Suicide Justifiable Only in Narrow Circumstances

NOTE: This post deals with suicide committed by people in reasonably good physical health and even likewise good mental condition (see * for explication of the latter), in other words “Ordinary Suicide”. It does not deal with physician-assisted suicide or any other issues typically surrounding the “Death With Dignity” movement. Those issues are outside the scope of my reasons. For the record, I have no problem with physician-assisted suicide committed just before the patient or otherwise incapacitated person is unable to add anything substantively new to the lives of their family and friends (or even what they can add to their family ‘s and friend’s lives does not justify the suffering and/or self-assessed indignity they are going through).  Also, though I certainly would not encourage it, I would not condemn anyone for committing suicide when placed under highly agonizing emotional stress, especially when in their state of mind they have lost all hope of their circumstances getting meaningfully better.

*Brilliant pupil’s ‘logical’ suicide – News – The Independent

Reasons I favor discouraging most suicides

Basic reason: we have a duty to prevent suffering of others that is pointless, avoidable, insufficiently compensatory, and serves no higher purpose beyond our own self-interest. To deny this opens the door to justifying anarchy (not in the political science sense, but in the sense of no-rules lawless dog-eat-dog free-for-alls).

Suicide usually violates this duty in the following ways.

*Whatever gains the suicidal person would make for him/herself are more than offset by the amount of anguish and suffering their family and friends would be forced to endure. In short, net suffering in the world increases while there is no increase in net pleasure.

Related to this…

*Suicide denies others your future suffering prevention/reduction efforts.

Suicide denies your support to others (individuals or groups) who are fighting the same practices and acts you oppose. Supporting these groups and denying support for the thing you oppose is much more effective than simply ceasing your support than the thing you oppose (e.g. buying “Sweat Free” clothes AND ceasing purchases of sweatshop-made clothing is more effective than merely ceasing purchases of sweatshop clothing. Same thing for “Fair Trade” ™ products and products produced by slave or semi-slave labor). The same principle applies even to smaller-scale matters (but no less real ones) that won’t come even close to making headlines.


Objection 1:The individual’s rights trump those of other people’s.

That claim opens up a lot of ethical problems; and as I will soon explain, opens up the door to anarchy or nihilism. If we may pursue our own interests even when it likely will cause for others anguish levels typically experienced when a close one commits suicide, then it’s difficult to see how we can censure people who pursue their interest when the consequences for others would almost certainly be less anguishing (e.g. pilfering small amounts of money or other things from their close ones, verbal abuse to them, spreading rumors or other embarrassing private information about them, other acts that highly embarrass the family or friends). This even includes acts unmistakably illegal yet still almost certainly less anguishing to others than a close one’s suicide would be (stealing $1000s of cash or property from them, whiskey bottle to their face in anger, major white-collar crimes, etc).

It does no good to say these examples are acts by one person against another whereas suicide is only an act against one’s self. It doesn’t matter who the direct recipient of the act is. All that matters is that an act is committed and it causes great degree of anguish to others. To say we shouldn’t discourage an act due to how anguishing it might be to others is to deny the very basis for having ethics/morals (however you distinguish between them), formal rules, and even formal law codes in the first place. After all, if a hard punch to your face not requiring medical attention did not emotionally disturb you in some non-trivial way, then it would be difficult to see any point in having laws forbidding this act against you or others. This seems to support the idea that an act’s tendency to cause non-trivial emotional disturbance in others is a good reason to forbid it on at least ethical grounds to the extent that the person is honestly able to resist it.

I’m not saying attempted suicide should be illegal, for governments are meant to regulate direct acts between individuals that do not affect the wider society as a whole (a suicide may deeply affect one’s immediate social circle, but not the society as a whole). Besides, legally enforcing anti-suicide laws would divert so many resources from preventing acts more harmful to society as a whole that society would suffer more from such rigid enforcement of any suicide laws that may be on the books than it would from simply decriminalizing suicide, however tragic and anguishing that act may be for the immediate social circle of the suicide.

Nevertheless, despite that we should discourage suicide for the reasons I gave above, I do not judge harshly anyone who does indeed commit or attempt suicide. Sometimes the pain of the moment can be so severe and/or frequent for a person that they cannot think of anything other than an immediate escape from the severe short-term anguish they experience. Instead, people with suicidal tendencies should be sent to psychological counseling and/or hospitalized, depending on the exact circumstances of the situation.

The most people who call for no moral/ethical restrictions against suicide proved is that we should treat suicidal people and incidents on a case-by-case basis. Even in this case I do not favor any encouragement or even lack of discouragement to commit suicide, for it is extremely likely that one’s self-death both causes more anguish in others than the suicide prevents for the suicide him or herself and it denies others future suffering prevention efforts. Given the above, it is difficult to conclude that suicide, whatever benefit may come to the person because of it, does society as a whole more harm than good – even if the harm does not rise to and/or impact on areas of law and criminal justice.

Objection 2:  There is no social contract among individuals and certainly not one that offers us benefit equal to what it demands of us

Merely being a conscious individual does, in fact, obligate us to unspoken but obviously present code of conduct to (at minimum) not cause harm to each other, at least not without a very compelling reason to do so – with or without laws and other formal rules. Even assuming this is necessarily a subjective matter, the fact remains that we all have obligations to consider how hurtful would be the consequences of our acts for others before we actually commit them. If you doubt that such an unspoken but present social contract exists, then what else justifies the social shaming of people who publically make obviously contemptuous remarks about people who are of certain race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? This is beside the other acts that are extremely to cause harms less intense than those typically generated by one’s suicide.

As for the benefits of living among others being equal to what they demands of us, it depends on how you define benefit, which inescapably is at least partially subjective. Even in this case, we still are obligated to not commit actions that create more net harm to all (i.e. “net negative benefit”, if you will), whether to ourselves or (perhaps especially) to others. If no such obligation exists, then why have any moral rules, codes of conduct, ethics, or even formal laws at all?

Objection 3: It is selfish for family and friends to insist that the suicidal person stay alive just for the sake of not putting them through anguish, especially if the suicidal person him or herself is going through great anguish.

See response to Objection 6 for specifics. Beyond that, the response to Objection 4 also covers this.

Objection 4: If I commit suicide, family and friends will eventually get over it, but if I don’t I may be ongoingly depressed and never recover. If you want to look at it mathematically, which of those appears to have a larger negative value?

As I stated, both 3 and 4 go together to a great extent, so the reader may treat this response as a large part of the response to 3 as well.

First, to the last sentence. Obviously there’s a certain subjective element in this matter.  Nevertheless, people (and social scientists) can predict pretty accurately how at least 90% of people will react in a given situation in very similar circumstances.  Certainly one can plausibly predict how their family and friends would react to any one type of occurrence within certain circumstances.  In fact, the whole credibility of sociology, psychology, and allied fields ultimately rests on the assumption that we can, in fact, predict how people will behave in certain situations.  Given all this, regardless of how subjectively pain and suffering are, we nevertheless can go beyond mathematics and judge suffering levels qualitatively.  So despite that we cannot judge suffering levels with mathematical precision, we can judge reasonably well the qualitative elements of how strongly an act can affect others.

What this means is that we can plausibly predict how at least our family and friends would react were any of us to commit suicide for reasons well outside those usually brought up by the “Death With Dignity” movement.

Back to the first line, “get over it”.  This implies that any act, no matter how egregious, is ethically permissible so long as the person hurt by the act is able to emotionally recover from it (i.e. “get over it”).  By that standard, it is all right for a ten-year-old to steal money from a classmate’s bedroom or give a student on the playground a “wedgie”, based on the assumption that they will get over it in a few years at the very most.  The same goes for a complete stranger calling a “provocatively” dressed 19-year-old female a slut or whore. After all, she is likely to get over it as well.  When all is said and done, the “get over it” line amounts to little more than blithely handwaving away the feelings of others, no matter how painful or how long in duration, when deciding to say or do something.  Again, if “they’ll get over it” is a legitimate defense even in matters that are likely to cause intense pain and long-lasting (if not lifelong) anguish, then there is no reason to have any kind of moral rules or formal laws against any acts at all.

As for “ongoing depression”, this again is a subjective judgment.  Despite this, in our day and age, there are many medications and counseling techniques that can relieve the burden caused by depression, PTSD, etc.. Therefore, I find suicide even less justifiable today than thirty years ago, at least not without trying every readily available technique or drug that holds meaningful promise of managing, if not controlling, the depression or other highly negative mental states.  Also, to be clear, I did not say that we should endure all kinds of pain no matter what.  What I do mean is that we do have an obligation to endure as much pain as we can to the best of our own inner strength before committing any act that causes great and grievous harm to others.  That’s a long way from saying we should simply endure any act no matter how painful or anguishing for the sake of others.

If my point is still unclear, perhaps an analogy may help. At some risk at offending combat veterans (given I’ve never been in the military, much less experienced combat), I offer the following. Imagine that during a firefight with about 30 or so heavily armed insurgents, about 3 or 4 soldiers are cut off from there rest of the unit. The soldiers are forced to take cover in a small store. A few insurgents manage to throw 2 grenades and a Molotov cocktail into the building, the resulting flames trapping the soldiers inside. They soldiers themselves know that, cut off from their unit, they have no chance of escaping the store alive and in fact judge it very likely they’ll be burned alive.

Personally, I believe the soldiers should fight the insurgents so long as they are able to escape the flames and avoid significant smoke inhalation, although I do think it unreasonable to insist they endure being burned alive as a result. As such, I think it reasonable for the soldiers to kill themselves as quickly as possible with their own firepower if the only alternative is to endure the almost literal Hell of being burned alive, even if by staying alive they do kill a few more insurgents. As such, if the suicidal person feels the psychological equivalent of being burned alive, then I have no objection to their suicide. Even so, I think suicidal people still have a duty to revisit their evaluations just to make sure you haven’t missed some important element before they commit the ultimate act.

If they did think long and thoroughly about the net harm vs net benefit to others and yourself and still decided to end it all at whatever time you have in mind, more power to them and in fact, I commend  them for it. Even so, IF they did their best possible analysis, that still implies – regardless of their final calculation – that they have at least some degree of belief in the duty to others I described above (“pointless, etc”).

Objection 5: Suicide intrudes into one’s private life. It’s not anybody else’s business if someone commit’s suicide

Sometimes our private lives and thoughts sometimes do impact on others, especially if we publicly express them or act upon those thoughts. So there are limits to this “not intruding into others private life”. Intruding into someone’s pain and private life is legitimate if they seem likely to act in ways that are hugely detrimental to others physical or psychological well being. Otherwise the whole notion of outside intervention to prevent that person from hurting others would make no sense (other example, someone obviously in need of anger management training); this in addition to the already-mentioned acts that every society clearly deems well outside the bounds of proper human behavior.

Objection 6: A person’s natural death still greatly affects family and friends anyway, so why not die by suicide right now if that person wants to die now?

Actually, suicide committed outside health reasons is likely to create more anguish in loved ones than would that person’s natural death – even after taking into account health reasons. An person whose elderly parent dies peacefully after a few months illness is much less anguishing than losing a perfectly functional young adult and especially a juvenile. At most, it’s debatable even among the experts whether suicides are no more anguishing than natural death. Me, as someone who lost both my grandparents AND both my parents within a 12 year period, I can assure you that as sad as it is to lose loved ones through natural causes, it would have been much more anguishing had they died while in perfectly good health through suicide. If you’re still not convinced, the following articles on the ncbi server should give food for thought. They are only abstracts from published research papers (except the .au one, which is a PhD thesis, and long). This seriously undermines your assertion to the effect there’s no difference in grief between natural death and a suicide.

Grief shortly after suicide and na… [Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2006] – PubMed – NCBI

Effects of loss from suicide, accid… [Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2007] – PubMed – NCBI

Suicide survivors’ mental health a… [Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2008] – PubMed – NCBI

The grief experiences and needs of bereaved … [J Affect Disord. 2002] – PubMed – NCBI…D01?sequence=2…D01?sequence=2

Again, the most those saying it’s OK to commit suicide for reasons NOT related to reasons not in Death With Dignity Acts of various states is that we should such things on a case-by-case basis. Here, this means that suicide should be the absolute last card to be played, when it’s impossible to endure one’s pain and torment any more (or when whatever good you can give to your family and friends does not justify your remaining in this realm). It certainly is not a license to go willy-nilly about individual rights and not give a damn about how greatly grievously our own acts can negatively impact on others.


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