Whether and when we enter this world is decided not by, but for us. Nor is it up to us to decide when to leave it. Most of us would like to stay longer than we are allowed —but our lifespan is ordained by forces beyond our control. We are quite resigned to this; however, when we become greatly impaired and life no longer holds much promise, some of us think of shortening it and of asking others to help if necessary. Is that legitimate? Are there serious moral objections?
In the past, the usual lifespan was brief and illness often ended it abruptly. The old were honored largely because they were so few. We live longer now, and death is likely to approach gradually, depriving us of our abilities one by one, until we sink into incompetence and finally unconsciousness. This has made shortening life more tempting. Yet most people feel that they ought to be no more responsible for their death than they were for their birth. Religion and tradition also tell us that we ought to wait patiently for our end and always try to postpone, never to advance it. The medical profession sees this as its main task, and most non-physicians as well think it presumptuous to engineer death ourselves. It might be premature in any case: unforeseen good things may still be in store. No animal commits suicide, and our animal instincts oppose it. Thus we are resigned to a natural death, the date not chosen by us, or known in advance.
But instinct, religion, and tradition do not always prevail. There would be no problem if they did. Suicides do occur, even though most people look upon them with horror, as an aberration explainable only by madness. Indeed, there frequently is a mental disorder; but not always. And the assumption that mental disorder ipso facto must be the cause of suicide conveniently avoids moral problems that ought to be addressed.
The pre-Christian ancients, perhaps with the exception of the Stoics, did not favor suicide. But they opposed it only mildly, thinking it reasonable at least in some situations and obligatory in others. However, the Judeo-Christian religion fervently opposes suicide, although there is no scriptural warrant for this opposition: the Bible nowhere condemns suicide. Yet the traditional opposition seldom is questioned even by those alienated from tradition. It rests on the belief that God created us in His image and endowed us with many abilities, including free will. We are the Creator’s creatures. He gave us life—and He alone has the right to take it. We do not. “Thy will be done.”
Under certain circumstances, others may lawfully and with divine sanction kill us, but we never are allowed to do so ourselves. Life is a gift from God, and it would be irreverent and impious to throw it away. Above all, our life is not ours to dispose of We are but stewards entrusted with God’s property. In some ways this view makes life appear as though a prison. God holds the key, and we are morally bound to stay until released. In due time He will let us out, to go to heaven or to hell. Meanwhile, attempts to escape by climbing over the walls are illegitimate and sinful and will be punished accordingly. Yet we did not volunteer for life. Whether we can legitimately volunteer for death is the problem—at least for the non-religious.
Philosophical arguments against suicide are neither cheerful nor persuasive. Aristotle thought that in many ways we are creatures of the communities that reared us and have a duty to live so that we may contribute to them. This is an uncommonly weak argument. It would follow that, should we become a burden on the community, suicide would become legitimate, perhaps even required. (Aristotle does not draw this inference.) Further, whatever the community did for us, we never volunteered to join it and to become obligated to live when we no longer want to. In modern times, involuntary obligations are always questionable, although most people recognize some such obligations, e.g., to their parents. An involuntary natural obligation to live may be analogously constructed. We also may be morally obligated to obey laws for which we did not volunteer. But laws prohibiting such things as murder or fraud protect us from one another, whereas the prohibition of suicide would protect us from ourselves. This does not seem to be called for. It is unclear to whom the obligation to live is owed and how it is justified. Aristotle further thought that suicide violates “right reason” and therefore is “unjust” toward nature and the state. Plato, too, opposed suicide without offering much of an argument. He writes, “A person who kills himself [is] violently robbing what fate has allotted,” without bothering to argue the authority of fate. Why must we obey it when we can do otherwise?
John Locke decided that we own the product of our labor because “even,’ man has a property in his own person” and, therefore, in whatever he produces. It would be a small step to infer that, since we own ourselves, we can dispose of ourselves and decide whether to live or die. Property’, after all, is the right to dispose of what one owns. But, being a good Christian, Locke did not take this step. We remain God’s creatures and owe a duty to live the life God gave us. “Everyone is bound to preserve himself and not to quit his station willfully.” In effect, we don’t fully own ourselves (contrary to what libertarians believe) but merely are in (temporary) possession, tenants on God’s property.
Immanuel Kant opposed suicide as a violation of the duty to live. He thought we owe this duty to ourselves. But a duty owed by and to ourselves is not very different from a debt owed by and to ourselves—which we can always forgive. Actually, since the debtor and the creditor are the same person, no debt is really owed to anyone by anyone. To say that we owe a debt, or a duty, to ourselves means no more than that we feel we ought to do (or not to do) something. It adds no argument, only emphasis, to that feeling, while suggesting that an independent argument has been added. In the words of Thomas Hobbes: “He that can bind can release; and therefore he that is bound to himself only, is not bound.”
The notion of a duty owed to oneself also may envision a split in the self between a part to which the duty is owed and the part owing it. Such internal conflicts do occur (without them psychotherapists could not make a living). Quite possibly, conscience (or our long-term interest) wants one thing and the pleasure-seeking part of the self another. Still, the duty to which conscience calls us is always a duty either to others or to some moral idea which we have accepted. Kant thought that our duty is to reason. (But he did not show that suicide is irrational.) The obligatoriness of the duty depends on the moral weight of its demands, not on its being a duty to oneself And Kant did not actually offer a convincing argument for the duty to live.
Arthur Schopenhauer did not think highly of life. He was convinced that the suffering it brings exceeds its pleasures. (He did not tel) how he measured and compared.) Since desire brings suffering in excess of the pleasure of fulfillment, Schopenhauer felt that we should strive for desirelessness, as he believed Hindus and Buddhists did. Thus, by avoiding life (for to avoid desire is to avoid life), we would avoid suffering. One might think that Schopenhauer would justify suicide, but he actually opposed it as an illegitimate means of achieving desirelessness. Buddhists thought that suicide would only bring reincarnation, not Nirvana. Schopenhauer’s arguments seem unusually murky here. But one must remember that, by justifying suicide, philosophers would place themselves in an awkward position: they would have to justify staying alive while arguing in favor of being dead if they argued that suicide is obligatory, or even desirable. Schopenhauer preferred to make it attractive (or to make life unattractive) but futile. Among major philosophers, David Hume was alone in thinking suicide legitimate. He has remained alone.
Few people want to commit suicide and every effort should be made to dissuade them, for their wish may be temporary. However, if they are altogether resolved, they cannot be prevented at length from carrying out their intention, and if they are mentally competent, there is no justification for thwarting them. There is no justification either for denying help to those who, although mentally competent, are physically so disabled that they need and request help to end their life. Their wish for ending their life is more intelligible than that of others. But no excuse is needed from a secular viewpoint. It is your life to end or to continue.
Why do so many people insist that suicide always ought to be prevented even when preventing it prolongs the hopeless suffering of incurably sick persons? Why does suicide horrify people? Chaste persons not only abstain from illicit sex, but also usually think that those who do not are morally wrong (or at least weak) and should be prevented from doing what they want. That is also how people who want to live feel about people who want to die. Could it be, then, that we feel that those who do not act according to the survival instinct we all share are, as it were, traitors to fife, quitters who give in to a temptation that must be shunned, even though (or perhaps because) it is felt at times by nearly everyone?
Murdering others is wrong and a crime because it takes the life of those who were entitled to live and did not want to die. But suicide ends the life of a person who no longer wishes to live. He obviously consents to taking his own life, or to having it taken. What makes killing others wrong, what makes homicide murder, is lack of consent. Consensual intercourse is legitimate, but non-consensual intercourse is rape and a crime. The law acknowledges the difference which consent makes with regard to sex (and to property) but ignores it with regard to homicide, including assisted suicide, perhaps because consent cannot be valid if (as religious dogma asserts) we don’t own ourselves; more likely because consensual intercourse (or property transfer) is common, whereas consensual homicide certainly is not.
We all have an instinctive wish to continue living. But instincts leave us some choice, allowing reason to direct our actions, sometimes in defiance of our instincts. Unlike animals, we have a choice, and can act according to our moral norms. Yet the prevailing hostility to suicide and its infamous reputation have led our society to cruel and immoral policies. We threaten to punish anyone, including physicians, who helps another to end his life.
There are clangers in legalizing assisted suicide or euthanasia, mainly concerning competent and informed consent. But these dangers can be surmounted by appropriate precautions. Once we discard the presumption (actually a circular definition) that all persons bent on suicide ipso facto are insane, we have to make sure that those requesting assistance are mentally competent. Some objectors insist that this can never be reliably ascertained. This seems absurd. Laymen as well as psychiatrists are quite capable of distinguishing persons of sound mind from others who, temporarily or permanently, are not. Were it not so, valid contracts or wills could never be made, and no business could be done. It is bizarre to argue that we can distinguish the sane from the insane except when it comes to people who wish to die. The possibility of abuse which bedevils all human practices can never be eliminated altogether, but safeguards can minimize abuse. To argue that physicians, once they are authorized to help those who request help to end their life, would also shorten the life of people who wanted to live is no better than arguing that once physicians are authorized to amputate diseased limbs, they will amputate healthy ones as well. No slope is that slippery.
Why does suicide have such a bad reputation? It defies what we instinctively feel and want to believe: that life is always worth living, whatever the circumstances. It seems to reject life itself and thereby to breach the solidarity of the living. Without this solidarity, there can be no society. Human solidarity, cultivated by religious, political, and educational institutions, takes many forms. But those who breach it by suicide are always seen as renegades. They used to be ostracized even in death. Plato urged that they be interred in “isolated” graves. In the Middle Ages, they were denied consecrated ground, and a stake was driven through their hearts. Yet some cultures have made allowances for suicide. It has not endangered their societies. Suicide is not infectious (despite occasional imitations), and it is unlikely ever to become popular enough to endanger any society. Nothing is lost, then, if we stop hindering or prohibiting assistance. Something is gained. We will, at last, allow individuals to control their lifespan within the boundaries set by nature, and we will reduce or eliminate the immense undeserved suffering to which hitherto we have sentenced so many innocent people.