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Should We Prevent Suicide?


Marat
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News footage of the 9/11 disaster shows some people jumping to their death from a burning building, since they obviously preferred to die a minute sooner by hitting the ground rather than living a minute longer at the price of experiencing the horror of burning to death. If we all recognize those actions as a rational choice those people had the right to make, then we have already accepted in principle that suicide can be a reasonable choice people should make for themselves. Other cases of suicide differ from this example only in degree, since longer periods of potential future life are given up, or lesser horrors are avoided, but in principle the issue is the same: People may rationally prefer death rather than living longer at the cost of enduring future suffering they can't avoid.

 

But even though suicide is legal almost everywhere in the Western world, we still see governments conducting public campaigns to prevent it. While the government can certainly legitimately try to influence the public to make better choices even where the alternatives to those better options are legal, such as when the state runs tv ads to persuade teenagers not to exercise their legal right to leave school at 16, in such cases government only tries to persuade, not prevent. But everywhere we see people deemed to be 'a danger to themselves' because of suicidal tendencies -- that is, the tendency to do something legal -- being detained against their will or committed to an insane asylum. Where I live there is a bridge which people have used to commit suicide but now the government has erected barriers along the edges so that people can no longer jump off. Similarly, in nursing homes, where there has always been a high suicide rate -- for obvious reasons! -- wall hooks are now being designed so that they collapse if the weight of a human body is attached to them, just to prevent old people, who may be sick, lonely, and suffering, from escaping their misery.

 

But since suicide can be a rational choice, since it is not illegal, and since it is obviously infinitely more important to the person planning suicide that he die than it is to society that he live, why do we still try to prevent suicide, as though we could somehow always know for certain that it is always preferable for everyone to continue living, which the 9/11 example proves is false?

 

Some critics object that since suicide is permanent, people should be prevented from possibly making the wrong decision, but few major decisions in life are without permanent effects -- such as marrying the wrong person, having a child when you shouldn't have, investing your money in the wrong enterprise, joining the army during a war, picking the wrong major in college, etc. -- yet we are left free to make all these mistakes which leave permanent marks even if we later struggle to get out of them.

 

Exceptions might have to be made for a few extreme cases, such as temporarily insane or intoxicated people who would quite likely regret their choice to die later, and for young teenagers who are ready to throw themselves into the river because the captain of the football team didn't ask them to the prom. But generally people should be allowed to act on their own decision.

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Well, you have to also consider whether people were of sound mind when deciding to commit suicide. The people in the WTC towers definitely fit this, but in normal situations people who try to commit suicide are often depressed, which can be treated. For them, suicide is an extreme solution to a temporary problem. You also have to consider that many people who survived a suicide attempt go on to live normal lives instead of continuously trying to end theirs. So I'd say that it is overall worth it to prevent at least the first suicide attempt, and maybe "protect them from themselves" for a month or a year. But I also think that we should help people who want to commit suicide to do so as painlessly as possible.

 

Also, one thought I've had on suicide is that people could be given the opportunity to become organ donors -- which can save more than one life at the cost of one life, and also provide an opportunity for counseling.

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I don't know where you got the idea that suicide is legal. I have always heard that it is illegal. Suicide is unethical b/c it either involves someone taking their own life for the benefit of someone else or doing it for their own benefit without recognizing someone else's loss as a result. When death is an escape from suffering, this would seem to be another story. Still, even when euthanasia for this reason is validated, there is still the idea that one should persevere as long as possible before giving in to death.

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Suicide is not legal in most jurisdictions.

 

Most cultures consider self destruction as inherently wrong. This inherent wrongness goes back to ancient times. What was the last remaining item in Pandora's box? Hope. Suicides seriously affect families, friends, neighbors, communities and nations. Widespread suicides would seriously weaken the fabric of our societies. And, if it's okay to kill yourself, then it's not much of a stretch to say it's okay to kill others. The same as killing animals forebodes killing humans.

 

Suicide is also like a kid being held down and beaten to make him to say "uncle". Everyone knows you're never supposed to say it.

 

What I don't like is, whenever statistics are given on homicides, suicides are almost always not included, but listed separately elsewhere. By definition, suicides are bona fide homicides. And, what you'll find (in the US) is that there's about 20,000 homicides yearly, and about 30,000 suicides. Everyone whoops and hollers about homicides, but no one really protests suicides.

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News footage of the 9/11 disaster shows some people jumping to their death from a burning building, since they obviously preferred to die a minute sooner by hitting the ground rather than living a minute longer at the price of experiencing the horror of burning to death.

 

You don't at all entertain the idea that they were trading certain death for the (extremely) slim possibility that they, miraculously, survive the jump?

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Just take a look at the index of any modern criminal code of any Western jurisdiction: You will find under 'Suicide' that 'aiding, abetting, and counselling' suicide are illegal, but not committing suicide yourself. Suicide used to be illegal until the early 19th century, when the British Prime Minister, Lord Castelreigh, committed suicide, and this made people realize that there could be rational reasons for suicide which the law should respect.

 

When you think of it, making suicide illegal was always rather silly, since the only punishment that could be inflicted on those guilty of the crime was that their estate be forfeited to the state rather than passed on to their heirs, and that the body be buried at the crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart. As soon as these punishments began to seem too barbaric and silly in the early 19th century, suicide became legal because it was recognized to be unpunishable. The law on suicide is still in a rather illogical state, since it is rare to find aiding, abetting, and counselling a perfectly legal act to be criminal, but so it is.

 

While it is true that suicide is a form of homicide, homicide is legally defined only as the killing of a human being, which is distinguished from murder, which is the unlawful killing of a human being. Many forms of killing human beings are legal, such as killing someone while acting in self-defense, while acting under the defense of necessity, while acting under military orders in a war, etc.

 

Killing yourself has no logical implications for killing other people, since the main concern of the law is to prevent one person invading the rights of another, whether those are rights to personal property, personal liberty, personal physical integrity, or life itself. Thus if you kill yourself you don't violate anyone else's rights, since your death is in that case your own choice, so your personal autonomy is preserved, not invaded. That is why suicide is no longer illegal.

 

While it is true that if a person commits suicide it may have harmful effects on other people or on society generally, the interest of the person in escaping his life is deemed to be greater than the disturbing effects that may have on others. The law and morality both allow people a sphere of autonomy in which they may do many things which are against the wider social interest, which is why it is perfectly legal for Bill Gates to hogg $40 billion for his own pleasure while people around him die for lack of shelter, medical care, and food.

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Just take a look at the index of any modern criminal code of any Western jurisdiction: You will find under 'Suicide' that 'aiding, abetting, and counselling' suicide are illegal, but not committing suicide yourself. Suicide used to be illegal until the early 19th century, when the British Prime Minister, Lord Castelreigh, committed suicide, and this made people realize that there could be rational reasons for suicide which the law should respect.

 

When you think of it, making suicide illegal was always rather silly, since the only punishment that could be inflicted on those guilty of the crime was that their estate be forfeited to the state rather than passed on to their heirs, and that the body be buried at the crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart. As soon as these punishments began to seem too barbaric and silly in the early 19th century, suicide became legal because it was recognized to be unpunishable. The law on suicide is still in a rather illogical state, since it is rare to find aiding, abetting, and counselling a perfectly legal act to be criminal, but so it is.

 

While it is true that suicide is a form of homicide, homicide is legally defined only as the killing of a human being, which is distinguished from murder, which is the unlawful killing of a human being. Many forms of killing human beings are legal, such as killing someone while acting in self-defense, while acting under the defense of necessity, while acting under military orders in a war, etc.

 

Killing yourself has no logical implications for killing other people, since the main concern of the law is to prevent one person invading the rights of another, whether those are rights to personal property, personal liberty, personal physical integrity, or life itself. Thus if you kill yourself you don't violate anyone else's rights, since your death is in that case your own choice, so your personal autonomy is preserved, not invaded. That is why suicide is no longer illegal.

 

While it is true that if a person commits suicide it may have harmful effects on other people or on society generally, the interest of the person in escaping his life is deemed to be greater than the disturbing effects that may have on others. The law and morality both allow people a sphere of autonomy in which they may do many things which are against the wider social interest, which is why it is perfectly legal for Bill Gates to hogg $40 billion for his own pleasure while people around him die for lack of shelter, medical care, and food.

 

Rhetoricarilly; you sound like a bleeding heart liberal. And Bill Gates!? How easy it is to hate a winner. "Hogg" may be a family acronym you relate to, but it certainly doesn't apply to Bill Gates. What would you do with 40 billion dollars anyhow, give it away? Yea!, sure you would. Gates has probably given more wealth to charities than you'll earn in ten life times. But then, one day you may also become rich. I hope so!

Edited by rigney
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I'm not making a political point about unequal wealth distribution here. I'm just saying that even if people found Bill Gates taking up so much money that it had negative side effects on the rest of society, the way our society is organized, he would still have the right to inflict that much harm on society to preserve his own private autonomy. The right to suicide is analogous to this, since even though a person killing himself may harm his loved ones, family, dependants, employees, students, etc., the law recognizes the right to commit suicide as part of a person's preserved sphere of autonomy, not as something which can be limited out of respect for the interests of others.

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I'm not making a political point about unequal wealth distribution here. I'm just saying that even if people found Bill Gates taking up so much money that it had negative side effects on the rest of society, the way our society is organized, he would still have the right to inflict that much harm on society to preserve his own private autonomy. The right to suicide is analogous to this, since even though a person killing himself may harm his loved ones, family, dependants, employees, students, etc., the law recognizes the right to commit suicide as part of a person's preserved sphere of autonomy, not as something which can be limited out of respect for the interests of others.

 

Then why bring Bill Gates into the mix at all? Anyway, we're not talking about an unequal distribution of wealth between Bill, you, me or anyone else. Bill Gates is a very resourceful and intelligent individual with better than a MENSA I.Q., who found a very astute way of making a fortune. If you read what Bill has done for the needy, you'd want to apologize to him personally. What would you have done in his place? And suicide? It's no ones business what you do with your life, or the lack of that life regardless of the policy.

Edited by rigney
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Again, I'm not criticizing Bill Gates here. Let's just put it this way: If someone felt injured by Bill Gates keeping such a huge amount of money for himself, which he accumulated by the rules of private property now in force, that person's complaint would have no force in the system of law we have. In a purely utilitarian legal system, wealth could only be distributed so as to do maximum benefit for the greatest number of people, so the complaint of someone who felt that he was harmed by the maldistribution of wealth could be presented to a court to be remedied. But in a rights-based, anti-utilitarian legal system such as now exists, wealth is distributed according to certain established rules of what transactions produce which outcomes, regardless of whether they help or hurt most people in the society.

 

That now brings us to the point I was making by introducing this analogy, which is that in a rights-based legal system, which arbitrarily demarcates certain spheres as those belonging to private freedom, whatever effect that actions taken within them may have on other people, those people have no legal right to object or to prevent those free acts. One of those acts within the sphere of private freedom which they cannot raise a legal objection against, no matter how much the act may hurt them, is someone committing suicide. You can break the heart of your relatives, you can deprive dependents of care, you can leave employees stranded, etc., but your decision to kill yourself is entirely your own in our legal system. This is interesting, since if a parent abandons a child that the parent is normally obligated to care for, this is a crime in common law systems; but if that abandonment occurs by suicide, it is not a crime, and even a parent who survived an attempted suicide could not be prosecuted for attempting suicide, even though this would be the equivalent, in fact, of attempting to abandon care of the child.

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Again, I'm not criticizing Bill Gates here. Let's just put it this way: If someone felt injured by Bill Gates keeping such a huge amount of money for himself, which he accumulated by the rules of private property now in force, that person's complaint would have no force in the system of law we have. In a purely utilitarian legal system, wealth could only be distributed so as to do maximum benefit for the greatest number of people, so the complaint of someone who felt that he was harmed by the maldistribution of wealth could be presented to a court to be remedied. But in a rights-based, anti-utilitarian legal system such as now exists, wealth is distributed according to certain established rules of what transactions produce which outcomes, regardless of whether they help or hurt most people in the society.

 

That now brings us to the point I was making by introducing this analogy, which is that in a rights-based legal system, which arbitrarily demarcates certain spheres as those belonging to private freedom, whatever effect that actions taken within them may have on other people, those people have no legal right to object or to prevent those free acts. One of those acts within the sphere of private freedom which they cannot raise a legal objection against, no matter how much the act may hurt them, is someone committing suicide. You can break the heart of your relatives, you can deprive dependents of care, you can leave employees stranded, etc., but your decision to kill yourself is entirely your own in our legal system. This is interesting, since if a parent abandons a child that the parent is normally obligated to care for, this is a crime in common law systems; but if that abandonment occurs by suicide, it is not a crime, and even a parent who survived an attempted suicide could not be prosecuted for attempting suicide, even though this would be the equivalent, in fact, of attempting to abandon care of the child.

 

Yes!, you have me hands down. But admittebly, we live in a strange world, right?.

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Usually people can decide for themselves whether they want to die or not and then put their intention into action, but the issue becomes difficult when they require assistance from others. Thus if the quadraplegic wants to commit suicide but cannot manage it on his own, should his friend who assists him in this have immunity from the laws against murder?

 

Also, given that there certainly are cases where continued life is much worse than immediate death, should the state constantly be spending taxpayers' money to run ads against suicide on television, to have anti-suicide hotlines, to install collapsing coat hooks in seniors' homes so that they can't easily hang themselves, or to erect barriers along the sides of high bridges to prevent people from jumping?

 

Sure, people sometimes kill themselves for silly reasons and thus cause their temporary stupidity or despair to have irrevocable, negative effects for their lives, but many decisions we are free to make have this character, such as marrying the wrong person, investing money badly, choosing the wrong job, etc., and yet the state doesn't intervene here with the assumption that our decision will always be wrong.

 

Psychiatry seems stupidly to assume that no one can be depressed about a perfectly rational decision to commit suicide without being in need of care and supervision so that they don't commit suicide. It is logically possible that suicide would be an excellent choice on rational grounds, but that it would still make the perfectly sane person making this decision depressed to realize this.

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News footage of the 9/11 disaster shows some people jumping to their death from a burning building, since they obviously preferred to die a minute sooner by hitting the ground rather than living a minute longer at the price of experiencing the horror of burning to death.

there is nothing "obvious" about their state of mind and to make such a judgement is highly presumptive. It is highly presumptive to judge either the state of mind or state of the soul of anyone who commits or attempts suicide, either. Unless you are privileged to know the minds and hearts of those who jumped best be silent.

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That example just illustrates my point, though it is not essential for it. It could be that those people were jumping for some reason which would surprise us, rather than for what appeared to be their logical motivation in that situation, but this doesn't affect the argument. Rather, since we can all agree that there are physical states -- let's say being blind, deaf, in intractable pain, paralyzed from the neck down, and dying on a cot in a Turkish prison -- which would make continued life worse than death if they could not be corrected, then we can also agree that there can be rational reasons for suicide.

 

Someone could object that some mysterious being in the sky actually 'owns' our lives and has the right to determine when we die, so we should not commit suicide even in such a desperate circumstance, but since this is the ethics rather than the religion forum, I am assuming that only objective reasons in principle open to rational discussion count. In this I am following the philosopher John Rawls' view of what can count as acceptable reasons in public policy debate based on 'public reason.'

 

But even if we assume that some invisible entity owns our soul and thus forbids us to take our own lives rather than letting him decide when we should die, this requires us to answer the difficult question whether people who eat too much fat, never exercise, and never visit the doctor are guilty of committing slow suicide and so should be eternally punished post-mortem. If this amounts to the sin of suicide, but just in slow motion, then are we all guilty of suicide unless we become physical fitness nuts and spend all day on the treadmill feeling the pulse in our neck and eating granola? This is the problem with trying to give moral rules an absolute foundation in the Divine Mind rather than just a relative foundation in human conventions. Because God-given rules have to be perfect and absolute, they become too brittle to work in the complex, subtle, empirical world in which we live. In contrast, the relaxed, approximate, common sense approach of a human court of law would have no trouble in saying that a quick self-killing by jumping out a window was suicide, while a slow self-killing by spreading too much butter on your toast was not.

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Freedom of choice should alway's be at the forefront I do not agree with much of today's restrictions, Perhaps if life were not so unneccessarily stressful then suicide would not be seen as a logical solution. We live in such an immediate gratification society with so much emphasis placed on "Barbie doll" success that people see it as a responsibility to"keep up with the Joneses" at all costs. This only causes more stress in different areas of the individuals life. We are addicted to fantasy and for some real life doesn't keep up.

 

 

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But what if that person is profoundly disabled and perhaps confined to an iron lung with no capacity to do anything but move a pencil with their lips? Should the state grant them an effective means to enforce their right to commit suicide by giving their suicide helper exemption from the criminal laws against murder?

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But what if that person is profoundly disabled and perhaps confined to an iron lung with no capacity to do anything but move a pencil with their lips? Should the state grant them an effective means to enforce their right to commit suicide by giving their suicide helper exemption from the criminal laws against murder?

It becomes clear why suicide is an attack against a basic respect for life when we examine the effect of suicide on human relationship. In other words, if you were to commit suicide, you would not only killing yourself but also causing deep pain to those who love you. We cannot destroy ourselves without also partially destroying those who have extended themselves into us by giving us their love.

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If you have the opportunity to discourage or prevent suicide, I would recommend taking advantage of it to prevent death. I saw a random kid with shoe untied today and asked him to let me tie it because I thought there was a chance he would trip and hurt himself on his loose laces. I wouldn't spend lots of time tying kids' shoes but at the moment it seemed like an easy way to prevent injury. Why not prevent suicide when it is convenient? Of course, how can you prevent it except by spending time with other people? People commit suicide when they're alone (generally anyway). Other options are to make plans to talk to them or see them at a later date. That way, they feel like suicide would be letting someone else down, which people don't usually want to do. So it might be worth it to them to persevere just because they don't like the thought of disappointing others.

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We are free to make many personal choices which vitally concern our own interests even though these choices may harm other people. I can marry someone of a different religion even though my mother will have a heart attack if I do; I can raise the prices of the goods my factory sells just to make myself richer, even though this will impose great hardships on poor consumers who need those goods; I can become an alcoholic and deprive the community of the benefit of all the state-supported education that was pumped into me, etc. So since choosing to commit suicide or not is the most vitally important personal decision we can possibly make, at least according to Existentialists and Hamlet, why should the much less weighty side-effects on others of that vital excercise of personal autonomy override that autonomy? That makes about as much sense as saying that because my next door neighbor is amused by my funny-looking glasses, I should decline to accept the much better job I have been offered 200 miles away, since then he would not have the chance to chuckle at me once a week when we cross paths to take our rubbish out to the curb at the same time.

 

The analogy with helping someone 'avoid injury' by offering to tie his shoes assumes that the person committing suicide is always necessarily producing a net injury for himself. Since many forms of life are hideous (would you rather live to be 80 and die in your sleep, or live to be 81 and spend your last year being slowly tortured to death?), people may feel that the 'injury' they face is continuing to live, rather than escaping a horrible life for the merciful oblivion of death.

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