Suicide and Rationality
Donnelly (John)
Source: Donnelly (John) - Language, Metaphysics and Death: A Metaphysical Reader (First Edition)
Paper - Abstract

Paper StatisticsBooks / Papers Citing this PaperColour-ConventionsDisclaimer


Full Text

  1. A major concern of contemporary epistemologists (of whom Roderick Chisholm is an exemplar) has been the problem of the criterion1. The puzzle is as follows: there seem to be two basic epistemological questions, namely, (A) What do we know? and (B) How are we to decide whether we know?, or What are the criteria of knowledge? Traditionally, three philosophical stances can be assumed toward these queries. The Skeptic argues that the answers to either (A) or (B) are mutually reciprocal, so that, given this interdependency, we can have no knowledge whatsoever. The Methodist, traditionally an empiricist, opts for (B) as the means finally to solve (A). But Chisholm (I believe correctly) argues for the Particularist position, maintaining that we first answer (A) and then establish an answer to (B).
  2. Needless to say, Chisholm has provided valuable spadework on this interesting epistemological turf with his development of various systems of epistemic logic. Quite obviously I shall not be concerned with the merits of any such system in this paper; rather, my purpose is to borrow some proffered epistemic locutions from Chisholm's book The Problem of the Criterion and apply them to a topic of considerable importance in the practical sphere, namely, suicide. Working with the primitive concept of "epistemic preferability" (which Chisholm maintains embodies an objective relation independent of the personal predilections of the subject), Chisholm offers among others the following epistemic rules: (a) P is evident to S at t provided believing P at t is epistemically preferable for S to withholding P (e.g., On a sunny day, the proposition "it is sunny outside" is evident to a normal observer); (b) P is presumable for S at t provided believing P is epistemically preferable for S at t than S's believing not-P (e.g., that "I will not be poisoned by my food at tonight's dinner" is a presumable proposition); and (c) P is unreasonable for S at t provided withholding P is preferable for S at t than believing P (e.g., the proposition "All politicians are inherently honest" is [sadly enough] unreasonable).
  3. My intention in this paper is to apply some of the Particularist's insights (i.e., those core beliefs of common sense) to a matter of considerable practical importance—suicide. Despite Camus' deification of suicide2 as a (the?) legitimate philosophical (and thereby presumably rational) option, a particularist framework would suggest that suicide not be a legitimate philosophical alternative, and accordingly judge such acts irrational and/or arational on an epistemological level, and possibly immoral and/or amoral on an ethical level3. In short, if the proposition P in question is "Suicide is not philosophically justified," then my thesis will be that such a proposition is at worst presumable and at best evident, but in all cases its negation is unreasonable.
  4. The systematization of epistemic concepts usually proceeds in a context of formulating a viable theory of empirical evidence. Accordingly, my claim in the above paragraph should be qualified inasmuch as my paper will attempt to rule out any personal justification of suicide on logical as well as on empirical grounds. In short, in the language of the problem of the criterion, my thesis is that we know (as an article of commonsensism) that suicide is not rational, and my aim is to uncover the philosophical reasons why we make such a knowledge claim.
  5. I fully realize that my claim that suicide is not rational is bound to strike many philosophers as obviously false and naive. I would hope that no reader or commentator characterizes my position as "the Catholic view" or "the Conservative view," although the latter caricature does not really disturb me, albeit my conservative outlook is more realistic than optimistic. If there is an official, communally received and accepted Catholic view on any subject of moral importance today (and I am not sure it is at all obvious that there is), then doubtless with regard to suicide it is the view of Thomas Aquinas. However, I believe the usually astute Aquinas offered a woefully inadequate defense of the unreasonableness of suicide. Aquinas basically suggested that suicide could not be justified philosophically because it was (1) contrary to nature; (2) harmful to the community; and (3) a violation of that love of self which leads one in Locke's words not "to quit his station wilfully."
  6. Since my thesis that suicide is not rational is not tied to any historical figure or school, I shall not comment at length on the Thomistic stance. Suffice it to say that point (1) is questionable in light of Freudian views on the unconscious and clearly self-defeating (for St. Thomas if true) for it would rule out celibacy as well; point (2) is obviously false in most instances whether one be a consequentialist or not; and the last point simply begs the question.

    Section I
  7. One of Wittgenstein's many contributions to philosophy was to conceive of philosophy as having a decidedly therapeutic function. Despite some unfortunate cases of suicide in his own family and some personal attempts on Wittgenstein's own part deliberately to take his life, it strikes me that a worthwhile way to demonstrate philosophical therapy is ironically enough to analyze the issue of suicide and dispel its alleged justification. We are told by many philosophers today, especially the existentialists4, that suicide (what Kant termed "the intention to destroy oneself") is a noble activity, well worth the serious consideration of those so inclined. Indeed, such a panegyric is not confined to continental writers. David Hume, for example, spoke of suicide as "laudable":

      That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question who allows that age, sickness, or misfortune may render life a burden, and make it worse even than annihilation.... both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence when it becomes a burden5.
  8. It seems fair to say, then, that many modern writers have suggested the possibility, indeed even the viability, of a philosophical justification of suicide. To be sure, the practice of suicide permeates widely diverse categories such as nations, races, and age-groups, as witnessed by its high incidence in Sweden, Hungary, West Germany, among American Indians, and college students. Sociological data which would suggest that suicide is not widely practiced can be deceptive. Humanistic considerations for the dead and the deceased's family, understandably enough, often cause medical examiners to list genuine suicides as accidental deaths. This practice of coroner's reports has reached peaks of morbid, comical absurdity as in the case of an English coroner's report that described the "accidental" death of a man who just happened to shoot himself while cleaning the muzzle of his gun with that most efficient feline cleansing device—his tongue6! Euphemisms also abound when it comes to suicides, as attested by the use of such expressions as "removing oneself from life," "saying `nay' to one's existence," "passing away by one's own hand," "authentically terminating one's existence," etc. However, no matter how widespread suicide is as an empirical practice, I nonetheless wish to challenge its alleged philosophical legitimacy, for if I am not mistaken, acts of suicide are irrational at worst, arational at best. That is, propositions of the form "Suicide is the rational action for a person to perform" are, I want to say, in the language of the problem of the criterion neither evident nor presumable. In short, careful heed to the logic of suicide will show, I believe, how both language (especially in section iv) and logic have gone on holiday for those who attempt to justify such an act. I would warn the reader that in sections vi and vii of this paper, I am far less sure of such a bald claim that suicide is not rational. Philosophical caution advises me to base my case on sections iv and v, but I will venture to disregard this admonition and press on with my thesis in sections vi and vii.
  9. It should be underscored that my inquiry is not concerned per se with the (ethical) issue of whether suicide is right or wrong, but rather whether it is rational (justifiable) or not. However, if the moral ascriptions of "right" and "wrong" to various actions are in order, then it seems to follow that the agents who perform such moral acts are responsible for such acts, and consequently responsible for the supervenient moral evaluation involved. But, inasmuch as responsible acts are also rational acts, then it would seem that, if I am successful in making my thesis hold, I may also be obliquely arguing a case for the (moral) wrongness of suicide. That is, given this somewhat Aristotelian conceptual framework, if an act of some significance is irrational (unreasonable), then it is also irresponsible, and, assuming it has some bearing on ethics, it is also an immoral act. If this point is correct, then, at least from a deontological standpoint, acts of suicide are morally blameworthy, although, to be sure, there are gradations of moral blame. Quite obviously, from a teleological standpoint, such acts could still be judged as morally praiseworthy. If my thesis can only support the weaker claim—that acts of suicide are arational—then, again, such actions are not responsible, and accordingly not assignable moral credit (at least from a deontological standpoint). Wittgenstein, in a tantalizing cryptic saying, put it well:

      If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin7.
  10. It is here necessary to add the important qualification to the above that, even if suicide can be established as non-rational, and indeed immoral as well, it does not necessarily follow that the suicidist is blameworthy, because his objectively wrong action ex hypothesi may be excusable—for example, he may be adjudged temporarily insane as specified in the M'Naghten and Durham rules.
  11. What I have just said, nevertheless, needs to be taken with a fair amount of caution. The term "responsible" is clearly equivocal. Under a normative interpretation of the term, "responsible" is more properly an attribute of the action itself and not of the agent who performs the action. To say of an action X that it is a responsible action is to ascribe right-making characteristics to it. To say of an act Y that it is an irresponsible act is to ascribe wrong-making characteristics to Y.
  12. But the term "responsible" also has a metaphysical interpretation. Here "responsible" is a predicate of the agent, and not of the act itself. We speak of A as responsible (accountable) for X or Y in circumstances C if A freely chose to do X or Y, when A could have chosen to do otherwise in C.
  13. In light of this equivocation, we might note the following: (a) An action could be a responsible one (in the normative sense) even if the agent was not responsible (in the metaphysical sense) for bringing it about. Also, (b) an agent could be responsible (in the metaphysical sense) even if the act brought about by his choice was wrong (and hence not responsible in the normative sense). Accordingly, the locution "responsible acts are also rational acts" is usually true in the normative sense of the term "responsible" (on the assumption that the performance of a good act is ideally the rational thing to do), but quite often false in the strictly metaphysical sense of "responsible," for an agent voluntarily and intentionally could perform a deed which is not rational.
  14. Of course, just because in a normative sense of "responsible," "responsible acts are rational" may be true, it hardly follows that all rational acts are responsible (i.e., an agent acting quite rationally could bring about an evil action) in a normative sense. But to say "responsible acts are rational" does seem to imply that all non-rational acts are non-responsible, in a normative sense.
  15. One lesson to learn from contemporary work in epistemic logic is that even our basic epistemic terms are not purely descriptive, but instead embody normative features as well.

    Section II
  16. Contemporary work in philosophy of mind is fraught with debate between materialists and non-materialists. Some philosophers argue that the experience of psychological states is nothing but a series of cerebral events, while others attempt to effect a program of logical behaviorism to eradicate deceptive psychological statements that purport to describe an elusive, ghost-like realm of inner, private processes. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, the dualists strive to show the falsity of such reductive materialistic programs, and thereby in turn develop a defense of man as a psycho-physical being. My aim in this paper is not to discuss the relative merits or debits of such opposing conceptual frameworks. Indeed, I believe that my claim that suicide is not a rational activity can be sustained on the assumption of the truth of either a materialistic or non-materialistic schema. If I am correct, then philosophers are surely mistaken in arguing that what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.
  17. Before defending my thesis, however, it will be necessary to clarify some fundamental terms. Is death a univocal concept? Is suicide a univocal concept? Indeed, what exactly is meant by the terms "suicide" and "death"?
  18. Suppose we consider the term "death." I believe that the concept of death is clearly equivocal as outlined in (DI) and (D2).

      (D1) Here the term "death" refers to the strict materialistic view to the effect that death marks the irreversible cessation of the life processes. Given this conception of death, death is the end of life, the total annihilation of all life processes. Such a conception rules out any form of post-mortem existence. I shall henceforth refer to this sense as death1.

      (D2) Here the term "death" refers to the non-materialistic view to the effect that death is but an event in life and not the extinction of life. Much as the patient who receives sodium pentathol undergoes only a partial extinction of the life processes, so too on such a conception of a person's death, despite bodily cessation, a mental remnant will survive in some form of post-mortem existence. I shall refer to such a sense of death as death2. I fully realize the many difficulties attendant upon such a concept as death2. Some philosophers argue that the concept of death2 is meaningless. Others raise interesting logicometaphysical puzzles concerning the description of such a post-mortem world, as well as questions concerning the personal identity of soma pneumatikon, the issue of resuscitation or reconstitution on a theistic resurrection-world model, doubts as to whether parapsychological data cannot he interpreted purely naturalistically, and not merely as confirmatory evidence for some transcendental realm, etc.
  19. Moreover, if death is an open-textured concept, so too is the concept of suicide. I propose that we distinguish two senses of the term "suicide" which, logically distinct, are often interwoven in the at-times-complex decision procedure to commit an act of suicide.

      (S1) Here the term "suicide" describes an action which is egotistical in nature, so that the act of a person's taking his own life is performed primarily in order to satisfy certain basic needs, goals, desires, and purposes of a selfish sort. Any act of deliberately taking one's own life with such a motivational component I shall label an act of suicide1.

      (S2) Here the term "suicide" describes an action which is altruistic in scope, so that the act of a person's taking his own life is performed primarily in order to bring about some achievement of the basic needs, goals, desires, and purposes of others. Any act of deliberately taking one's own life with such a motivational component I shall label an act of suicide2.
  20. It might be contended that the concept of suicide2 under either death1 or death2 is a muddle, that the concept of altruistic suicide is incoherent. Suicide2, this objection maintains, is heroic action, however rational or not, and hence not properly labeled suicide. I believe my remarks in sections vi and vii will somewhat dispel such an objection, although I confess to having considerable reservations with regard to my denial of such an objection. However, much as there is a fine line between the colors blue and green, yet blue is not green, so too the genuine difficulty of demarcation with regard to suicide2 and heroic action does not necessarily obliterate the distinction. I would underscore, though, the factual claim that most suicides offer impressive psychiatric evidence of being properly classified as suicide, and I feel fairly confident about my arguments against the rationality of egocentric suicide under either death1 or death2 in sections IV and V.
  21. Lastly, I shall use the term "suicide" to refer to a specific action whenever the following conditions are satisfied: S performs an act of suicide X provided S directly and deliberately wills, either through his own causal efficacy or that of others, that his life be totally or partially preternaturally extinguished for reasons of an egoistic and/or altruistic sort except in cases where: (1) S can only preserve his life by performing a morally dishonorable act where such an act is adjudged dishonorable by anyone who is willing to take the moral point of view, and/or cases in which (2) S is in a state of terminal illness such that without extraordinary (artificial) medical apparatus S would die in a rather brief period of time.
  22. Quite obviously the moral point of view is a somewhat fuzzy concept. However, I use this expression to refer to anyone who reaches an evaluative judgment by being impartial, conceptually clear, factually correct, willing to universalize, etc.
  23. I am assuming that the mode of committing suicide is inapposite, it making no major (or minor) philosophical difference to my argument whether the suicidist takes his life by such self-imposed methods as hanging, slitting his wrists, taking an overdose of pills, knifing, drowning, etc. I believe that a similar irrelevance, although less obviously, applies to a description of the circumstances surrounding the act of suicide. That is, from an epistemological standpoint the context surrounding the act is topic-neutral—we have a case of suicide whenever such a definition is satisfied—albeit, from a moral standpoint, there are surely important gradations of moral blame depending on the description of the circumstances surrounding the act. That is, we tend to be lenient in our ethical judgment concerning, say, an oppressed ghetto mother who takes her own life, while we do not ordinarily hesitate to admonish the conduct of a Hollywood starlet who frivolously commits suicide. It might also be noted flint such a definition of suicide has the effect of stressing the importance of a person's inner life, which sociologists (such as Durkheim) tend to neglect often in classifying all instances of "death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself which he knows will produce this result8" as suicidal. The absurdity of such a sociological account is easily demonstrated by noting that if the sociological hypothesis were true, then, from the truism that any intelligent person recognizes he is closer to death each passing second of his life (the existentialists speak of persons as "beings-toward-death"), It would be appropriate to conclude (with the manifestly absurd statement) that we are all suicidists (in some tenseless sense)!
  24. Some philosophers, such as Jacques Choron, have suggested that euthanatic suicide as a proposed solution to escape a prolonged but impending death has a different logic than suicide, or suicides as proposed solutions to escape it miserable life. "Considering suicide the wrong cure for the ills of living does not necessarily exclude the possibility that it may be the right cure for the ills of dying9."
  25. To be sure, I do not think that all cases of suicide are cases of euthanasia, nor do I think that all cases of euthanasia are arational at best, irrational at worst. I do however think that such epistemic appraisals hold of suicides1 and suicides2 (as I will attempt to demonstrate), where these cases properly involve actions and not just events—that is, where we are dealing with the concept of Bilanzselbstmord, "balance-sheet suicide."
  26. The German word for suicide (Selbstmord, "self-murder") raises many interesting questions concerning the semantics of suicide which I will have to pass over in this paper. However, let me at least raise the basic linguistic puzzle connected with the use of the term Selbstmord. Why is it most people are reluk tant to call suicide "self-murder" (the German notwithstanding)? In a case of intentional and voluntary but indirect suicide, that is, a case in which A asks 11 to kill A and B does kill A, B is labeled a murderer and A is not. Note that If A asked B to kill C and B did kill C, then both A and B would be labeled murderers. Since it is not part of my paper to label suicidists as murderers, I suggest that the discrepancy just noted is due to the fact that murder, unlike homicide, involves the willful violation of a person's right to life, and, since the suicidist consents to have his right to life so abrogated, it is not murder.
  27. Choron also suggests that there are few balance-sheet suicides, whereas there are many "rational suicides," where this implies "not only that there is no psychiatric disorder but also that the reasoning of the suicidal person is in no way impaired and that his motives would seem justifiable, or at least 'understandable' by the majority of his contemporaries in the same culture or social group10."10 Unfortunately, Choron's distinction (between balance-sheet suicides and rational suicides) has the infelicitous consequence of equating the term "justifiable" not so much with the concept of rationality, as with the concept of understandability. But surely, I may understand how a person was driven to suicide, but nonetheless find that person's action unjustified!
  28. Moreover, where a proposed case of euthanasia satisfies, as many do, my definition of suicide outlined in this section (cf. "living wills"), then Choron's distinction (between euthanatic suicide and suicide proper) marks no de facto difference. That is, given the existentialist's sense of the person as a being-toward-death, then surely our contingency is apparent, so that even suicide may be described as a response to the ills of dying as well as to the ills of living. It may be true that the right to die is as inalienable as the right to life, but the exercise of it (in committing suicide) is, I believe, not as rational.

    Section III
  29. Given the preceding terminological equipment, any thesis which wishes to maintain that suicide is irrational (or at best non-rational) must analyze the attempted lines of justification for the following four possible types of suicide.

      Case 1: Suicide1, under death1,
      Case 2: Suicide1, under death2
      Case 3: Suicide2 under death1,
      Case 4: Suicide2 under death2
  30. Again, before proceeding to an analysis of each of these cases, it needs to be emphasized that my definition of suicide in section II can recognize mixed cases of suicide in which the motivational component is simply not just primarily egotistic or altruistic. Nonetheless, what holds for each of these cases also holds, I believe, for any combination of these cases.
  31. The delicate epistemological issue as to how one ascertains the inner episodes of a person's state of consciousness (in the case of a suicidist, his prior intendings, motives, deliberations, etc.) I shall here pass over. There is no need for such a psychological autopsy, given my forthcoming arguments in sections IV—VII. Also, in claiming that acts of suicide are arational at best, irrational at worst, I do not mean to suggest that all suicidists are deranged. Surely, one can voluntarily and intentionally bring about a particular action that is unjustifiable, without being neurotic or psychotic.

    Section IV
  32. Cases of suicide1 under death1 typically involve a person whose fortunes are at an all-time low. Every attempt to rectify his plight ends in further humiliation, frustration, and eventual depression, and each new crisis suggests no way out except suicide. On the brink of such an act, some philosophers would argue that the agent in question could justify his contemplated action by arguing that "I would be better off dead than alive" or something similar, such as "I will take my life and finally attain some consolation in death." But this type of reply is senseless inasmuch as it presupposes that a corpse can be the subject of various psychological predicates. To be sure, it makes sense to attribute various physiological properties to corpses—we can speak of "the remains" as weighing two hundred pounds, being located on a metal slab in a mortuary drawer, emitting an offensive odor, etc.—but it is nonsensical to say "this cadaver is at peace with the world," etc. Dostoevsky had it wrong, then, when he claimed that without a theistic concept of death2 being operative, suicide was an "inevitable necessity for any man who, by his mental development, has even slightly lifted himself above the level of cattle." Accordingly, the defense of suicide, under deaths discussed so far is simply a muddle. I might quickly add that not all existentialists shared Dostoevsky's view. Sartre, for instance, wrote that "suicide is an absurdity which causes my life to be submerged in the absurd11."
  33. Undaunted, our would-be suicide victim might try to avoid the above counter by arguing "It would be better if I were dead," and thus avoid the charge of attributing a psychological state to a cadaver. But the question now arises: "Better for whom?" And the answer is obvious: "Me, of course!" But again, albeit somewhat more deviously, this leaves us with the indefensible position that death, a non-state, is a state, having certain assignable psychological characteristics. There can, of course, be third-person ascriptions of psychological states to a person who has died in this strict sense of death,, viz., "he is better (or worse) off dead than alive," etc. But the latter statement interpreted either as a distinctly moral judgment (i.e., "His action of committing suicide was the right thing to do") or as an epistemic claim (i.e., "His action of committing suicide was the rational thing to do") is, I believe, false. However, interpreted to read "He is happier dead than alive," it is not just false, but meaningless.
  34. To avoid the blatant logical howlers contained in the above attempted justifications of suicide1 under death1, we might test the explanatory possibilities of a more sophisticated description of a suicide attempt. Consider a prisoner of war who is not only incarcerated but about to be subjected to a brutal torture. The captors inform the prisoner of what lies in store for him, namely, how a particular punishment will be administered over an extended period of time until he reveals some desired military secrets, or, should he not so confess, how he will be killed at the end of the designated torture period. Suppose it is also the case that both the captive and his captors know that the secrets in question are a matter of public record, so the captured soldier realizes that this is all a cruel hoax—for the enemy intend to kill him anyway at a certain date. Surely, the defenders of suicides under deaths might argue, it would be a paradigm case of rational action for our prisoner to commit suicide as soon as possible (i.e., conveniently enough, he has a capsule containing potassium cyanide lodged In his dentures). To make the case more difficult, let us suppose that our prisoner makes no attempt to justify his conduct by arguing "I would be better off dead than alive" or some such variant locution. Instead, he opts to commit suicide under no such pretensions. Would not our captive be justified in committing suicide? It is important to note that the situation before us is a different one from that described in the preceding two paragraphs. Whereas the two previous attempted justifications ended in the obvious muddle of talking of death, as a state which is a non-state, as an experienceless episode which is experienced (even for the better!), the present attempted justification can meaningfully employ the concept of death, to serve as a limit which acts as an ordering function to guide our conceptual endeavors. James Van Evra writes: "The significance of the limit is not as something independently real, but as an operational device12."
  35. Despite this prima facie evidence, I believe that the contemplated action would be nevertheless not rational. For one, it is a somewhat dubious hypothesis to argue that pain is cumulative over time, such that a person would be better off killing himself at t than at t + n. Returned Vietnam prisoners of war offer elaborate psychiatric evidence to the contrary, where the will to live was made bearable (and in some instances actually strengthened) by excessive torture. It is also interesting to note that the rate of suicide was extremely low in Nazi concentration camps13. Secondly, it might very well be a poor inductive risk to commit suicide in such a situation, for the captors may have a change of heart and end their malicious frivolity, or they may themselves be captured by the enemy, etc. Lastly, and more importantly, if our prisoner in such a situation is faced with a choice between undergoing torture for a certain amount of time and then murder, or taking his own life by biting his teeth into a capsule and being poisoned, then it might be replied that the choice confronting him is not truly a "live option" (no pun intended). In which case, it may be simply a case of recalling that not all choices involve free acts, for some choices, as in this case, are compatible with coercion, and so are more properly described as events rather than actions. But a veridical instance of suicide involves an action and not an event. R. F. Holland writes: "Taking hemlock does not, in the context of an Athenian judicial execution, amount to slaughtering oneself: in this circumstance it is no more an act of suicide than the condemned man's walk to the scaffold in our society14." One needs to be reminded that statements of the form "I wish that death might come" or "I hope to die soon" do not necessarily entail "I opt for suicide."
  36. Suppose the situation described by suicide1 under death1 involves the case of an artist who has exhausted all his creative energies, and who now (correctly) Perceives himself unable to continue living the distinctly human lifestyle he has led in the past. Suppose, to make matters worse, he is a famous sculptor who as a result of an auto accident has had amputated both his arms. Undaunted in his choice to commit suicide, he says neither "I will be better off dead than alive" nor "It will be better if I were dead." Also, unlike our captive, the artist is confronted with a live option. Rather he concludes "It is false that I will be miserable when dead" if I commit suicide (whereas he is sure to remain miserable in his current ante-mortem state deprived of his artistic abilities).
    Now, "It is false that I will be miserable when dead" implies "I will be non-miserable dead." But being non-miserable is either a state of the artist at death (and hence a contradictory predication), or the artist is opting for nothing over something.
  37. But why would one choose nothing over something? To say "I just would" is no justification at all, and at best makes the artist's choice for suicide arational. For the artist to reply "It is better for me to opt for nothing" again leads to a contradiction, namely, that a state of non-being is a state of being, that nothingness is better for me!

    Section V
  38. Having found no justification for suicides under death, let us turn to consider the case of suicides under death2. The typical situation here involves a person about to commit suicide for various prudential reasons of a self-centered sort, and who is such that he believes in some form of post-mortem existence. To begin with, this proffered justification can take a few different stances.
  39. Suppose the would-be suicide victim views death2 under a non-theistic interpretation of the post-mortem state. Such a non-theistic dualist could argue, so it would seem, that it would be the rational thing to do in his oppressed situation to extinguish his bodily processes so that his true self could find unhindered joy in the post-mortem state of disembodied existence15. Quite obviously, no charge of logical contradiction can be adduced against such a suicidist, for he makes no attempt to ascribe psychological states to a cadaver. However, the notion of disembodied existence16 is fraught with philosophical difficulties (the concept of the soul as the repository of certain psychological factors is replete with difficulties concerning identity/individuation)17 to such an extent that, if Aquinas Is correct in claiming anima mea non est ego, then it is simply erroneous to believe that the prudential considerations motivating the act of suicides will be satisfied under a non-theistic view of death2. [Cf. Philosophical Investigations #281: "... only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; Is conscious or unconscious."] How can a person be relieved of his misery in the post-mortem realm when the disembodied18 existent that survives is not he? Moreover, the contents of such a post-mortem state would be principally experiences of memories and acts of imagination, etc. But the memory of the ante-mortem life which drove the man to attempt suicide is sure to prove just as recalcitrant in the post-mortem state. Accordingly, it seems presumptuous to believe that the suicidist would be better off in the post-mortem realm. At worst, he (it?) would be less well off, and at best, he (it?) would be no better off.
  40. On the other hand, death2 under a theistic interpretation involves the institution of divine retribution, so that the suicidist would in all likelihood be far worse off than had he withstood his ante-mortem misery. I shall not go into the theological rationale behind the theistic prohibition on suicide: suffice it to say that such a prohibition principally involves the belief that man must work out his own destiny, and part of that salvific process involves a purification through suffering. Standing resolute in the face of evil and not succumbing to its mundane blandishments is the task of the theist. Other reasons behind the theistic prohibition have also been offered, such as suicide's adverse affect on the community, its unnaturalness, its usurping of divine providence, its violation of the fifth commandment, etc.
  41. I am not suggesting that these theological arguments against suicide are cogent. Indeed, the philosophical assessment of them in this paper is not even apropos. The important point is that our would-be suicidist believes in a theistic concept of death2 with all its attendant theological trimmings. And for him, given this set of beliefs (which ex hypothesi are true), surely it would be non-rational to commit suicide.
  42. Kant put the matter well: "God is our owner; we are his property; his providence works for our good. A bondman in the care of a beneficent master deserves punishment if he opposes his master's wishes19." Accordingly, given the logical and epistemic considerations outlined, I cannot understand how a case can be made for the rationality of suicides under death2.

    Section VI
  43. Let us turn to consider cases of suicide2 under death,. We are now dealing with a case where a person wishes to take his life for reasons of an altruistic nature, and does not believe that death is merely an event in life. For such a man, death is the end of life. Consider a man whose every effort results in abject failure, who sees his family suffer as innocent victims to his misfortune, and who resolves to kill himself for their benefit. Here the utilitarian justification involved may work, but it is so risky that good inductive judgment cautions against it. Suppose, furthermore, that our suicidist is utterly miserable, a failure in whatever endeavor he attempts, but also a person who has recently taken out a life insurance policy which will bring both financial relief and security to his family. Would not it be reasonable for him to commit suicide2 under death1? I think not! For one, it is difficult to judge the epistemic consequences of such an action. His family may experience intense guilt and so not escape but have compounded the misery inflicted on them; they may find that they would rather have their father alive than financial security. Secondly, as if the first points were not distressing enough, the planned suicide2 is irrational when one considers the fact that insurance companies do not honor suicides within the first Iwo years of issue of the contract! I confess that my argument here is somewhat vulnerable, given the non-detection of, say, potassium chloride by autopsy.
  44. Such considerations as the first example suggests would hold even in cases in which the suicidist had a long-standing insurance policy, naming his family as beneficiaries. It seems a necessary condition of a rational act that it be an act which the agent is prepared to stand by, to back up or support with argument. A rise of suicide2 under death, rules out such a self-justification. Such a justification could not be given prior to the suicide by the agent since his action's success Is dependent upon its results, and his epistemic ability to judge those results in advance is greatly restricted, making his suicide at best arational. And if he were to ask the beneficiaries in advance how they would feel if he committed suicide for them, and they responded favorably, this revelation would doubtless squelch his suicide2, making it a suicide, if performed.
  45. Again, some subtle legal act-descriptions surface, as the insurance company lawyer argues that the beneficiaries merit no payment, for the victim committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills in order to annihilate himself, while the family's counsel argues that the beneficiaries do merit the policy windfall in question inasmuch as the victim accidentally died while inadvertently taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Here the words of Mark Antony seem to ring true that the evil that we do lives on while the good is often interred with our bones.
  46. The matter of insurance companies' not honoring the policies of suicidists in the first two years is an interesting but complicated matter. One might argue against my central thesis that, in the case of either suicides under deaths or suicides under deaths, it might be quite possible to feign an accidental death which in reality involved suicide. I take it that such disguises would not be apropos to cases of suicide, but only to suicides. Conceivably, it might be somewhat pertinent to cases of suicides under deaths given a theistic post-mortem model, but such an attempted justification would involve conceptual confusion —duplicity cannot work on an Omniscient Deity.
  47. For instance, a person not previously known to be depressed or melancholic, etc., could skillfully simulate an accidental death which in fact was a suicide by driving his car off a mountain road onto the canyon floor below, and the insurance company involved might well conclude that it was an accidental death caused by meteorological conditions, brake failure, etc. Since suicides is motivated by an altruistic component, would this not be a rational case of suicide?
  48. I would think that if we are talking of suicides under deaths it would not be rational. The suicidist would have no way adequately to determine beforehand that his plan would be successful, with the result that it would be arational, albeit perhaps not an irrational act.
  49. Suppose we have a case of a congenital sex maniac, who, as if he were wearing Gyges' Ring, manages to rape woman after woman with perfect immunity from arrest and prosecution. He reasons that he will take his own life (for the good of society) rather than carry out his base urges, and so decides to take his life.
  50. The case of the congenital sex maniac happens to be R. F. Holland's own example. It would seem that there is obviously a less drastic solution to his dilemma, i.e., he could have himself castrated by undergoing a bilateral orchidectomy. However, it might be argued that not all rapists are primarily concerned with a sexual assault on women so much as they are concerned with the forceful brutalization and dehumanization of women. In short, Holland's rapist, even if gelded, could still be a malicious misogynist. So the example remains instructive.
  51. However, granted the above, it might be argued: why does the rapist not simply commit himself to a mental asylum? This suggestion, I believe, is ruled out because our rapist is currently disposed to perform another rape, so that in the interval between his decision to commit himself and his actual confinement, there is reason to believe that another rape will take place.
  52. Surely, it might be argued, such a case of suicides under deaths is rational. Indeed, I would argue that the action is rational, but that it is inappropriately described as suicide. Our rapist chooses not to kill himself or have himself killed; rather he does what he considers it his obligation to do. His is an heroic action, not a suicidal act. (Strictly speaking, not all actions called "suicidal" are cases of suicide. The hero who with reckless abandon sacrifices his life in order to do a courageous and virtuous act may be said to perform a suicidal action but not be a suicidist. However, to avoid any needless complications, I shall refer to all cases of suicide as suicidal actions.) Accordingly, it is fallacious to maintain that there is a strict entailment relationship between "R knowingly and deliberately brought about his death" and "R committed suicide." Kant put the point well: "If, then, I cannot preserve my life except by disgraceful conduct, virtue relieves me of this duty because a higher duty here comes into play and commands me to sacrifice my life20." Incidentally, I believe the same line of argumentation might apply in the case of the so-called "revolutionary suicide" victim (e.g., a liberation army member), provided he did not directly will to annihilate himself or have himself annihilated, but rather primarily intended to fight "to the death" for his cause. However, if the cause or end-in-view in question is highly suspect, one might still make a case for listing the revolutionary's action as irrational, and possibly suicidal.
  53. R. F. Holland would not agree with my analysis of the sex maniac's case. Holland writes: "This is manifestly a doing and not a suffering; hence it was false to claim that `all he really does is to preserve someone else.' That is not all, for he kills himself21." However, Holland's verdict overlooks the distinction between direct and indirect acts of killing. Ironically, while Holland labels the sex maniac a suicide victim, he contends that Captain Oates, Antarctic explorer, is not, inasmuch as he died by leaving his expedition while injured so as not to be a burden to his fellow itinerants. I find this verdict somewhat paradoxical, for in Holland's recital of the narrative portrayal of Oates, it is related how Oates hoped not to wake from his night sleep (which in this context at least has intimations of being a conscious Freudian death-wish), yet Holland contends that Oates did not kill himself—the blizzard killed him! This assessment seems absurd. If I suffer from vertigo, and in addition my current lot in life is a miserable one leading me to wish to be dead, but I am frightened to take my own life out of deference to various social pressures, yet I nonetheless decide to go jogging on a major highway on a foggy afternoon, does it follow that it might he truly said of me that I did not commit suicide because in fact the car killed me? I believe the question answers itself.
  54. Holland seems to have second thoughts about his original verdict.

      But then of course neither is it absurd to claim that he [Captain Oates] killed himself by going out into the blizzard. And there is much to be said for a description that is midway between the two: "He let the blizzard kill him." To call one of these descriptions the right one is to say little more than "That's how I look at it22."

    I cannot agree. Holland's neutral description "He let the blizzard kill him" brings in the notion of deficient causality23 which is at least logically distinct from the concept of efficient causality24, but which in certain circumstances proves not to be de facto distinct from the notion of efficient causality25. For example, consider the case of a person who is freely able to prevent an act of homicide from occurring, and yet chooses to allow it to happen. There seems a sense in which it is appropriate to say that the actions of the bystander (deficient causality)26 brought about the homicide as much as the criminal (efficient causality)27 who brought it about. In short, agents exercising deficient causality28 are often just as directly responsible (and morally blameworthy) for certain actions as agents exercising efficient causality29 are for those same acts. Yet Holland claims that it is not arbitrary to claim that Oates was killed by the blizzard because of the "spirit" and "surrounding" of his case. Presumably the spirit of his act is to save his companions from needless delay and the caring for an injured colleague, while the surrounding of his act is such that in all probability Oates will die anyway on the expedition. Nonetheless, if I am not mistaken, the melancholic, vertigo jogger's case involves mutatis mutandis a rather similar spirit and surrounding, yet it is absurd to describe his case in the above manner.
  55. Could not someone who agreed with me on the sex maniac's situation argue that Oates's action was also rational, heroic, and not suicidal? I think not! What distinguishes the sex maniac from the Antarctic explorer (Oates) is that the explorer could have opted for continuing with his fellow itinerants without violating any moral canons (his act would be socially dishonorable only by the code of English Gentlemen), whereas the sex maniac would not escape the performance of a morally forbidden act in carrying out his base urges and raping yet another victim.

    Section VII
  56. Finally, let us consider cases of suicide2 under death2. If the situation bein described here is akin, mutatis mutandis, to that described in the first paragraph of section VI, then I would argue that the contemplated act of suicide is not rational. Again, it is important to distinguish here between non-theistic and theistic interpretations of death2. Under the non-theistic interpretation, the victim despite his utilitarian intentions may be haunted by eternal guilt feelings if through some form of telepathic communication he learns of the resultant unhappiness of his relatives, etc30. Even if he subsequently learns of the resultant happiness of his relatives (a revelation, I suspect, which cannot be all that corn. forting), it would seem that he would still be haunted by memories of his ante' mortem experiences which led him to commit suicide. Of course, he may never learn the results of his action, a situation that would likely turn even pure altruism into egoistic frustration. To suggest by way of rebuttal that a person might control his memories (and thus avoid any post-mortem discomfort) in the absence of any evidence for ascribing rational capabilities to him (it?) in his (its?) discarnate state (e.g., his occipital cortex is non-existent) seems highly questionable. Of course, under a theistic interpretation of death2, he will suffer eternal damnation and the forfeiture of any peaceful reunion with his loved ones, I take it that for a theist even the most altruistic action can never be such as to involve any separation of self from God.
  57. If, on the other hand, we are describing, the act of a hero (or martyr), then properly speaking we have not suicide2 but a supererogatory act. Consider the case of a bus-driver beginning his daily route whose occupant-free vehicle's brakes fail while descending a hill. In front of the bus at the bottom of the hill is the town's central shopping area where several hundred pedestrians are congregated. He knows that if he descends the hill many people will be killed, so he elects to steer his bus off the road where it overturns—killing only himself. Here we have, I believe, heroic action on a grand scale, which involves not a doing of evil so much as a suffering of it. Moreover, to argue as I have attempted to do that suicide is unjustified epistemically (as well as morally) is not to imply that there are not times when life ought to be terminated. Situations may arise when, in order to preserve my life, I must violate certain duties to myself such that I instead choose to sacrifice my life, favoring death to dishonor. "To live is not a necessity; but to live honourably while life lasts is a necessity31." Like Kant, I am maintaining that one's personhood is the supreme value, so that one may be called upon to sacrifice one's life in order to save one's humanity32. But this can in no way be construed as an act of suicide2.
  58. One might here reply that my thesis is merely verbal, an example of linguistic stipulation—that is, I have (perhaps subtly) been recommending that if X is a suicidal act then X is irrational or arational for S to perform. Statements of the form "Acts of suicide are not rational" then become analytic on my thesis, telling us that "acts which are not rational are not rational."
  59. Has not this indeed been my stratagem: namely, to reply, when a most plausible counter-example is suggested to show that a proposed act Y is both rational and suicidal, that the proposal is epistemically appealing to be sure but mistakenly labeled a case of suicide? I believe that this objection is misplaced, because I have tried to offer some justification for labeling a particular action suicidal rather than heroic, other than simply invoking (as Holland ultimately (toes) an appeal to self-evidence.
  60. Of course, if by suicide is meant simply self-annihilation, the deliberate taking of one's own life, then of course I would agree that suicide in at least some cases is rational (i.e., evident or presumable in the language of the problem of the criterion): e.g., cases of euthanasia, heroic self-sacrifice, etc. However, it is the task of philosophy to analyze basic concepts of fundamental importance to human experience, and such a definition of suicide as self-annihilation is far too facile, nebulous, and open-textured.

    Section VIII
  61. It might be suggested by someone who is sympathetic to my thesis that the view just presented has involved much ado about nothing. That is, because the person contemplating suicide is in a highly emotional state, and not in Butler's "cool hour," then the suicidist's psychological state is such that he cannot discern available alternative courses of action, and, while yet remaining sane, he is still not capable of being rational under such duress. Psychologists tell us that the extremely depressed person (who may be contemplating suicide) has a highly intensified view of his plight which is likely to distort any remaining (and possibly viable) alternative courses of action. In the philosophical language of the problem of the criterion, he may not be able to establish what is epistemically preferable for him. Accordingly, suicide is not rationally justified. To be sure, this view raises interesting psychological questions, issues which are perhaps beyond the province of the philosopher. However, while this psychological view may be largely true (and ultimately supportive of my thesis), I have been willing to assume, possibly contrary to fact, that the would-be suicidist could deliberate coolly about his future free action(s).
  62. The analysis of suicide raises many philosophical puzzles. It can also arouse great wrath as well as considerable sorrow for those who have been emotionally affected by suicide. To be sure, it is important from an ethical standpoint to distinguish between degrees of culpability attaching to bona fide suicides. We have understandable pity for the oppressed, the miserable, and the downs trodden who ultimately resort to suicide, and considerable anger for those who are whimsical and frivolous perpetrators of suicide. Nonetheless, despite out various emotions toward suicide, from an epistemological standpoint, individual acts of suicide remain, I believe, irrational and/or arational33.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: The Problem of the Criterion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1973),

Footnote 2: Cf. "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide," The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, tr. J. O'Brien (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. 21. I should quickly add that, although Camus was greatly convinced of life's absurdity, it did not follow, as a result, that he claimed a philosophical justification for suicide. Indeed, Camus is careful to point out that it is fallacious to argue that "refusing to grant meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living" (ibid., p. 7).

Footnote 3: To question the particularist framework and its epistemological stance of "epistemic preferability" is obviously possible. Here again, though, my sympathies lie with the Chisholmian reply to such an objection: "What few philosophers have had the courage to recognize is this: we can deal with the problem only by begging the question. It seems to me that, if we do recognize this fact, as we should, then I is unseemly for us to try to pretend that it isn't so" (The Problem of the Criterions p. 37). Cf. Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus: "In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding" (The Fabric of Existentialism, edd. R. Gill & E. Sherman [Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 19731, p. 538).

Footnote 4: Cf. Nietzsche's encomium: "Free to die and free in death, able to say a holy No when the time for Yes has passed: thus he knows how to die and to live." Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. W. Kaufman (New York: Viking 1954), p. 185.

Footnote 5: Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 595. I detect similar considerations in Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 85ff. (see Ch. 17). Looking back, one can also cite Epictetus, Seneca, Baron d'Holbach, and Rousseau as believers in the rational justification of suicide.

Footnote 6: Cf. A. Alvarez, The Savage God (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 82.

Footnote 7: Notebooks, 1914-16, edd. G. E. M. Anscombe, R. Rhees, G. H. Von Wright (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 91e. Cf. Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, tr. T. B. Haldane, J. Kemp (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1883), I 362: "Whoever is oppressed with the burden of life, whoever desires life and affirms it, but abhors its torments, such a man has no deliverance to hope from death, and cannot right himself by suicide."

Footnote 8: Suicide, tr. J. A. Spaulding, G. Simpson (New York: Free Press, 1951), p. 43.

Footnote 9: Suicide (New York: Scribner, 1972), p. 106.

Footnote 10: Ibid., p. 97.

Footnote 11: Being and Nothingness, tr. H. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), p. 540.

Footnote 12: "On Death as a Limit," Ch. 2.

Footnote 13: Cf. J. Tas, "Psychical Disorders Among Inmates of Concentration Camps and Repatriates," Psychiatric Quarterly, 25 (1951) .

Footnote 14: "Suicide," in Moral Problems, ed. J. Rachels (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 348. I might add that Holland's treatment of suicide, unlike mine, deals with suicide primarily as an ethico-religious problem.

Footnote 19: Lecture on Ethics, tr. L. Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 150.

Footnote 20: Ibid., p. 157.

Footnote 21: Holland, op. cit., p. 352. Actually it is not clear whether Holland wants to label the action of the sex maniac rational and suicidal or suicidal and non-rational. It is clear that he views it unfavorably from a moral standpoint.

Footnote 22: Ibid., p. 353.

Footnote 30: "Humanity in one's own person is something inviolable." Ibid., p. 151.

Footnote 31: Kant, op. cit., p. 152.

Footnote 32: "If psychoanalysts are right, there is such a thing as a desire to be punished. Most people, we are told, have guilt-feelings which are more or less repressed; we have desires, unacknowledged or only half-acknowledged, to suffer for the wrongs we have done. These desires too will have their way in the next world ... and will manifest themselves by images which fulfil them. It is not a very pleasant prospect. … But it looks as if everyone would experience an image-purgatory which exactly suits him." H. H. Price, "Survival and the Idea of 'Another World"' (Ch. 13).

Footnote 33: I am indebted to D. Goldblatt, M. Kohl, K. Lucey, T. Machan, D. Palmer, J. Sadowsky, and M. Schagrin for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Sept 2018. Please address any comments on this page to theo@theotodman.com. File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page