a possession of theirs”; Plato 2006, 62b) as well as on the providence argument (“Then, if we look at the matter thus, there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me”; cf. 62b, c) in order to justify his position. Unjustified suicide shall also imply bad conditions of the person’s afterlife in the realm of the dead (afterlife argument). Basically, Plato’s arguments against suicide are powerful due to his claimed reasonable acknowledgment of an immortality of the soul, allowing for the afterlife argument: A non-granted suicide will change the afterlife’s conditions to the worst. This will be a powerful Christian argument as well: God will punish suicidents in their afterlife (see also: the cosmic order will bring about lesser reincarnations if you kill yourself in an unseemly manner).

(d) The natural or cosmic law argument claims that suicide stands up against the law as laid out for us in this reality/cosmos. This argument does not necessarily need a transcendental entity; it could refer to an evolutionary nature as well (natural law, tian). It is nonetheless a typical religious argument (see above). It is present in Augustine of Hippo’s (354–430) claim that suicide violates the divine commandment “Thou shall not kill,” since one kills a person (oneself). And it is explicitly given in Thomas Aquinas’ second argument against suicide, claiming that suicide violates the order God established for the world. This argument is the fundament of both the property and providence argument, since both arguments are undergirded by the claim of a higher (divine) order established by this higher (divine) creator in the moment of creation (giving our life to us).

All three arguments were refuted by David Hume (1711–1776) during early Enlightenment, at least from a philosophical perspective. The natural law argument is circular reasoning, since “there is no being which possesses any power or faculty, that it receives not from its creator” (Hume 1995, #5). It could not be otherwise if we agree that “human life depends upon general laws of matter and motion,” whether given by God or not (#4). Consequently, the property argument is difficult to adopt as well, since the received ability to kill oneself necessarily includes the liberty to dispose of one’s earthly body, even if this body would belong to God (see below for the sanctity of life argument). Furthermore, the providence argument is not convincing, since every spontaneous action (including all kinds of inventions) must be in accord with providence; hence otherwise the office of providence would not be complete and continuous (#4–#5). Therefore suicidal behavior must be an integral part of the life laid out for the pertinent person. Hume ends up in debating the problem of the “divine sign,” which was the crucial challenge regarding all suicidal affairs for Plato and Paul, early Christians and Orthodox Jews. He argues that every hopelessness and desperation could be taken as such a “divine sign”: “Whenever pain or sorrow so far overcome my patience, as to make me tired of life, I may conclude that I am recalled from my station in the clearest and most express terms” (#5). To summarize, the traditional arguments against suicide – including their ideas of exceptions – are both dependent on personal belief and circular reasoning (petitio principii).

Conceptual Clarifications/Definitions

Suicide And Parasuicide

Suicide means intentional self-killing (for old Greek: sui, self; cedere, to kill). Intentional selfkilling can be performed by a great variety of behaviors (more “active” and more “passive” ones) but always involves actions by the relevant person displaying a direct and short-term connection between her intentional behavior and her death.

Suicide or better attempted suicide is often distinguished from so-called parasuicide. Parasuicide uses suicidal behavior as a gesture, urging others to help and rescue the suicidal person. Hence parasuicide is usually a “cry for help” (Stengel 1961). Suicidal behavior without intention to die can be lethal, too, although usually rather noneffective (“soft”) methods of suicide are used compared to more harmful and effective (“hard”) methods. Hence, from a suicide prevention perspective, all suicidal behavior should be taken seriously. There is ongoing debate from a suicide prevention perspective, whether this distinction is relevant or not.

Suicide And Self-Awareness

There is no suicide without self-awareness. In order to have the behavioral option to kill oneself, one needs to be aware of oneself in two ways: (a) consciousness about oneself and (b) consciousness or knowledge about one’s mortality (Fairbairn 1995, p. 73f; Schlimme 2013). These reflective qualities of suicidal mental life do not imply that the suicidal person could not be able to kill herself without musing elaborately about her own mortality in that very moment. It is a well-known fact that people often report to have tried to kill themselves impulsively and without giving it elaborate consideration or having explicitly ambiguous second thoughts in the very moment of doing it. Yet, it is nevertheless a necessary condition to be aware of one’s mortality in order to have this option of intentionally killing oneself, whether in an impulsive or an elaborately planned way. In other words, the option of suicide cannot be given without the reflective discovery of this behavioral option as a possible behavior for oneself. This usually takes place between the 10th and the 14th year of age and can, e.g., be lost in severe dementia.

Conceptual Clarifications Of A Definition Of Suicide

Against the first notion that the definition of suicide as intentional self-killing is rather precise, there is an ongoing debate whether such a definition is sufficient or not (Cholbi 2012). The concept of “intentional self-killing” does indeed require some clarifications:

(a) Suicidal behavior may not lead to one’s death, but is suicidal behavior nonetheless because death was intended through one’s intentional action. In this sense, suicide can be attempted but fails.

(b) Parasuicidal behavior may lead to one’s death, but is parasuicidal behavior nonetheless because death was not intended through one’s intentional action. In this sense, Fairbairn argues that suicide is “intentional rather than consequential in nature” (Fairbairn 1995, p. 58).

(c) If taken this way, “intentional” requires a non-coerced intention. In other words, “intentional” should not simply mean a self-consciously set-out goal for one’s behavior and the decision which behavior is suited in order to achieve this goal, but it should imply that setting out this goal was a “free” decision of this person as well. If “free” means freedom from outer restrictions and coercions, i.e., by other persons, then suicide would require the negative liberty to kill oneself if one wants to. If, however, “free” would mean freedom from inner restrictions and coercions, suicide would only be suicide if the decision to kill oneself is fully autonomous. It is highly questionable if the latter does even occur.

(d) However, psychological analysis of the suicidal state of mind (see below) reveals that suicidal persons are usually highly ambivalent regarding their intention to kill themselves and that their major motivation is not to die, but to escape from an unbearable mental condition (including their situational circumstances). If taking this point into account, suicide is not about intentional self-killing, but about intentionally escaping from an unbearable condition by the only way left from this person’s point of view, that is, escaping from life. A meaningful definition of suicide would then be: Suicide means “intentional escaping from an unbearable life.”

However, such a definition ignores that the suicidal person is well aware that her suicide may not necessarily lead to another life or the kind of life that such would be as well as the death which ensues from the suicidal act. It is indeed this fact that shapes suicide as a last rescue option. Furthermore, the escape intention is not already saying anything about concrete behavior. Consequently, a merely intentional definition of suicide is not sufficient. On the contrary, it is relevant that the intention of escaping from an unbearable life is pursued by the act of self-killing. Every definition of suicide must take into account the idea that suicide is basically about action.

As can be seen, a close conceptual analysis of suicide leads us to fundamental topics involved with the human behavior of suicide from a philosophical point of view. These topics concern freedom of the will (as regards setting out the goal of escaping unbearable life by means of killing oneself) and freedom of action (as regards the liberty to pursue one’s set-out goal to escape unbearable life by means of killing oneself). Both topics culminate in the following questions:

Under which conditions is suicide morally justified?

Under which conditions is prevention of suicide morally justified?

Under which conditions is assisted suicide morally justified?

The Ethical Dimension Of Suicide

The Suicidal State Of Mind And The Medical Argument Of Mental Illness

The term “suicidal state of mind” refers to those mental conditions in which a person thinks about killing herself and plans and prepares to commit suicide. To put it simple: People usually think about suicide when in a desperate state of mind. The suicidal experience is basically the experience of desperation plus the knowledge of suicide as one’s last option to act in an effective way with respect to changing or altering one’s feelings (one’s desperation). Desperation, in the sense used here, does not simply mean emotions. It is, in fact, affecting all (active or passive) levels of mental life (i.e., both her pre-reflective valuations and perceived behavioral options as well as her reflective evaluations and behavioral possibilities; Schlimme 2013).

Especially during the last hundred years, the suicidal state of mind has been object of scientific investigation, mostly driven by suicide prevention intentions. A great variety of psychological theses regarding the suicidal state of mind has been proposed. While no single model may paint a sufficient picture of the suicidal state of mind, they nonetheless display more or less adequately how a suicidal person feels, why she is motivated to put herself to death, and why she probably performs suicidal behavior. The first methodological investigation of the suicidal state of mind was however performed by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) (1992, p. 11f and p. 66ff). Although Kierkegaard was basically a religious thinker, he delivered exquisite descriptions of the desperate state of mind. He pointed out that the desperate person is well aware of her helplessness to cope with her desperation in all other regards (p. 12 and p. 66). This feature of suicidal mental life has received different terms and concepts in psychiatric and psychological models (i.e., “narrowing,” “hopelessness,” “psychache”; Schlimme 2013).

While the desperation of suicidal persons has been highlighted in psychological models, there is nonetheless another side in the suicidal state of mind as well: the “hopeful quality” present in the option of escaping one’s unbearable life through putting oneself to death. Kierkegaard was well aware of this attractiveness of one’s death. Typically, positions claiming a right to kill oneself focus on this aspect of suicide (see below). Different manners of how suicidal people experience (value), or (prospectively) judge, their own suicide can be distinguished: as a “relief,” a “remedy,” or a “rescue” (Schlimme 2013).

The Janus-faced state of a suicidal mind corresponds to the oftentimes highly ambivalent interactions and behaviors of suicidal persons. This ambivalence seems moreover to be a stage in the suicidal process. According to Pöldinger, suicidal people usually live through at least two different stages before deciding whether to attempt suicide or not: (a) a stage in which the option of suicide is discovered and finally accepted as an option and (b) a stage in which the person constantly evaluates her life situation and behavioral options and seesaws between voting for suicide and further endurance of her seemingly unbearable life (Pöldinger 1982). The last stage is the phase after deciding to kill oneself, which usually corresponds with a sudden calming down of the suicidal person (like the quiet before the storm).

The medical perspective draws on the qualities of the suicidal state of mind, namely, the desperation of the suicidal person. The well-known facts that altered moods, delusional beliefs, and impaired cognitive abilities fuel desperation undergird the medical (psychiatric) argument that suicide comes about in phases of mental illnesses (medical argument of mental illness). And indeed, surveys demonstrate that roughly 9 out of 10 suicides are taken out while suffering from mental illness. A closer look reveals that this argument has two parts:

(a) The fact that mental illness implies passively suffered alterations of one’s perceptions, evaluations, and thoughts. This influence challenges the notion that the intention to kill oneself is rational. The person might be influenced by a depressive mood, implying negativism (i.e., a non-intentional selection of negative attributes of oneself and negative/catastrophic outcomes of everything that can come to pass). Therefore the mentally ill person decides to suicide under coercion. She is not free due to “inner restrictions” impairing the rationality of her decision. This first part of the medical argument could be called the “argument of passivity.” However, while this argument might be taken as a strong argument against the moral justifiability of suicide and has indeed been used in this rather general manner, it is relevant to realize that mental illness cannot in itself be an argument against the rationality of a given decision. On the contrary, it merely points out that the moral justifiability of a suicide decision is, at least from a modern or postmodern vantage point, dependent on the rationality of the concrete decision in the given situation.

(b) The fact that persons with mental illnesses, whether induced by substances (i.e., severe alcohol intoxication) or not, get well again and that others can assist and support recovery. Suicidal ideation during mental illness is typically a sign of a severe and critical illness episode and often lasts only for hours. During those episodes suicidal behavior can be performed impulsively, calling the decision’s rationality into question. Typically, the suicide decision in this very moment during critical mental illness might be rejected by the same person only hours later. This temporary character of the suicidal crisis supports the medical argument of mental illness, claiming that the suicide decision might only hold temporarily and is hence not serving the person’s best interests. This part of the argument could be called the “argument of temporariness.” Both arguments are important to justify paternalistic interference (see below).

From a philosophical point of view, it is important to guard against arguments regarding the three relevant moral questions drawn simply from the suicidal state of mind. Although the suicidal state of mind is an important venture point for arguing in a given case of intentional self-killing, it is nonetheless necessary to distinguish between the motivation for a certain intentional behavior and moral arguments regarding this behavior.

Actual Deontological Arguments Against Suicide

Drawing on the abovementioned three classical (religious) arguments against suicide, two deontological arguments remained after an enlightened critique: the sanctity of life argument and Kant’s argument of a moral duty against oneself as ambassador of mankind.

The sanctity of life is an enlightened version of the property argument, since it does not rely on a divine entity or creator. A fundamental heteronomous quality of human life itself cannot be denied: Life is a given. From this fact of being given stems the notion of a “sanctity of life,” entailing an inherent value of one’s life and a call for reverence and respect from others and oneself for oneself. This implies that, since we are not able to give life to ourselves, we are not allowed to end our life. Consequently, suicide is forbidden since it negates the inherent value of one’s life itself (sanctity of life argument). Since the fact of being given cannot be denied, this argument can be adopted from religious as well as nonreligious points of view. Nonetheless, it is typically connected with religious beliefs in divine entities (i.e., God), usually serving as givers of oneself (property argument). It can also be connected with the metaphysical idea of a “natural law” serving as a nonpersonal giver (natural law argument) and a “divine order” given by a creator in the first place (providence argument).

While the later arguments must face Hume’s critique, there are also major difficulties with the sanctity of life argument (Cholbi 2012):

(a) Moral positions should be consistent. Since the sanctity of life must be granted to every human being, killing of another person is forbidden, even in case of self-defense. Even more problematic could be a position that claims sanctity of every kind of life (i.e., the principle of nonviolence ahimsa in Jainism), typically implying a thoroughgoing pacifism.

(b) The notion of an intrinsic value of life implies to keep alive even in the most horrifying situations (i.e., endless torture) or to endlessly sustain biologically alive bodies of persons with verified whole-brain death. If life is not taken as intrinsically valuable, this does not imply that life is valued as worthless. On the contrary, as Peter Singer argued the value of life is given extrinsically due to its intrinsic feature of being qualitative (Singer 1993). Quality of life is assessed from the first-person perspective regarding external features (i.e., future prospects, resources). It is an evaluation performed by each person herself. Singer’s position argues (following the principle of maximizing well-being/happiness) that in case of an assessed low value of one’s life, including negative future prospects, suicide may be justified. Taken that persons are interested in a high quality of life, this position claims that suicide may serve the person’s best and dearest interest. However, assessments of quality of life are individual, hence highly controversial and difficult to define in a general manner (see below authentic suicide).

(c) Since living human beings are the embodied medium of the intrinsic value of life, it could be argued that suicide is not calling the intrinsic value of life into question, but that the relevant person judges other values to be more important (Dworkin 1993). Basically this position claims that the sanctity of life is a relative (“interpretive”) moral principle, comparable to other values as well. Suicide decisions are hence never easy and often resemble a dilemma, implying that even an idealized judge could not come up with the one and only valid (“right”) decision. This argument claims that life itself is not the highest value but can be compared with other values even though these other values are given for this person only in life itself (see below the Kantian argument against suicide). A similar position could be argued drawing on Mengzi’s argument cited above, since he rather compares two different ways of living with each other: a righteous versus a non-righteous way of living.

Another version of a deontological argument against suicide calls on our duties toward ourselves as human beings. From this vantage point, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that “the first duty of a human being against himself in his quality of animality is self-preservation in his animalic nature” (Kant 1968, p. 421). Kant is not claiming that this duty stems from some obscure drive of self-preservation. On the contrary, it is supposed to be a rational insight flowing from correct application of an inquiry of moral maxims (categorical imperative). For Kant it shall be a contradiction in terms (oxymoron) that the intention to kill oneself nullifies the fundament of this volition. Furthermore, Kant proposes a division of the person into a reasonable being (homo noumenon) and a bodily being (homo phenomenon), connected by a living trust relationship (Treuhandverhaltnis) of the homo noumenon for the homo phenomenon. However, both points are not really convincing (Birnbacher 1990). If, however, the living trust relationship (Treuhandverhaltnis) between reason (mind) and body would be taken as eternal, then a contradiction in terms would indeed be given. Kant himself proposed this way out as handwritten comments in a personal copy of his Metaphysics of Morals demonstrate (taking it as a regulative idea). However, with this turn Kant’s argument is back in circular reasoning and subject to Hume’s critique.

From a philosophical perspective deontological arguments are unable to principally argue a duty to stay alive under all conditions. Even if one accepts an intrinsic value of life, it is reasonable, at least from a philosophical point of view, to take it as only one value beside others, implying a moral (evaluative) conflict (dilemma) which indeed seems to be given in a suicidal state of mind. Furthermore, some philosophical positions argue that the moral evaluation does not compare life and death, but merely different ways of living even though one of these ways leads to one’s death.

Social Arguments Regarding The Morality Of Suicide

Human beings are living in families, communities, and societies. Insofar, each behavior has a social dimension. Consequently suicide might affect one’s moral duties against others (i.e., loved ones, community) or against the state one lives in. Basically, two manners of relation can be given: Suicide can violate these moral duties or these moral duties can oblige one to suicide. Both manners of relation between a human being and its state have, for example, been discussed in ancient Greece. While the moral duty to suicide is usually embedded in the necessity to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of the state, or for the sake of maintaining its order (cf. Greek tragedies), the first relationship is classically argued by Aristotle (384–322 BC). From his point of view, suicide is a premature and, therefore, irrational behavior “against rational (correct) reasoning” (Aristotle 2006, 1138 a9–14). Since the state’s task is to promote rational behavior (from which a good life flows according to Aristotle), its laws forbid suicide.

Let us first consider social arguments of a duty to suicide. Especially military groups and armies might request potentially self-killing behavior from her members (suicide squad). However, it can be argued that life-risking behavior which intends to save or protect others should not be addressed as suicidal behavior (Cholbi 2012). Getting killed in action can therefore not be taken as suicide without an explicit statement of the pertinent person. Nonetheless, suicide might even be integrated in military tactics, as, for example, in ancient China General Sunzi (between 534 and 453 BC) did or as certain terrorist groups are doing at the beginning of the twenty-first century (i.e., suicide bombing combined with an eschatological interpretation of martyrdom). From a philosophical perspective, these examples point out the dilemma of external coercion. In a totalitarian social system, others can indeed be able to coerce someone into actually taking his life “voluntarily” (Battin 1994). Such a situation seemed to be given in Japanese culture during the shogunate periods (twelfth to nineteenth century). For certain (highborn, military) classes a highly ritualized suicide, called seppuku in man and jigai in woman, was both a right AND a duty in certain situations in order to keep up their and their family’s honor. Being part of their way of living, the pertinent persons prepared themselves for this last honorable act during lifetime and were indeed unable to suspend this supervised and well-prepared act (including hours, days, or weeks of mental preparation depending on the situation) in the case of given social obligation. The necessity for seppuku or jigai was typically given by command of one’s lord (daimo) or cesar (shogun), resembling death penalties, or by loss of combat, possibly facing death anyway. However, deliberate and voluntary decisions on the basis of an internalized coercion due to growing up in a highly rigid social system permitting (or even demanding) suicide under certain conditions, drawing on soundly considered arguments and culture-specific values for this behavior, are difficult to reject as nonrational decisions from a philosophical perspective. Therefore, as a utilitarian argument could claim, it might be socially more prosperous to morally forbid suicide than to live in a society that permits suicide under certain conditions (Battin 1994). All debates on permitting suicide, euthanasia, and assisted suicide face this dilemma, usually put forward in the manner of a slippery slope argument.

Most philosophers argue that a moral obligation to kill oneself under certain conditions does not agree with the principle of autonomy which could be brought into play as argument of self-property. This is an important argument in the debate on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, since otherwise other persons could determine the moment of one being killed for certain reasons. Moreover, even a permission to suicide might especially affect vulnerable persons (adolescents, marginalized persons), resulting in a higher suicide rate in certain populations and raising the issue of equality and social justice. However, if suicide is permitted under certain conditions in a society, the pertinent person can expect noninterference from others (according to the moral principle of autonomy). She might also claim support from others in her suicidal behavior (according to the moral principle of care and welfare). Suicide assistance should be a voluntary act by the assistant and can, of course, be abused (Battin 1994). If a society intends to offer suicide assistance, it is indeed the crucial dilemma that it should be a best practice (i.e., regarding painlessness) and that practitioners must be kept from abusing and manipulating potential clients (Cholbi 2012).

Suicide might also harm one’s moral duties toward others. Suicide causes distress, anguish, and a highly difficult bereavement process for suicide survivors (especially family members and loved ones). Besides mental harm, one’s suicide can cause economic or material harm too (i.e., loss of financial support for dependents). From a strict utilitarian perspective, these harmful effects of suicide must be weighed against positive effects for the suicidal person (i.e., escaping an unbearable life without – subjective or objective – hope to change it to the better by any other means). Anyway, these social arguments can neither justify a moral obligation to stay alive nor to kill oneself. On the contrary, from this perspective suicide is morally an indifferent act whose moral evaluation depends on the actual situation and mental state of the suicidal person (i.e., socially isolated elderly male person with severe physical disabilities versus socially integrated mother of young children in excellent physical condition).

Social arguments against suicide might draw on one’s obligation to contribute to one’s community (society, state) welfare. Hume refuted this argument: “A man who retires from life does no harm to society: he only ceases to do good; which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind” (Hume 1995, #6). Nonetheless, one could argue that a community has a right to benefit from the special talents and labor force of each member, drawing on the reciprocal structure of the relationship between a person and her community (Cholbi 2012). However, as Hume argued the reciprocal structure is an obligation “to do good” to each other. Therefore even small benefits for a person outweigh small harms for her community (Hume 1995, #6–#8). Hume furthermore constructs ideal cases in which all social arguments against suicide fall away: “But suppose that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of the public; suppose that I am a burden to it; suppose that my life hinders some person from being much more useful to public” (#6). From this philosophical perspective, suicide would be permitted and could even be positively connoted, if one is socially “worthless” in the abovementioned sense and has already substantially contributed to one’s community welfare. Again we face the slippery slope of an imagined culture that would cease to take care of the elderly, disabled, or marginalized, opening debates on equality, social justice, and social welfare (Birnbacher 1990; Battin 1994; Cholbi 2012).

From a philosophical point of view, social arguments can neither argue a duty to stay alive nor a duty to kill oneself. Two moral principles (namely, autonomy and welfare) are involved in the complex arguments weighed with each other. If we take into account that many suicides might lack both elaborate deliberation and support by sound arguments (i.e., fuelled by negativistically mistaken future prospects) – even though a period of evaluation took place – a (public) duty to prevent such irrational acts of others in one’s community can be claimed (at least, if someone cares, as it should be the case in a community). While verbal interactions (i.e., calling on the person’s good senses) are easily justifiable, physical restraint even for a short time (hours) requires sound arguments (i.e., medical argument of mental illness combined with social arguments drawing on the principle of welfare). On the other hand, deliberate suicide, supported by a rational line of argumentation, could at least claim noninterference or even assistance from others. Morally spoken, suicide is taken as an indifferent act whose moral quality is dependent on a variety of individual circumstances and conditions and the rationality of its justification.

Can Suicide Be Authentic?

If suicide as an indifferent act is morally justified according to the rationality of its justification, undergirded by its specific conditions, then it could be suspected that a fully rational suicide is possible. Rationality in the fullest sense would expect fixed conditions under which one’s arguments are brought into play. However, two imponderables are given in the moment of suicide: (a) Since human beings can have no proven knowledge of death from a first-person perspective, comparisons between life and death are necessarily irrational, and (b) one’s future prospects are not ultimately fixed. Suicide negates this openness, even if the remaining period of time is rather short (i.e., a person with a mortal physical illness) or a change of course is highly improbable (i.e., a person facing her death penalty after rejection of a death row pardon). Usually, however, the openness of one’s future is far greater even if one suffers from unbearable mental illness. Consequently, a fully rational suicide is difficult to argue for, or justify.

Rationality of one’s decision to suicide must hence stem from a rational comparison of two different manners of living (see above, Mengzi) under the imponderable condition of a principal future openness. On this basis five conditions can be defined as prerequisite of a rational decision: (a) an ability for causal and inferential reasoning, (b) a realistic (socially shared) worldview, (c) adequate information relevant for one’s decision, (d) dying that enables one to avoid future harms, and (e) dying that accords with one’s dearest and most fundamental interests (Battin 1994). While the first three conditions might be impaired due to mental illnesses, although this need not be the case, the latter two conditions are proposing a fundamental interest of human beings to live a good life. The avoidance of future harms is, however, a personal assessment open for influence from internal (i.e., a pre-reflective negativistic selection of future prospects due to one being severely depressed; Schlimme 2013) and external coercion (i.e., facing unjustified harm from others; see above). Given that all four conditions are met, the last condition is the crucial one and calls for an authentic decision (i.e., called for by the Stoics; see above, Confucianism). The claim that suicide can be an authentic decision has frequently been argued by philosophers in modernity (Birnbacher 1990; Battin 1994). However, since retrospective reevaluations are impossible, every suicide remains at least minimally insecure regarding its authenticity.


The moral evaluation of suicide is often problematic since different arguments, drawing on the moral principles of autonomy and welfare, must be weighed against each other. Impairments of this evaluation process, as can be given by mental illness (“inner coercion”) and by external coercion (basically calling the classification of the behavior as suicide into question), may qualify the suicide decision as irrational. Such a nonrational suicide can expect to be prevented according to social arguments drawing on the moral principle of welfare with or without external restraint (strong versus weak paternalism). A fully rational suicide is principally impossible (justified belief is neither possible regarding one’s future nor regarding one’s condition after this life). Nonetheless, an authentic suicide displaying a rational justification (as rational as possible) can be given. Such a suicide can expect noninterference (strong paternalism) or even assistance (weak paternalism). However, since the arguments and values involved in the evaluation process are chiefly depending on the involved persons’ assessments and dearest interests, the evaluation of a single suicide is individual and cultureand community-dependent. Hence evaluations can face a moral dilemma, implying that a “right” solution might not be found or not be agreed on in the relevant community.

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