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Is it consistent to be a libertarian while opposing suicide on moral grounds?

Is it consistent to be a libertarian while opposing suicide on moral grounds?

Typically, a libertarian (in the domain of politics; "libertarian" is also the label for someone who adopts a view in philosophy of mind or action theory involving free will) is someone who believes that societies should have a government that is the smallest possible in order to protect certain basis rights (perhaps a proper government should, on the grounds that persons have the right to life, prohibit murder and seek to prevent it). A libertarian might (on rare occasions) support some publicly funded health care, but he or she would (ideally) like such matters to be funded by individuals voluntarily by the individuals themselves. So, what about libertarians and suicide? If the libertarian believes that a minimal government should prohibit and prevent murder and she believes that suicide is wrong because it is a case of self-murder, then she may consistently support the government's prohibition and prevention of suicide. However, she may be "opposing suicide on" different moral grounds, e.g. she thinks it is prohibited by God or she thinks that in almost all cases suicide is ruled out on Kantian or utilitarian grounds. For the most part, libertarians do not think these religious or philosophical judgments of these kinds should be employed by the state to control its citizens. So, in this case when suicide is deemed wrong but not as grave a wrong as murder, a libertarian may well contend that suicide is indeed wrong (persons who commit suicide are doing something morally wrong), only adding that it is not within a government's right to make suicide illegal.

There is one additional side to things: while a libertarian may oppose there being an overall, federal government that makes suicide illegal (assuming suicide is not self-murder), her moral objections to suicide may motivate her to join a society voluntarily that makes suicide prohibited. Without knowing the details, I imagine that most Christian monasteries and Muslim communities have rules that forbid suicide (e.g. they would not fund or support the "physician-assisted suicide" of one of its members). A libertarian might join some such organization while still not supporting a governmental prohibition of suicide.

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.

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.

Suicide is often said to be irrational or immoral. But what good reasons does a

Suicide is often said to be irrational or immoral. But what good reasons does a person have to go on living if they are unhappy and have no reason to believe that they will ever be happy? Isn't the opposite often the case that the choice to live is in fact more irrational than the choice to die?

A person who is suicidal is likely to be depressed, and part of depression is pessimism--an unfounded belief that things will not get better. So chances are that a person who sees him or herself as rational for wanting to stop living is actually irrationally imagining a future that's much bleaker than it will really be. That's not to say there's never a case in which the future is, realistically, terribly bleak. In those rather rare circumstances, is there any good reason to go on living? There are certainly considerations that could weigh against taking one's own life. Suicide has a major impact on others besides the person who dies. Perhaps a person is needed by others, or the suicide would be terribly traumatic for others. That may or may not be decisive for someone in a specific situation, but I can imagine cases where it would be a "good reason to go on living" (as you put it). It goes much further to say, like some philosophers (Kant, for example), that there's something inherently unethical about committing suicide, so that choosing to die is always wrong, no matter what.


Hello, My question is the following: If a mentally and physically healthy person considers his/her life as meaningless and worthless, would that constitute a rational reason for him/her to commit a suicide.

Thank you for your question, which in spite of its brevity brings up a lot of hard issues. I won't try to answer it directly, but just add a few considerations:

1. Considering one's life to be meaningless doesn't show that it is. It may contain sources of meaning that one has not yet appreciated or even conceived of. Also, a person's like may have little meaning to *her*, but a lot of meaning to others, such as parents, friends, etc. In that case, it may have more meaning than one thinks.

2. Meaning can take a lot of different forms. People often wonder about "the" meaning of life, and this suggests that for a life to be meaningful, there has to be one big thing that is its meaning. But this is questionable. After all, in principle there could be a lot of different things that give life meaning, and they might not be intertranslatable into each other of commensurable. A walk in a forest on a crisp fall day, holding a lover's hand, appreciating a novel, having a child, all potentially give life meaning, but in quite different ways. I don't see that they have to be anything more than that.

3. Having a rational reason for doing something is not the same as having a compelling reason to do so. I have a reason to rescue dogs at the local SPCA, but it's more complex to figure out whether I should do that given other considerations.

4. On the other hand, I don't see that, unless we assume a particular religious perspective according to which you're one of God's creatures and therefore are really "His" property, you are obliged to stay living just because you are alive and well.

5. Perhaps the question then becomes, after taking Meaning off its mountain and looking for it in the small and quotidian places as I mentioned above, it's really true that one is *correct* in considering one's life meaningless. Perhaps you've been looking in the wrong places?

Mitch Green

Dear philosophers,

Dear philosophers, I have 2 questions: 1. Do you believe that it is morally permissible for an unmarried person (who has no children to care for) and who has battled depression for many years to commit suicide ? 2. What is your opinion of Liberalism which asserts that a person's life belongs only to them, and no other person has the right to force their own ideals by which that life must be lived ? Thanks, William

William: I think Professor Antony's reply is deep and commendable. I would only add a minor point about self-ownership or the thesis that one's life only belongs to one's self.

"Belonging" can involve property rights (this house belongs to me) but it can also refer to what is good for a person (e.g. he belongs in a hospital, she belongs in a great school, etc). If you step back from your current state (a very difficult act of abstraction, I agree!), can you see that you belong in a caring, curative therapeutic process? I think if you can begin to begin seeing that, you can see a different path than self-destruction. In a way, part of an answer to your question will involve not just a matter of liberalism versus a conservative, paternalistic form of governance, but it will involve a philosophy of values and one's overall understanding of the cosmos. For example, one of the reasons Christian philosophers historically opposed suicide (even the dignified suicide of Lucretius which was valorized in Ancient Rome --see the early chapters of Augustine's City of God) was because they believed that the purpose of life included joy, a joy in creation and Creator. This was why some Chritians historically defined despair as a refusal of joy. Clearly this was NOT taking into account the clinical, organic roots of depression and despair, nor was this taking seriously ways in which depression or despair can be quite involuntary and not a matter of choice (refusal or acceptance). But I mention this to suggest that you might take seriously some worldviews that hold out joy as an attainable, desirable end, even if it must be sought out not just philosophically or theologically but through careful medical practice. To give a somewhat secular alternative example, you might look at John Stewart Mill's autobiography and his account of his misery and despair. He emerged partly through meditative readings of the romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. I note this as "somewhat secular," as their poetry had a rich spirituality not quite akin to secular naturalism.

I have a practical question that arises from my Solipsistic views. The more

I have a practical question that arises from my Solipsistic views. The more negatively I view my life as a whole, the more disturbed I am by the prospect of my own suicide. When I feel my life has meaning, the option of eventual suicide, though not in the near future, becomes attractive. Conversely, when I feel helpless and depressed, I would rather let nature kill me. However, this tendency reverses when I entertain the thought that people exist outside of my mind. Even coming from a Solipsist who holds that nothing outside of the mind can be known, my attitude towards suicide depends upon the reality outside the mind. Since I have to make the decision of whether to live or die, I have to also take a stance on what exists apart from the mind. How do I choose which potentiality to base this decision upon? Can there be any reason to prefer one potential scenario to another? The scenario where others exist apart from my mind comes more naturally, but is this reason enough to continue entertaining it, hence...

I am not sure there has ever been any actual solipsist. Keep in mind that a solipsist thinks that only he /she exists. There is no one else. This is as radical a view as possible, though perhaps NYU professor Peter Unger went slightly further in a paper of his called something like "Why I don't exist"! If you are a solipsist, you are committed to holding that none of us exist --you are not in communication with any person outside of yourself. The difficulty of actually holding such a position comes out in an encounter that Bertrand Russell once reported. Russell tells us that he met a woman who thought solipsism was a great philosophy and she was surprised more people aren't solipsists. The reason this might be funny is because if the woman was truly a solipsist, she would not recognize that there are any other people at all.

You may be conflating solipsism and radical skepticism. A skeptic may claim not to know about "the external world" or "other minds," but that is different from claiming that only one person exists and that person is me or, in your case, you, which means I do not exist.

Your reflections on suicide are worrisome and if this is something you are seriously contemplating, I strongly urge you to receive help asap especially as your decision on such matters may be more influenced by psychological feelings of depression and helplessness rather than, say, philosophical reflection on arguments about suicide. Some philosophers have defended the permissibility of suicide under extreme conditions (Stoics, David Hume...) while some have argued against it (Socrates, John Locke...). I think one of the best cases against suicide, and I urge you to read it sooner rather than later, may be found in the early chapters of Augustine's The City of God.

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote:

On May 28, 2009, Jennifer Church wrote: "A more abstract reason for disallowing suicide concerns the apparent contradiction in the idea that we can improve a life by ending a life. The suicide's thought that she will be better off dead seems to contradict the fact that, if dead, she will not be anything. Her desire to retain control over her life by ending it in the way she wants to end seems to contradict the fact that there is no control over a life that has ended. There are other ways to express a suicidal intention, though, that do not lead to such contradictions." This has been haunting me since I first read it. As suggested, I am unable to devise a non-contradictory logic of suicide (for argument, base this thought on life being a biomechanical phenomenon, no after-life, and really no proof that anything at all remains in existance if you (the contemplator) are not conscious of it. This has taken on a particular poignancy as a friend has recently killed himself. I see existence continuing...

I hope Jennifer Church will also answer this one. But I don't quite see why the decision to commit suicide must be based upon the fallacy of thinking that one will be better off. The value of eliminating something bad does not have to derive from some (other) benefit achieved in the process. (See step (C) in the argument below.)

(A) S's life now involves unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(B) If the life is ended, so will the pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

(C) Ending unbearable and irremediable pain and/or suffering of some other sort is at least sometimes a good reason to do something.

Hence, (D) There can be a good reason to end a life of unbearable pain and/or suffering of some other sort.

I see nothing in this argument that presupposes the fallacy you mention--for example, it is not assumed that by ending the pain and/or suffering of some other sort that the one whose pain or suffering has been ended will be "better off." As you say, they won't be "better off," they will simply be gone. But the pain or suffering will also be gone, and that's not such a bad thing.

I am intrigued that of all the hundreds of questions asked over the years, only

I am intrigued that of all the hundreds of questions asked over the years, only two have been posed about euthanasia or voluntary suicide. Do we have the right to end our lives when we reach a rational decision to do so? On what basis do some people wish to deny us that right?

In order not to get bogged down in disputes about the nature of rights or the nature of rationality in general, let me rephrase your question as follows: If someone in sound mind decides to end his or her life, should this be allowed? If not, why not?

One reason we might not allow a person of sound mind to commit suicide is that we think that person's decision is based on seriously incomplete or misleading evidence -- e.g. if her reading has led her to believe that her cancer is incurable when in fact it is quite easily eliminated. No matter how reasonable, and how well-read, a person is, it is possible to make bad decisions because one lacks good evidence. At the very least, we ought to intervene in such cases to make sure that the person has accurate information before acting. The very same evidence can lead different people to different conclusions, however, and we must not assume that everyone who disagrees with our own view (or an expert's view) is of unsound mind. Some people believe that a life without movement, or a life without language, is not worth living; others are confident that such a life is worth living; and neither group should be dismissed as irrational.

Another reason for disallowing suicide is the conviction that people do not own their lives and that no one should destroy what they do not own. This reason has been invoked by religious traditions that insist that lives belong to God and only God should be allowed to bring life to an end. But there are also less religious versions of this argument that view life as a part of nature that is not ours to destroy.

A third reason for disallowing suicide -- in certain situations, anyway -- concerns its likely effect on others. If a desperate mother's suicide is likely to wreck the lives of her children (leaving them in the hands of an abusive father, for example, or traumatizing them in such a way that they too will live desperately unhappy lives), then it may be right to prevent her suicide in order to save the lives of the children.

A more abstract reason for disallowing suicide concerns the apparent contradiction in the idea that we can improve a life by ending a life. The suicide's thought that she will be better off dead seems to contradict the fact that, if dead, she will not be anything. Her desire to retain control over her life by ending it in the way she wants to end seems to contradict the fact that there is no control over a life that has ended. There are other ways to express a suicidal intention, though, that do not lead to such contradictions.

I am convinced that there are many situations in which suicide is rational and allowable (situations of relentless pain, inevitable loss of mind, or endangerment of others). Furthermore, I think that suicide is something that we ought sometimes to facillitate (by supplying appropriate medications, for example). Because of the complexities described above, however, I do not think that discussion of this difficult topic is advanced by appeals to a 'right to suicide'.

This question is about suicide/death. Is it even possible to hold a preference

This question is about suicide/death. Is it even possible to hold a preference between the alternatives of life and death, assuming materialism is true? When a person dies, his or her brain shuts down, hence their consciousness ceases (from everything we know). It seems impossible therefore to properly conceive of what it is like to be dead. Isn't it therefore illogical to state "I would rather be dead"?

Your question makes me wonder how many people who commit suicide do so with the belief (1) that their consciousness will cease (their identity will end) and how many do so with the belief (2) that their consciousness (and identity) will continue but in a better existence (e.g., heaven). Though this seems like an impossible survey to do (no way to ask the dead!), we could ask people who survive attempted suicides what their goal was (or if they had a goal at all). Perhaps the research has been done. For some reason, I've always assumed that most people who commit suicide (other than terrorists) do so with belief 1 rather than belief 2. And some people may avoid suicide even in the face of despair because they have the belief (3) that their consciousness will continue in a worse existence (e.g., hell), as Hamlet reminds us: "the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country."

Of course, it would not be illogical to say "I would rather be dead" if one believed (2), that dying tranports them to a better world (and "I would rather not be dead" obviously makes sense for someone who believees 3). So, the question is whether it makes sense for someone who believes 1, that his or her consciousness will cease with the death of the body, to say it.

First of all, I don't think it is right to say it is impossible to conceive what it is like to be dead. On this view, there is nothing it is like to be dead. And it seems we can conceive of that--it's presumably the (lack of) mental state we undergo in dreamless sleep (or under anesthesia). We can conceive of it; we just can't experience it consciously.

Now, does this impossibility mean that it is illogical to say "I'd rather be dead"? It doesn't seem so to me. One might mean, "What I consciously experience is so miserable that it would be better for my consciousness to cease." (I hope anyone who feels that way would seek help from friends, family, professionals, and help-lines before he or she believed it to be true, especially since miserable experiences can often give way to much better experiences with time.) If I say that, I am not saying that I will be better off (that things will be better for me) when I lack consciousness, since I will no longer exist. Rather, I am saying that things will be better when I lack consciousness and no longer exist. (It's easy to see how there could be utilitarian arguments for suicide.)

Another way to see the point is to recognize that we have current preferences for states of affairs that we know will exist only after we are dead. For instance, I prefer there to be a viable environment for my great-grandchildren. And I am willing to give up satisfying some of my preferences for my current self to satisfy that preference (though we really are not built to do so and it's hard to get ourselves to do it!). I also put away some of the money I could spend on stuff for me to purchase life insurance, which I know would only be useful if I were dead. I prefer that my family have that money even though I believe that I won't experience them using it. Similarly, it seems one could prefer to have no experiences at all to having bad experiences, even though one believes that he or she would not experience having no experiences.