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Should I stop someone from committing a suicide? I do not know his/her life and

Should I stop someone from committing a suicide? I do not know his/her life and what he/she might have been through so it is fair for me to assume that he/she is not making the right decision. For example, he/she is suffering and had already done everything he/she could in order to improve her life, ex. talk to someone, reflect, meditate, etc. What if I had just cause him/her to suffer even more? Suicide could have been the best way out for that specific person.

Sure, it's possible that suicide is the best way out for some particular person. But it's just as possible that the decision to kill oneself is an overreaction to some experience or event which the person would get over in due time. Because you don't know, you might go wrong whatever you do.

But there's an important point that breaks this apparent asymmetry: if you err on the side of stopping the suicide, the option of suicide remains available to the person -- s/he can do it later or the next day or the day after. If you err on the side of not stopping the suicide, there will be no second chance. For this reason alone, I think, it makes sense to stop the suicide -- even, if needed, by force (e.g., by restraining the person or by calling the police).

Many of those who are seriously thinking about suicide are conflicted and uncertain. Others go forward with cold determination. I would think that the first group is considerably larger. But quite apart from this, members of this group are far more likely to make us aware of their suicidal thoughts than members of the second group. This provides another reason for trying to stop the suicide: given that this person has in some way drawn your attention to her/his suicidal thoughts and intentions, s/he is probably conflicted and uncertain about them, probably looking for someone who cares and can help her/him find a way to cope with her/his problem. So try to be that person. If you succeed, you may save a person's life and do a wonderful thing also for her/his family and friends. If you fail, you can at least take comfort in the fact that it was not for lack of trying.

Sure, it's possible that suicide is the best way out for some particular person. But it's just as possible that the decision to kill oneself is an overreaction to some experience or event which the person would get over in due time. Because you don't know, you might go wrong whatever you do. But there's an important point that breaks this apparent asymmetry: if you err on the side of stopping the suicide, the option of suicide remains available to the person -- s/he can do it later or the next day or the day after. If you err on the side of not stopping the suicide, there will be no second chance. For this reason alone, I think, it makes sense to stop the suicide -- even, if needed, by force (e.g., by restraining the person or by calling the police). Many of those who are seriously thinking about suicide are conflicted and uncertain. Others go forward with cold determination. I would think that the first group is considerably larger. But quite apart from this, members of this group are far more...

I read a few responses to questions about suicide, and something struck me as

I read a few responses to questions about suicide, and something struck me as odd about a few of the replies. One consistent factor responders have noted as a weighing against suicide is that the death of a suicide victim will very likely have devastating consequences on friends and family members. But, if we granted that potential suicide victims truly were suffering and were correct in judging that their circumstances were unlikely to improve, wouldn't we essentially be asking them to suffer for the sake of others? Wouldn't this be very similar to the situation where we ask if torturing one person would be justifiable if it could improve the lives of others, something which people tend to consistently give a negative response to? I can't see that anyone has a positive duty to suffer for the sake of others' happiness.

One important difference to torture is that the question here is whether the agent should impose a certain pain on her-/himself for the sake of others -- not whether the agent may or should impose pain on third parties. To illustrate the relevance of this point: it makes good sense for me to believe both (a) that a person with my sort of income ought to give at least 10 percent of it toward effective poverty relief and (b) that it would be wrong for me (or anyone) to force other people with similar salaries to do so. The analogue to torture would be forcing the potential suicidee to stay alive against her/his will -- and this was not what I was advocating.

Now, do you have a duty to suffer for the sake of others' happiness? I think the answer depends on what is at stake for the others and what is at stake for you. Peter Singer has made a very convincing case for holding that you have a duty to rescue a drowning child from a shallow pond. Here what is at stake is the very survival of the child versus the dirt and unpleasantness of wading into the pond.

In some cases, the duty not to commit suicide is equally compelling. I know some such cases where the lives of several other people were -- foreseeably -- devastated beyond repair. When this is true, suicide would normally seem justifiable only if continued life would be very painful indeed. (Obviously, there is no precise exchange rate here. My point is that suicide is continuous with other cases, such as Singer's, where you might also vary the story to make the rescue progressively less important and/or more burdensome.)

A final point. In thinking about suicide and how it would affect others, one should not treat the various burdens as fixed. Continued life may seem very burdensome, but there are often ways to make it much more interesting and rewarding -- one should explore these opportunities. And there typically also are ways to make one's suicide much easier to bear for one's surviving relatives and friends.

One important difference to torture is that the question here is whether the agent should impose a certain pain on her-/himself for the sake of others -- not whether the agent may or should impose pain on third parties. To illustrate the relevance of this point: it makes good sense for me to believe both (a) that a person with my sort of income ought to give at least 10 percent of it toward effective poverty relief and (b) that it would be wrong for me (or anyone) to force other people with similar salaries to do so. The analogue to torture would be forcing the potential suicidee to stay alive against her/his will -- and this was not what I was advocating. Now, do you have a duty to suffer for the sake of others' happiness? I think the answer depends on what is at stake for the others and what is at stake for you. Peter Singer has made a very convincing case for holding that you have a duty to rescue a drowning child from a shallow pond. Here what is at stake is the very survival of the child...

What strikes many people as the most terrible aspect of suicide is the pain

What strikes many people as the most terrible aspect of suicide is the pain inflicted on those left behind. But does this mean that we are literally obligated to stay alive for other people? Even as I appreciate that to kill oneself hurts one's friends and family in an unbelievable way, it seems strange to me that anyone should have ultimately have any reason to live besides their own, personal happiness.

What about other decisions you face? Does it strike you as strange that anyone should ultimately have any reason to act other than in the service of their own personal happiness? If so, you are challenging all moral obligations and would find it just as strange that anyone should be "literally obligated" to refrain from rape and murder.

I assume that this is not your view, that you accept some obligations toward others and are willing to take their interests into account, alongside your own, when deciding how to act. But if this is the way you think about your ordinary conduct decisions, then why should the decision about suicide be special? If your mother's feelings are a reason for you to call her on her birthday, then why are they not also a reason for refraining from suicide?

The illusion that we have no obligation to consider others' interests when contemplating suicide may arise from two sources. First, many jurisdictions forbid suicide and also assisting those who want to die. This may strike us as exceeding society's legitimate authority. A society does not own its citizens. And when a fully competent citizen wants to die, and perhaps wants a friend's help with this, then society should not stand in the way.

Agreeing with this sentiment, we may reject the intrusion of society and its law in our decision about suicide, and we may further conclude that we have no moral obligation to comply with such an (unjust) law. From this we may then falsely infer that we have no moral obligations toward others in this matter.

An analogous mistake is common with regard to freedom of speech. We strongly reject the idea that society's law may constrain what we may say or write. We express this in sentences like "I can say what I want." But on reflection we realize, nonetheless, that we sometimes say things we (morally) ought not to have said -- even if saying them was legal and rightly so. With regard to speech, then, the law ought not forbid all that it is morally wrong to express. This case shows what is not obvious: the fact that some action ought to be legally permitted is compatible with this action being morally wrong. In some cases, citizens ought to have a legal right to do the morally wrong thing. Suicide may be one such case.

The other source of the illusion is the very great pain that people contemplating suicide are typically experiencing. In comparison to this pain, the interests of others may pale to insignificance, especially for the person longing to die. To correct for this illusion, we may imagine an unusual case: a guy who is a bit bored with life, whose car mirror was damaged, and who is fighting the third pimple on his chin in a single month. He is not especially eager to live or to die, but feels mildly inclined to do himself in. When so little is at stake for him, it is easier to appreciate that the interests of others may by strong enough to tip the scales. If his parents, siblings, spouse, and children would all the totally devasted by his suicide, surely he ought to pull himself together, get that mirror repaired, fight the new pimple with aftershave, and think of doing something exciting with his family. It would be wrong for him to let his very slight preference sideline the devasting effects his suicide would have on others.

This case suggests what I think is the right answer to your query. In this matter, as in all others, we have a moral obligation to take the interests of others into account. This does not mean that we have a general obligation to stay alive for their sake. In some cases the interests of others really do pale to insignificance in comparison to one's own, and it such cases suicide is permissible, perhaps afterone has done one what can do to ease the pain of those left behind. Yet in other cases, like that of the preceding paragraph, one does have a moral obligation to stay alive for the sake of others.

What about other decisions you face? Does it strike you as strange that anyone should ultimately have any reason to act other than in the service of their own personal happiness? If so, you are challenging all moral obligations and would find it just as strange that anyone should be "literally obligated" to refrain from rape and murder. I assume that this is not your view, that you accept some obligations toward others and are willing to take their interests into account, alongside your own, when deciding how to act. But if this is the way you think about your ordinary conduct decisions, then why should the decision about suicide be special? If your mother's feelings are a reason for you to call her on her birthday, then why are they not also a reason for refraining from suicide? The illusion that we have no obligation to consider others' interests when contemplating suicide may arise from two sources. First, many jurisdictions forbid suicide and also assisting those who want to die....

Is it ever rational to commit suicide?

Is it ever rational to commit suicide?

I would add this, however. While it certainly can be rational to commit suicide, people who are considering suicide aren't always in a good position to think about it rationally. That's for the obvious reason that many (perhaps most) people who are seriously thinking about killing themselves are depressed, and part of what depression does is make it hard to think clearly. A depressed person might believe that there's no hope, and that the pain will never end, but that's often not true. So yes: suicide can be rational. But if you know someone who's thinking about it, helping them get help may serve what they would understand as their own rational ends if only they were in a better position to see them.

Yes: when the ends that matter to one are better served by suicide than by staying alive. Jan Palach killed himself to make a powerful point against the Soviet invasion of his country -- plausibly believing that nothing else he could have done would have had as great an effect (see question 1518). Victims of the Gestapo have killed (or tried to kill) themselves in order to avoid betraying their comrades. Admiral Chester Nimitz and his wife Joan killed themselves in old age, seeking to end their lives on their own terms rather than incapacitated in some medical facility. Each of these people had an end to which they gave more weight than to their own survival -- the end of ending Soviet domination, the end of defeating the Nazis, the end of dying on one's own terms. There is nothing irrational in ranking these ends above an additional period of life for oneself.

Can suicide be a way of political resistance? I am especially interested in the

Can suicide be a way of political resistance? I am especially interested in the political situation at the West Bank, so when you answer in this context, please....

Suicide and highly risky acts of defiance can be, but rarely are, highly effective forms of political resistance. So one needs to analyze the conditions under which they are effective. The political suicide I remember most vividly is that of Jan Palach, a Czech student who burned himself to death with gasoline (in early 1969) to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of his country. His suicide contributed greatly, I believe, to a deep and enduring change in attitude toward the Soviet Union on the part of young people esp. in Western Europe who, horrified by the brutality of the US war in Vietnam, had tended to view the Soviet Union as the more humane, less aggressive superpower. Many young people then did not really trust the established news media and vaguely suspected that the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia may indeed have preempted some sort of counterrevolutionary plot supported by the West. Jan Palach's suicide destroyed such excuses by focusing attention on the sentiments of young people in Czechoslovakia itself: on their passionate support of the Prague spring and on their desperation over its violent end. Jan Palach's suicide highlighted the moral character of the Soviet bloc and contributed substantially, I think, to its loss of moral credibility and eventual demise. Though Palach died long before the internet, his name scores more than 100,000 hits on google, more than Indira Ghandhi's, who died in a dramatic assassination 15 years after Palach and had been the Prime Minister of a vastly larger country for the preceding 19 years.

It is hard to think of other examples. Two Korean farmers come to mind who killed themselves in protest of increasing agricultural imports into Korea -- one in 2003 at a WTO meeting in Cancun, the other in 2005 at an APEC meeting in Busan. Certainly Lee Kyung-hae's death in Cancun was widely reported, but I do not think that it made much difference to WTO policies or even to those of the Korean government. Perhaps more successful were a number of suicides in China (end of 2003) in protest of forced expropriations that were often effected by corrupt local government agencies paying minimal compensation or none. These suicides and the anger they triggered caused the Chinese government drastically to limit the agencies authorized to order expropriations as well as the purposes by appeal to which such expropriations can be justified.

Can suicide be effective political resistance in the West Bank? I assume you have in mind an act of suicide in protest of the continued Israeli occupation and settlement policy. My sense is that, in the present context, such a suicide by a Palestinian would be drowned out in the media by all the other violence going on there. Such a suicide by an Israeli, by contrast, could have much greater impact by showing to the outside world and especially the many supporters of Israel that such support need not, and should not, condone continuation of the Israeli occupation and settlement policies. Small numbers of young Israelis have had much impact by refusing to serve in the Israeli army or by refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me add that violent resistance to the occupation (bombings, suicide bombings, Qassam rockets) seems to me no less ineffective. Such resistance undermines Israeli opposition to the occupation and makes it easier for the Israeli government to avoid a negotiated settlement. Creative, well-organized and strictly non-violent resistance might have a chance to furnish an effective appeal to fair-minded Israelis and Western populations. But it's hard to see how such a resistance movement could evolve in the situation as it is now.

Suicide and highly risky acts of defiance can be, but rarely are, highly effective forms of political resistance. So one needs to analyze the conditions under which they are effective. The political suicide I remember most vividly is that of Jan Palach, a Czech student who burned himself to death with gasoline (in early 1969) to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of his country. His suicide contributed greatly, I believe, to a deep and enduring change in attitude toward the Soviet Union on the part of young people esp. in Western Europe who, horrified by the brutality of the US war in Vietnam, had tended to view the Soviet Union as the more humane, less aggressive superpower. Many young people then did not really trust the established news media and vaguely suspected that the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia may indeed have preempted some sort of counterrevolutionary plot supported by the West. Jan Palach's suicide destroyed such excuses by focusing attention on the sentiments of young people in...

Dear Philosophers,Why do you think suicide is considered "illegal"?

Dear Philosophers, Why do you think suicide is considered "illegal"?

Suicide is outlawed in different societies and epochs for all sorts of different reasons. These fall broadly into three categories: to enforce religious commands, to protect persons from themselves, and to protect persons other than the would-be suicide. Are these good reasons to outlaw suicide?

Reasons in the first category are not acceptable in modern democratic societies (and, in the US, violate the First-Amendment separation of church and state). Those in the majority must not impose their religion on their fellow citizens.

Reasons in the second category -- so-called paternalistic (or parentalistic) reasons -- can be plausible. It is a good thing that the police can stop the attempted suicide of a young man who is in despair after his lover broke up with him. Chances are he'll get over it and fall in love again, even if this now seems inconceivable to him. But what if, a year or two later, the man still judges his life not worth living and wants to die? Who are we to overrule his judgment in this matter? We may perhaps legally require would-be suicides to receive competent information from relevant experts (doctors, psychologists, etc.) and from others who have gone through a crisis similar to theirs. But when someone has done this, and still wants to die, we should not force him to stay alive "for his own sake." (Note that, in practice, modern democratic societies do not apply such coercion even though they do make suicide illegal. And criminal punishments for attempted suicide are exceedingly rare.)

Reasons in the third category invoke the interests of those who depend on the would-be suicide. This does not include the interests of society or other larger groups. A person is free to withdraw from these groups (to quit her job, to leave her religious group, to emigrate), and this shows that they have no right to her continued contributions. The same point would seem to hold, to a lesser extent, for a spouse: The fact that a person is free to have a divorce shows that her spouse has not right to her continued partnership. The interests of a dependent child, however, support a much stronger claim. To be sure, society must find a way to meet the needs of the child if its parent dies. But the loss of a parent, especially through suicide, is often a devastating loss for a child even if society meets its obligation well (something that, in the real world, is often not the case).

In conclusion, I think there are sufficiently strong reasons in the second and third categories for outlawing -- not all suicides, but some, in a way designed to discourage and to express disapproval. These reasons are strongest with respect to persons with dependent children who experience a kind of crisis that tends to be temporary. These reasons may justify restraining competent people for brief periods. And they may justify forcing competent persons to receive balanced information and counseling relating to their crisis and to the potential impact of their decision on their dependent children.

Suicide is outlawed in different societies and epochs for all sorts of different reasons. These fall broadly into three categories: to enforce religious commands, to protect persons from themselves, and to protect persons other than the would-be suicide. Are these good reasons to outlaw suicide? Reasons in the first category are not acceptable in modern democratic societies (and, in the US, violate the First-Amendment separation of church and state). Those in the majority must not impose their religion on their fellow citizens. Reasons in the second category -- so-called paternalistic (or parentalistic) reasons -- can be plausible. It is a good thing that the police can stop the attempted suicide of a young man who is in despair after his lover broke up with him. Chances are he'll get over it and fall in love again, even if this now seems inconceivable to him. But what if, a year or two later, the man still judges his life not worth living and wants to die? Who are we to overrule his...

Dear philosophers,

Dear philosophers, This is about suicide. If someone's experience of their life is negative and even if we in society do not believe their life is all that bad or that there is hope of it improving, isn't it the individual's right to remove themselves from what has become an unpleasant existence for them? Also is it fair to point to the harm that befalls others from said suicide as a reason against it when remaining alive would be causing the individual harm or pain? Is your life not your own and suicide your personal decision to not continue it? Thank you.

It is fair to point to the harms that would befall others, because such harms are surely not morally irrelevant. They are relevant, for example, when the potential suicide has caused others to be dependent on him or her, e.g. his or her children whose lives are likely to be blighted by the suicide of a parent. And even if the harm that would befall others is not due to earlier decisions by the agent (getting married, having children), he or she has moral reason at least to do what can be done to ease the pain of parents, siblings, friends, etc., left behind. In these ways, perhaps suicide is not all that different from other actions people take: They may have a right to take these actions, in the sense that it would be wrong to prevent them from so acting. But this does not mean that such actions are beyond moral criticism: Their execution may be morally flawed in diverse ways, and sometimes these actions may be morally wrong altogether. Thus consider divorce. People have a moral right to walk out on a marriage in the sense that it would be wrong to prevent them from doing so. Nonetheless, people often walk out in ways that cause much avoidable pain and hardship to the spouse and children. And sometimes even the most considerate way of walking out would cause so much pain and hardship for the sake of a relatively small gain that the agent would do wrong to give precedence to his or her own happiness over that of his or her family. The important, general point here is this: Even if one has a moral right to do X (= it would be morally wrong for others to prevent one from doing X) one's doing X may still be morally wrong.

It is fair to point to the harms that would befall others, because such harms are surely not morally irrelevant. They are relevant, for example, when the potential suicide has caused others to be dependent on him or her, e.g. his or her children whose lives are likely to be blighted by the suicide of a parent. And even if the harm that would befall others is not due to earlier decisions by the agent (getting married, having children), he or she has moral reason at least to do what can be done to ease the pain of parents, siblings, friends, etc., left behind. In these ways, perhaps suicide is not all that different from other actions people take: They may have a right to take these actions, in the sense that it would be wrong to prevent them from so acting. But this does not mean that such actions are beyond moral criticism: Their execution may be morally flawed in diverse ways, and sometimes these actions may be morally wrong altogether. Thus consider divorce. People have a moral right to walk...