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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.

Could someone ever be considered significantly responsible for another's suicide

Could someone ever be considered significantly responsible for another's suicide? I don't mean to include cases in which, e.g., someone gives a weapon to an unstable person. The person I have in mind causes severe emotional distress to another person who ultimately kills herself.

Yes, though I wouldn't want to have to adjudicate responsibility in a particular case.

Here's the philosophical principle I've got in mind: If a person A provides sufficient motivation for person B to commit an act, then A might be responsible for B's act. If A intended to provide sufficient motivation, intending that B commit the act, then I can't imagine A not being responsible. And if B would not have committed the act but for A's motivating actions -- in other words, if whatever A did was also necessary to B's committing the act -- and A knew this, then A would definitely be responsible.

The problem with applying this general principle to suicides is that what counted as sufficient and necessary motivational conditions for a particular suicide are almost never known for certain. Most suicide victims (as I understand it) are assumed not to be in full rational control of their actions; e.g., there is mental illness involved. If suicide is an irrational act, then assigning responsibility will be a formidably difficult, if not moot, task.

In the case you describe, if the person causing severe emotional distress intended to push the victim to suicide, and the victim would not have committed suicide but for the infliction of the severe emotional distress, then yes, s/he is responsible. If the person causing the distress never intended to push the victim to suicide, but knew (or should reasonably have known) that it might, and the victim would not have committed suicde but for the distress, then I'd say yes again. But if the victim would have committed suicide anyway, then the person causing the distress would not be responsible, even if s/he intended to do it (though some might disagree with me here). If the suicide has been successful, could we ever know what role the emotional distress actually played?

(This isn't a precise illustration, but I think it might be relevant to sorting out the issue: Depressed patients given anti-depressants show a significant rate of suicide, so there's been some concern that anti-depressants are responsible for patients commiting suicide. But one of the more notable symptoms of depression is extreme lethargy. So these patients may have been intending suicide all along, but they didn't have the energy to carry it out until the anti-depressant alleviated the lethargy. In logical terms, the anti-depressant didn't provide a sufficient condition for the suicide, but rather a necessary one. Normally providing a necessary condition doesn't assign responsibility unless it was done with the intent of providing a necessary condition. The doctors who prescribed anti-depressants for these patients never intended to provide the necessary energy for the patient to go through with a previously-planned suicide, so they wouldn't be responsible.)

Am I morally wrong if I can understand why my son took his own life? Am I wrong

Am I morally wrong if I can understand why my son took his own life? Am I wrong to see that his decision was a positive one, given the circumstances? Of course I am distraught, heartbroken and miss him terribly but the guilt I feel for understanding his reasons for ending his life seem to come from expectations of society. The acceptable moral viewpoints that society seems to have over suicide leave caring family members looking like we don't give a damn, when in fact the absolute opposite is true....the question in my head remains I really morally wrong in understanding his reasons and believing he did the right thing for himself? To give some background:- My son was an extremely intelligent, gentle and kind young man, who had battled with schizophrenia for 7 years from the age of only 18. His hopes and dreams in life had to be abandoned through the terrible experiences of hallucinations and panic attacks. Despite the daily routine of taking drugs that left him with slurred speech...

I don't think you are wrong to have such a belief, and we can all think of situations in which people might come to the reasonable conclusion that death was preferable to life. There are of course religious, and not only religious, principles on which suicide is morally ruled out, but social stigma is not nowadays normally much attached to suicide, it seems to me. For example, relatives who assist in the death of someone are rarely now convicted by juries of anything illegal, and in a sense they are assisting in suicide, the suicide of someone who is no longer able to carry it out by themselves. Suicide itself is no longer a crime, in most jurisdictions, and there exists a long tradition in many cultures of respecting the decision to end a life when one no longer believes it is worth preserving.

I would not be overly concerned at feelings of guilt, because we often feel guilt for things over which we have no control at all. It is not as though in a fit of sudden despair when you were not available to be with him he carried out this act. He thought about it over some time, calmly considered the various options and likely eventualities, no doubt including your feelings in the matter and the effect his action would have on you, and came to a certain conclusion. I think we have to respect the decisions of our children, especially when they veer away from where we would like them to go, and not feel guilt as a result of them.

On the other hand, in the case of someone on medication and with mental health problems one is always worried about how far autonomy is at issue. Did he really have the ability to take a calm and measured decision, or was his thinking unbalanced by a particular combination of drugs, or indeed their absence? In that case one might be worried about whether prompt intervention of some kind might have brought about a different conclusion. Then guilt would be appropriate. From the account you provide, though, this is not the situation, and I am sure you would understand the nature of what was taking place much better than anyone else. There is no reason why suicide need not be a brave and defiant act, and you should have no compunction at so describing it.

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.

Dear Philosophers,

Dear Philosophers, Can suicide be seen as pointless if in fact there is no afterlife/conciousness after death? If one ends one's life due to excrutiating pain, would it not be better to "live" with the pain than to not live at all? It seems paradoxical that if one commits suicide to escape something that one's death would not end anything because one cannot "reap the benefits" of no longer living. So would it not be greater to live poorly than to have not lived at all?

Your question assumes that every life is worth living, and that theonly point to ending one's earthly life would be to "trade up" to apresumably better afterlife. But if one's life is so bad that it is notworth living, there is no paradox in preferring oblivion. Your exampleof a life dominated by excruciating case might be an example where somewould find life not worth living; I could imagine that slavery could sodegrade those who are enslaved that their lives seem not worth living.My sense is that the prospect of avoiding future degradation orsuffering gives suicide salience in cases like these, not just theprospect of enjoying a better afterlife.

Socrates' discussion of the afterlife in Plato's Apology is a fascinting philosophical discussion of possible attitudes towards the afterlife.

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.

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.

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.

Considering the ethical reasons of stopping suicide: Why is it that, by default

Considering the ethical reasons of stopping suicide: Why is it that, by default, our society would tend to reject suicidal behaviors and promote the prevention and stopping of suicide? Why can't a person have the right and freedom to choose what to do with his/her life without approval from others? If leading a lousy or good life is the choice and responsibility of the individual, why should choosing to live no life at all be an option not considerable?

Although I am somewhat sympathetic with your intuition that we should be free to choose to end our own lives, if we decide that they are no longer worth living, I am also cautious about removing all social interventions intended to prevent suicide, as well. My reservation comes from the (not implausible, I hope) observation that many of those who attempt suicide are not in a fit condition to make that decision, and would not make that decision under other circumstances that are actually available to them. For example, as we all know, depression can make someone suicidal--and when deeply depressed, a person can come to the decision that his or her life is no longer worth living. But depression is a treatable condition (at least in many or most cases), and if the depressed person is given effective treatment, he or she will cease to think that his or her life is not worth living. So I think society (and all of us in it) has a strong interest in intervention, precisely because so many cases of the decision to commit suicide are not made fully rationally, but under the influence of some disorder such as depression.

On the other hand, it seems plain, as well, that there can be instances where one is in a position to judge soberly that further life is undesirable--for example, in the case of those with incurable, disabling, and increasingly painful diseases. I think patients given the best information available, and who decide that they do not wish to have the only future available to them can quite reasonably decide to end their lives, and should be permitted to do so, and supported in their decision.

I often find myself in a position where I realize that taking my own life would

I often find myself in a position where I realize that taking my own life would be very easy. Suppose I am about to cross the street, or am rock climbing; how simple and quick it would be to take one step, just one step, in front of a car or off a cliff. In all likelihood I wouldn't even feel any pain. In this way there seem many scenarios wherein the effective "barrier" to suicide seems practically nonexistent. I must stress: my contemplation of suicide in such instances has nothing to do with depression or even emotion, nor do I mean to make light of those who suffer from such grief; rather, I find the extreme ease with which I may conceptually commit catastrophic acts somewhat counter-intuitive. After all, what is there, really, to dissuade me? Suppose that I am an atheist. what rationale exists that might prevent me from killing myself? For one who is certain (1) that there exists no afterlife, and, further, (2) that there is no consciousness after death (i.e., I won't "miss" anything of life or...

Given your assumptions that there is no afterlife or consciousness after death, I can think of two kinds of reasons not to commit suicide (though these needn't decide against suicide in all cases): (1) Moral reasons: Killing yourself may result in harm to others (e.g., to one's dependents, or to the truck driver who is traumatized by killing you), and we sometimes have obligations not to impose such costs on others. The fact that you won't be around after your death doesn't mean that it wouldn't be wrong for you to impose such costs. (Similar issues arise with respect to environmental problems that we create that will affect future generations.) (2) Self-interested reasons: Even though you won't be around after your suicide, there may be a sense in which your life would be better for you if you decide not to kill yourself. If we compare the two lives (the one you live by killing yourself now versus the one you would have lived had you not killed yourself now), it could turn out that not killing yourself would have resulted in your having a better or more worthwhile life by various measures of self-interest or individual well-being (e.g., pleasure maximization, preference satisfaction, human flourishing, etc.). The fact that you won't be around to miss or regret the more worthwhile life if you commit suicide doesn't mean that the life that would have resulted from not killing yourself wouldn't have been a better life for you. Of course, it is possible that if you don't commit suicide the life you live won't be better than a life that ends now (e.g., if the stress of taking final exams is more detrimental to you than any benefits that occur afterwards). But, given certain assumptions that are likely to hold for you, it may be gamble that is worth taking despite the uncertainty involved.