The Taboo of Suicide: A Philosophical Review

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. —Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

While the issues of assisted dying and euthanasia have been and continue to be debated with great fervor, suicide itself remains either an under-examined or pigeonholed issue. When we think of suicide, we almost instinctively ask how can we prevent it?, how can we address its causes? Underlying these thoughts is the assumption that suicide is something to be stopped—that it is bad in a broad sense. Michael Cholbi has pointed out that, compared to assisted dying and euthanasia, “more ‘run-of-the-mill’ suicide motivated by psychological anguish is somewhat overlooked.”

So let’s examine suicide without the pre-packaged platitudes. At its core, it is a reply to the question should I continue to exist or not?

The question of suicide, as Camus writes, may be the ultimate question that has to be addressed. And it is an a priori question. It lays the foundation for any authentic efforts to prevent suicide and to implement a zero suicide model in healthcare settings, which goes beyond tenuous and unexamined assumptions, e.g. the belief that suicide is ipso facto bad.

To reduce the question of suicide to a simplistic slogan trivializes the serious and deeply personal question of whether existence is worthwhile. Strip away all the social connotations and what remains is an ironically simple question (at least in its form)—shall I continue or not? And this is a question of exercising an inalienable freedom inherent in all persons—a radical freedom, as Jean-Paul Sartre thought of it.

The Orthodoxy and the Underlying Tension

In everyday life, the worth of life is an almost unquestionable orthodoxy that is taboo to question publicly, although we may have our private doubts from time to time. Of course, life is valuable, many would strongly affirm. John Kaag points out that “For many people, life’s worth is never in question. It never becomes a topic of conversation or debate. Life is simply lived until it is not.”

And indeed, some might rightly say that life ought to be lived and that suicide, when it does manifest as a possibility, ought to be rejected on the basis that life is an inviolable, basic human good. Aristotle and Aquinas, among others, articulated this viewpoint. Aquinas writes that, when we exercise our sense of practical reasonableness, we will conclude that human life is among a group of irreducible human goods that we simply must respect: “[suicide] runs counter to the natural inclinations of nature and charity to love and cherish oneself [and] it does injury to the community to which each [person] belongs as a part of the whole.” In essence, by reflecting on our practical human experiences and observations of human nature, human life seems to be an irreducible basic human good, possibly a self-evident truth. Accordingly, Aristotle argues that suicide is wrong, since it an act against the “right principle” of life.

But there is an underlying doubt that ebbs and flows beneath life’s veneer of certainty that is not always psychopathological in character. Philosopher Thomas Nagel describes “the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.” This, he argues, is the absurdity that characterizes life.

The assumption that an individual who is suicidal is mentally incompetent or afflicted by psychopathologies reeks of paternalism. It betrays a disregard for our inalienable, existential freedom as self-defining entities to choose our own destinies, which includes the choice to end those destinies. Ronald Maris articulates a nuanced and important point: “Suicide is a solution to the problem of life itself, not some perverse response to a life gone awry.”

This naturally begs the question, why should we take life seriously? In other words, as John McDermott argues, “It may justly be asked that, if one does not bother, what else does one do? The answer is very singular and clear. One should commit suicide.” (Complete suicide should be an alternative to commit. Suicide is not a crime—as the word commit implies—in many jurisdictions, including those of almost all Western nations.)

The famously pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer writes:

Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance … Certain it is that work, worry, labor, and trouble form the lot of almost all [people] their whole life long.

For Schopenhauer, human suffering is inextricably intertwined with life itself because of the demands which life exacts from us all. Therefore, “you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence … [T]he world and [humankind] is something that had better not have been.” Life, as opposed to non-existence, is a state of affairs that necessarily involves suffering. In life, we have needs and desires, the fulfillment of which we pursue. And yet, on a regular basis, our needs and desires are not satisfied, whether because of insufficient food and/or income, ailing health, unsatisfactory career prospects, inadequate academic performance, lack of familial affection, disappointing romantic attempts, etc. All these things cause suffering and are part and parcel of life: where there are needs and desire, there will be unmet needs and desires. Life, then, seems to be—by its very nature—a fleshly hell with varying degrees of sorrow, pain and grief, and moments of reprieve.

David Benatar also makes the case for not being born:

life is a state of continual striving. We have to expend effort to ward off unpleasantness—for example, to prevent pain, assuage thirst and minimise frustration … [I]t would be better, all things being equal, if [human extinction] happened sooner rather than later for, the sooner it happens, the more suffering and misfortune will be avoided.

Building on the theme of suffering, Benatar observes: “we are involuntarily brought into an existence that bears considerable risk of serious harm. We did not and could not consent to our coming into existence. Nor can we wrest this control from those who exercised it.” In Benatar’s qualified defense of suicide, he argues that “because none of us could have consented to being brought into existence, it is especially important that each one of us at least have the option of ceasing to exist if he or she would rather not endure the hardships that life presents.” Benatar highlights an underappreciated fact: no one consented to having been born. We just were. And now here we are. No one, in the realm of ethereal nothingness, ever spontaneously asserted I really do wish I could manifest myself in physical form. We were, perhaps rudely, thrown into being and our lives are a response to having been compelled into existence. Thus, John Doe’s suicide should at least hold prima facie legitimacy as a statement that he no longer wished to partake in a state of affairs to which he did not consent. I think that most fair-minded people would agree that it is egregious to force, or condemn, someone to engage in something to which they never agreed. Why does this not apply to life itself?

As Benatar points out, “After all, it is very likely that the high value we attach to life is at least significantly influenced by a brute biological life drive, a strong instinct of self-preservation that is pre-rational, shared with other animals, and then, in the case of humans, rationalized.” We may exist and undergo life’s frustrations, not for intelligible reasons, but out of a pre-rational yet rationalized obedience to the taskmaster that is life. We should replace you should live because with you must, full stop.

Supporting Benatar’s observation of a pre-rational and later rationalized life drive, Thomas Nagel, while not himself a pessimist, argues: “What sustains us, in belief as in action, is not reason or justification, but something more basic than these—for we go on in the same way even after we are convinced that the reasons have given out. If we tried to rely entirely on reason, and pressed it hard, our lives and beliefs would collapse.” Rationality collapses under the weight of existential query.

On What Basis Can Life Be Taken Seriously?

William James offers a useful insight: “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached.” To adopt the belief that life is worth living grants this belief the necessary truth value to become a fact. As James argues, “In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.”

Adopt the belief that life is worth living and its truth value follows. A similar point is articulated by the character Dogbert, in the television adaptation of Dilbert: “It is all part of the big illusion that we perpetuate on ourselves and is in turn perpetuated on us. When we believe, we engage the illusion. When we stop believing, we shatter the illusion and shatter ourselves in the process because we are part of it.”

What this comes down to is a personal choice, a choice grounded in our inalienable freedom to decide our own fates. A leap of faith. Within this leap of faith lies the possibility of living with authenticity. How can I be said to live life authentically if I simply cannot choose otherwise? To have the real possibility of choosing otherwise, of suicide, grants authenticity to one’s leap of faith in living. Death is possible at any moment and yet we can choose to live.

As John McDermott puts it, “Straight out then, living should be a personal choice made over against the existential, viable, often plausible, and certainly liberating option of suicide.” Whether I adopt the belief that life is worth living or not is ultimately a self-defining choice. I can take life seriously because I have chosen to adopt the belief that life is worth living. This is a qualitative leap for there is no certain ground on which to stand. McDermott quotes T. S. Eliot, who warns that, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Maybe one reason why suicide is often seen as a tragedy is because it pierces the bubble of our shared self-perpetuating reality—our grand illusion—that life is worth living. Ronald Maris observes that, symbolically, “[s]uicide implies that there is an individual, if not separate and distinct … [but] the well-being of a particular individual is part and parcel of a transcendent collective reality … Suicide is an indirect claim that life is purposeless, absurd, not worth living.” Suicide pierces this “transcendent collective reality.”

Revisiting Old Questions in Order to Formulate New Ones

So, what does this all amount to? A recognition of the underlying tension beneath our everyday orthodoxy of life. We need humility—rather than a savior complex—when thinking about what it means to prevent suicide or to implement a zero suicide model.  A deeply personal self-defining choice is at stake. What do we owe to each other as self-defining entities? This question is inextricably intertwined with another query: what is the scope of and what are the limits to intervening in another person’s suicide, especially since it may be an exercise of existential freedom? Here, there is no room for simplistic slogans, platitudes or paternalistic condescension.

Questions about the prevention of suicide must, then, also address the complicated relationship between suicide and psychopathology. Under what circumstances can we consider suicide as a manifestation of psychopathology and not a genuine exercise of existential freedom? To what extent do different psychopathologies negate this existential freedom? Is the notion of existential freedom compatible with mental competence, as assessed by mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists? To what extent is it justified to involuntarily hospitalize individuals who are suicidal, particularly when those suicidal feelings can stem from a genuine exercise of freedom? These are some of the many questions that will require fleshing out once we get beyond slogans and unquestioned attitudes.

Doubts

In the end, even though I believe that life is worth living, I sometimes have latent doubts. Most, if not all, of us, have moments of doubt about the seriousness with which we regard our lives. Thomas Nagel points out that most of us then “return to our familiar convictions with a certain irony and resignation,” feelings captured in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.

Nagel offers poignant and useful words: “If sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of the eternal] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” As Terry Eagleton suggests:

to live in an awareness of our mortality is to live with realism, irony, truthfulness, and a chastening sense of our finitude and fragility … We would be less inclined to launch hubristic projects which bring ourselves and others to grief. An unconscious trust in our own immortality lies at the source of much of our destructiveness.

The flip side of suicide—the denial of death, i.e. the desire to construct a symbolic life that will reach beyond one’s fleshly life (e.g. to be remembered for this or that)—has been interpreted by Ernest Becker as the genesis of human destructiveness. In my choice to live, rather than complete suicide, lies an irony. The best way to live may be to remain keenly aware of death.

And so, I go trudging along—not out of an illusory heroic dream nor out of masochistic despair but out of emboldened irony. As William James put it, “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.”

 

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  1. Years ago, my thoughts about suicide evolved from assuming it was always wrong, something to be prevented, to seeing it as an option for people whose suffering could not be relieved. I was part of a list-serve for people with depression. Some had found relief, but others had tried every treatment available and still suffered greatly. As various communities were debating various death with dignity measures, I read that all prohibited people with depression from availing themselves of this option. Essentially, these measures offered relief only to people with physical pain or the inability to care for themselves. I still regard this exception as cruel. If we can relieve depression, that’s all good. But when we don’t have the means to do so, why condemn those who suffer the worst forms of depression to live on in this state. Let them also opt out of suffering.

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