Duty to Survive

I’ve often noticed the contempt people express for those who kill themselves, but have been struck by its restriction to the abstract. In other words, you hear people condemning “people who commit suicide”, but rarely do you hear them condemn a particular person for the act.  Perhaps this is merely a reflection of social tact, but I am inclined to think otherwise. I am, in fact, more inclined to think there is something fundamental that people tend to leave out of their considerations of the matter, which becomes inseparable from this fundamental element when engaged in the particular. Thus, I will here set out to argue (realizing the sensitivity of the issue) that suicide is not wrong.

Arguments Condemning Suicide

The argument I hear most often goes something like this: the death of someone you care about is emotionally damaging, most people have at least some people who care about them, therefore (for most people) suicide is a selfish and wrong act.

Counter Argument

Now, as is perhaps obvious when the argument is laid out this way, there seems to be a logical leap from the premises to their conclusion. The basic inference seems to break down to this, ’emotionally damaging someone is selfish and wrong’, but this inference doesn’t account for the particular circumstances of suicide cases. In other words, suicides are typically prompted by great emotional upheaval, which can be translated to an ’emotional damaging’ of the self. Thus, by telling people that they are wrong to kill themselves, we are effectively ordering them to submit to emotional pain. One makes a decision when he/she commits suicide to burden others in order to release oneself, but is this wrong? It is surely admirable to altruistically bear that emotional burden, but it seems odd to say that doing the opposite is actually contemptible. Granted, at this point the discussion is perhaps too nebulous and abstract; after all, perhaps it would be contemptible if there is a sufficient disparity in the right way between cases. For instance, enduring an insult from a local villain so that your family isn’t tortured seems to be something one would be morally bound to do, whereas  relieving your emotional burden by spitting on the villain at the risk of your family’s safety would seem contemptible. But, it is possible to at least vaguely quantify the difference in damage between one who kills one’s self and the damage to those who care about him/her. This can be done very simply by an observation of key behavior, namely to what degree did the person react to the emotional pain. Of course, in all cases the one in question reacted by going as far as to kill him/herself in order to escape the pain, whereas cases of those who care about the person actually killing themselves upon hearing the news are exceedingly rare. Therefore, the emotional burden that is released by the suicide seems to be significantly greater than the new burden lain upon those who care about the one who killed him/herself. One might object here by saying that the emotional pain of the one who commits suicide is only temporary (given modern therapy), while the pain that suicide inflicts is permanent. However, therapy is hardly the magical cure that people suppose, in fact unmedicated therapy is largely unsuccessful in extreme cases and self-managed therapy can often become an endurance test. Additionally, the damage inflicted on relations can be potentially healed as well, probably far more easily than that of the person who killed him/herself.

Conclusion

The usual argument that suicide is wrong seems to fail. There may be more air-tight arguments that I haven’t encountered, but due to that fact they obviously can’t be explored here. Finally, I should clarify (for the distracted reader) that I am not attempting to advocate suicide, but am rather attempting to defend the morality of those who commit it. In other words, I am merely saying that it isn’t wrong, which isn’t to say that it is necessarily right (as in admirable).

Posted in Legacy.

3 Comments

  1. I tried to be objective while reading this. Suicide is a very tough issue. I myself have had 3 relatives and a friend commit suicide; my sister-in-law attempted it. So it’s hard to be objective…but I’m trying.

    A more air tight argument against suicide may not exist, I suppose. But I’ve noticed that where one suicide occurs, another in the same family is fairly likely – if not right away, then down the road. Many times the suicides result from imbalances within the person passed down through family lines. For example, if depression is hereditary, it may be so bad in a particular family that several members commit suicide over time. The emotional strain of having one suicide in one’s family or aquaintance is bad enough, but compounded with others that follow suit can be emotionally debilitating. Yes, those who die are relieved, but is it really worth the pain the living must endure?

    In cases where an individual realizes the pain others will have after their death, is it acceptable for them to go through with their actions? I think of it like this: if you are being tortured in a prison and you are given the option to leave, but the cost is that your fellow prisoners will be perpetually tortured instead, is it “not wrong” for you to leave? It’s definitely not admirable…and I think most would venture to say it’s wrong to foist your misery on others simply to alleviate your own mind.

    Your argument that suicide isn’t wrong is moot, I think. What benefit is there in intellectualizing such a painful ordeal?

  2. Nikki, while mindful of your nearness to the issue, I would like to clarify a few points here. Firstly, the relevance of hereditary depression is a bit obscure to me; you seem to be suggesting that one who commits suicide should account for the possibility of compounded emotional damage via relatives who follow suit, but this would entail a part taking responsibility for the whole. Secondly, your torture analogy (though well taken) ignores my specification of degree of damage. Thirdly, your claim that most would say it’s wrong, is the very claim that I presuppose at the outset of my post (I am able to do this because it is a mere appeal to popular opinion). Lastly, the truth value of my post should dictate the guilt one who prepares to commit suicide feels, which wouldn’t be moot to those who do so. I realized there might be comments such as yours, given the sensitivity of the issue, and I don’t mean to undermine the feelings you or anyone else have. However, since this is a philosophy database (despite its size), I feel obligated to keep things grounded logically.

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