The topic of suicide receives a lot of attention, and for good reason; the cessation of one’s own life should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, the morality of the action is still open for debate. Do we have a right to our own life/death, absent of any moral qualms? Engaging with the views of Immanuel Kant, Albert Camus, and David Hume, we see both sides of the argument. With the premise that suicide is indeed morally wrong, I will argue the alternative; man has a complete right to death.
Let us begin with a deontological standpoint; here we will confer with Immanuel Kant, chiefly by understanding his famous categorical imperative. Kant explains that for each action there is a maxim, a subjective principal of volition, the reason a person gives them self for acting. There is also a moral law which is what we ought to do. How does one determine moral law? By means of a universalization test of the Maxim; Kant explains that there is only one categorical imperative. He states: “Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant 34). Kant goes further; people acting morally must be autonomous, and a truly free will is a self-legislating will under moral law. Since people are the creators of moral laws; we are ends in ourselves. To Kant, suicide is using oneself as a means. We have intrinsic worth, and destroying oneself is wrong. Even if an individual’s future looks grim; is this person just a pleasure seeker? Is his/her body wholly theirs? This individual is the foundation of moral law and they have worth beyond what they know. To destroy that is immoral. This is all apparent, and Kant simply states that we must treat humans “never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end in itself” (Kant 45).
While the concept of humans always being treated as ends and never means is interesting; I believe it is fundamentally flawed. Humans are brought into this world as a means, not as an end, so why ought humans to be treated as ends when our existence is, and is based upon, a means? Let me explain. According to the Red Queen Hypothesis, sexual relationships are preferred over asexual ones because of various diseases/parasites, and the ultimate goal of procreation is to successfully pass one’s genes on to the next generation (Bell, 378-9). What this means is that humans have a better chance of survival by means of sexual relationships and procreation. If this hypothesis is true, which we, along with a majority of the scientific community, will assume it is, then what is the purpose of a human? It seems clear from a basic biological standpoint that a human’s purpose is simply to procreate and survive. A human is created by others as a means to create more humans and ultimately to enhance the chances of mankind’s survival. By this logic, we are simply a means for procreation and survival.
With this understanding, it makes sense that suicide is illogical; it clearly goes against our fundamental purpose. However, the issue here is not a matter of logic, but a matter of morality. Humans are brought into this world against their will. Why are they not allotted the choice of whether to accept life? In the case that ending their life would negatively impact others who care about them, does this make ending their life immoral? Surely not from a Kantian perspective, as they are now living only for the want of others – a mere means. Their life is kept solely because of pressure. This person has a life suspended on the potential hurt of others, a means for others happiness. When the will and want to live is gone, and a person is going on for others; a person is no longer an end in and of them self; I will explain this point further. This person not being an end makes sense as they lack the fundamental aspect of life – a will to live. They cannot be a legislator of universal law, and thus cannot be included in Kant’s theories in a similar way mentally retarded people cannot. The question now is whether Kant’s categorical imperative can even apply to suicidal people. Kant states that “Man can only dispose over things; beasts are things in this sense; but man is not a thing, not a beast. If he disposes over himself, he treats his value as that of a beast. He who so behaves, who has no respect for human nature and makes a thing of himself, becomes for everyone an object of freewill. We are free to treat him as a beast, as a thing, and to use him for our sport as we do a horse or a dog, for he is no longer a human being; he has made a thing of himself” (Kant, Lectures on Ethics). Kant is saying that if a person attempts suicide and does not succeed; this is the result. However, doesn’t the will to commit the act weigh similarly to a failed attempt? How does one classify a failed attempt? If shooting at someone and missing is not murder, but attempted murder – there is a big difference. But when it comes to attempted suicide, Kant believes this person loses their humanity as if there is no difference between a failed attempt and success. Under these terms, the intent and will is equivalent to a failed attempt. Kant’s passionate hand-waving and repugnant opinion of suicide bears no true grounding in even his own theory. How can Kant judge the morality of a thing? From what we have uncovered, it is clear that Kant’s theories are not suitable to judge a suicidal person’s morality.
Since Kant does not have a theory suitable to judge a suicidal person, I want to turn our attention to another perspective – an enlightened one. Man has long searched for a meaning to life. It is quite probable that one with suicidal thoughts has engaged in the same search, but they have found an answer: nothing. This is not to say all those who have come to realize this nihilistic meaning of life are suicidal. Many are fine living without knowing or believing in a meaning. Others of this enlightened perception may feel they are, as Albert Camus describes, “ridiculous character of the habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering” (Camus 13). Camus explains the meaninglessness of life in terms of its “absurdity.” When man pushes for answers to the truly unexplainable aspects of living, the absurdity of existence is revealed. It is not that life is absurd, or that the universe is absurd, but that humans cannot truly understand it. The realization of the meaninglessness is the absurd existence. Not realizing the meaningless (possibly by means of God/religion) is closer to ignorance. Moving forward we will remain completely secular and follow the, possibly existential (despite Camus’s rejection of categorization), view of our absurd existence. The real question, then, in this absurd existence, is whether suicide is the answer. In Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus does not try to escape his eternal absurd task of rolling a boulder up a hill, but instead perseveres and resists his urge to commit suicide. Camus believes suicide tempts us with the promise of freedom from the absurdity, but is a renouncement of our responsibility to confront the absurdity. Camus believes that suicide “is not legitimate,” and ultimately comes to the conclusion that people should find a meaning for their own life while understanding the absurdity (Camus 7). This conclusion is respectable, and Camus sheds light on the concept of existence and its absurdity. Moving forward we will maintain the understanding of life’s absurdity. As a side note, and from a different perspective, according to Simone de Beauvoir, man’s freedom is due to a similar ambiguity, but that of the separation of consciousness and body. There is nothingness, a distance, that allows man to be conscious of him/herself, with the ability to understand and choose what to do. However, the body keeps the consciousness alive without permission or choice. If one were to concentrate very hard on dying, one would not. Nevertheless, if one takes action against the entity forcibly restraining one’s will is it morally wrong? From what has been uncovered; I believe the answer is no.
Now that we have established grounding and discussed several theories from Kant and Camus, I want to circle back to some of the claims I made in the beginning of this research. I will confer with David Hume, an empiricist, and remain completely secular. Most refutations of suicide come first from a religious perspective. While this perspective may hold weight for some, in our secular view it is completely irrelevant. In the case of suicide there are typically three parties discussed: God, one’s neighbor, and oneself. The secular aspects, the effect suicide has on one’s neighbor and oneself, are often intertwined with the religious view. With the removal of religion there are two, instead of three (the third being God), remaining parties: others and oneself. In Hume’s essays he addresses all three, but due to our secular standpoint we will omit God from our discussion. Hume asks why “It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course, were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channel?” (Hume, Essay I). Why is it that man has the choice to do so many things, but cannot decide their own existence? Can we not rely on our biological motives to lead us correctly? The will to live, as we have discovered, is innate and powerful, and it should be enough. In the face of the absurdity of life, man will often blindly push on because of our innate biological predisposition. The cessation of one’s own life is agreed to be man’s greatest fear. If a person is able to logically decide to end their own life, then there must be a very good reason. If there is no speak-able reason, then the internal pain must exceed their innate will and drive to live. We have a right to happiness and some control of our experiences during life, but we do not have a right or control of our own life or death. It is as though we are a string and the hands holding each end are not ours. Since we are taking a secular approach, the hand holding the beginning of the string are the creators (one’s parents) and the hand holding the other end is society (people who care about us: friends/family). It does not make sense that we cannot hold our own string. While the creation of the string itself (the first hand) is needed for the situation, why do we not gain control of the string once we have consciousness? In many cases man is given control of their string in the face of terminal illness, however, the morality regarding suicide is no different in the face of terminal illness. We are all dying from the terminal illness of life, and the pain in the heart of one without the will to live can be as strong as one with terminal illness. In every case, the difference is only a relatively small number of years – no one has the option of eternal life. Without a divine entity, who holds the reins of our lives? In the case of suicide, it is society.
If society holds no true control of our decision, and cannot determine the morality, then there are no blockages left in place. Hume states that “A man who retires from life does no harm to society: He only ceases to do good; which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal” (Hume, Essay I). The necessity to do good for society occurs in a reciprocal relationship. We cannot do good without any sort of feedback or good done for us. Human interaction entails feedback. In the case of cessation, there is no feedback nor need for goodness – simply because there cannot be any. If for some reason this goodness is still required, it is at the expense of misery, and man is being used as a means once again. As a quick aside, in the case of co-dependence, if the one committing suicide has an infant in their care that will die; this does not fit into this thought process as this is an act of murder and should be treated and thought of as such. The concept of family and the pain that would come to those caring is the largest non-biological pressure against suicide. Can their happiness be valued above one’s own? If it is, then the pressure will be too great and the suicide will not occur. However, in the case of suicide it is clear a choice was made and the reason/pain outweighed the pain it would cause those caring. Do not forget the mourners have the same rights. Hume states that “the only way that we can then be useful to society, by setting an example, which if imitated, would preserve to everyone his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery” (Hume, Essay I). The free and unconstrained option of suicide preserves the happiness of mankind. Like evolution, only the happy will survive. Removing all moral constraints gives man the freedom of choice in death and happiness.
Conferring initially with Kant and making our way through Camus’ existential perspective, we moved toward a deontological mental conclusion with the help of Hume. It is clear that many thoughts and philosophies don’t hold credence in the face of suicide, such as was the story with Kant. Others have nihilistic ideals but still push for life, which was the case with Camus. Keeping Camus’ absurdity as a foundation we were able to move through the specific claims of Hume regarding man’s duty to themselves and others. In the end, the right to death was made clear through our moves and ending with the notion that a world in which total freedom of choice over one’s death is right.
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