Category Archives: Rights


from The Living of Charlotte Perkins    Gilman
Suicide Note, August 17, 1935
from The Right to Die


Charlotte Perkins Gilman—writer, philosopher, feminist, and social critic—contributed significantly to 20th-century political and feminist theory. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, she lived much of her childhood in poverty after her father left the family when she was seven years old. She taught herself to read, studied music, and was largely self-educated in the fields of history, sociology, biology, and evolution. She attended public school sporadically until age 15 and later studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Gilman became active in women’s issues at a young age. She founded a women’s gym in Providence when she was 21 at a time when overexertion was thought to cause hysteria in women. She later gained recognition as a lecturer and writer, focusing her talents on the Nationalist Movement, a type of socialism based on Edward Bellamy’s thought and portrayed in his novel Looking Backward (1888). Gilman’s philosophy, activism, and writings showed enormous breadth, and included works on political and social reform, support for the Labor Movement and women’s suffrage, poetry, essays, and studies on gender issues in economics, anthropology, and history. She is also known for her famous work of short fiction The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown following the birth of her daughter, which, like Virginia Woolf’s [q.v.] Mrs. Dalloway (1925), includes a searing critique of the manner in which the medical community treated women’s mental health near the turn of the century.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932. Before this diagnosis, Gilman had written about euthanasia and right-to-die issues. In one passage from her posthumously published autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she remarks after visiting her ill father in a sanitarium that a future civilized society would not “maintain such a horror.” In 1935, after living three years with a cancer she had been told would kill her within a year and a half, Gilman ended her life by inhaling chloroform. She left a letter, conventionally called a suicide note, which stressed her view of the primacy of human relationships and social responsibility (“Human life consists in mutual service”) and ended in the famous line: “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”

At the time of her death, she left with her agent the manuscript of an article entitled “The Right to Die,” a defense not only of suicide but also of voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia, requesting that it be published after her death. It was intended as a piece for discussion at the height of the euthanasia movement in the United States, before the horrors of the Nazi holocaust became known.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York:  D. Appleton-Century Co.), 1935, pp. 215, 333-335, 331; “The Right to Die”, The Forum and Century, Vol. XCIV, no. 5 (Nov. 1935), pp. 297-300.



“Mother gets letter saying Father is worse.  Go to see him at sanitarium, Delaware Water Gap.  He is much better and seems glad to see me.” I stayed overnight, next day: “Little talk with Father.  Give him $5.”—if from me or mother I do not recall. There were many such visits when I was in or near New York. He seemed to value my coming—so long as he knew me. He lingered on, till the beginning of 1900. Softening of the brain. It is not right that a brilliant intellect should be allowed to sink to idiocy, and die slowly, hideously. Some day when we are more civilized we shall not maintain such a horror.

 …In January, 1932, I discovered that I had cancer of the breast. My only distress was for Houghton. I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.

Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.

Going to my doctor for definite assurance, he solemnly agreed with my diagnosis and thought the case inoperable.

“Well,” said I cheerfully, “how long does it take?” He estimated a year and a half.  “How long shall I be able to type?”  I asked. “I must finish my Ethics.” He thought I might be quite comfortable for six months. It is now three and a half years and this obliging malady has given me no pain yet.

Then came what was pain—telling Houghton. He wanted an expert opinion, and we got it. No mistake. Then, since I utterly refused a late operation, he urged me to try X-ray treatment, which I did with good effects. He suffered a thousand times more than I did—but not for long. On the fourth of May, 1934, he suddenly died, from cerebral hemorrhage.

Whatever I felt of loss and pain was outweighed by gratitude for an instant, painless death for him, and that he did not have to see me wither and die—and he be left alone.

I flew to Pasadena, California, in the fall of 1934, to be near my daughter and grandchildren. Grace Channing, my lifelong friend, has come out to be with me. We two have a little house next door but one to my Katharine, who is a heavenly nurse and companion. Dorothy and Walter, her children, are a delight. Mr. Chamberlin, my son-in-law, has made the place into a garden wherein I spend happy afternoons under an orange-tree—the delicious fragrance drifting over me, the white petals lightly falling—in May! Now it is small green oranges occasionally thumping.

One thing I have had to complain of—shingles. Shingles—for six weeks. A cancer that doesn’t show and doesn’t hurt, I can readily put up with; it is easy enough to be sick as long as you feel well—but shingles!

People are heavenly good to me. Dear friends write to me, with outrageous praises. I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality—no interest in nor desire for it.

My life is in Humanity—and that goes on. My contentment is in God—and That goes on. The Social Consciousness, fully accepted, automatically eliminates both selfishness and pride. The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.

The religion, the philosophy, set up so early, have seen me through.



Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortunate, or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.



Should an incurable invalid, suffering constant pain and begging for a quicker, easier death, be granted that mercy?
Should a hopeless idiot, lunatic, or helpless paretic be laboriously kept alive?

Should certain grades of criminals be painlessly removed—or cruelly condemned to the cumulative evil of imprisonment?

Is suicide sometimes quite justifiable?

We have changed our minds more than once on these matters and are in process of changing them again. On the above questions, asked a hundred or even fifty years ago, there would have been scant discussion. Humans were mainly agreed that certain criminals deserved death, that suicide was a sin, and that agonized invalids and healthy idiots were to be cherished carefully.

The influence of the Christian religion has done much to establish a sort of dogma of the “sanctity of human life,” but the ancient religions of India went further, holding all life sacred, to such an extent that the pious Jain sweeps the path before him lest he step on a worm.

What is the “sanctity of human life”?  Why is it sacred?  How is it sacred?  When is it sacred?

Is it sacred where we lavishly reproduce it, without thought or purpose?  While it is going on?  Or only when it is about to end?

Our mental attics are full of old ideas and emotions, which we preserve sentimentally but never examine. The advance of the world’s thought is promoted by those whose vigorous minds seize upon inert doctrines and passive convictions and shake them into life or into tatters. This theory that suicide is a sin is being so shaken today.

Why has not a man the right to take his own life? Shaw, the inveterate shaker of old ideas, says that his own life is the only one a man has a right to take.

Against this apparently natural right stand two assumptions, one that it is cowardly, the other that it is a sin. The brave man is supposed to endure long, hopeless agony to the bitter end, as an exhibition of courage; the moral man similarly to bear incurable suffering, because to shorten his torment would be wrong.

How much more reasonable is the spirit of the sturdy old country doctor who was found dead in his bed, with a revolver by his side and the brief note, “There’s no damn cancer going to get ahead of me!”

Why it should please God to have a harmless victim suffer prolonged agony was never made clear; but those who so thought also assumed that whatever happened was God’s will, that He was afflicting us for some wise purpose of His own and did not like to be thwarted, balked in his plan of punishment so to speak. Astonishing calumnies have been believed of God.

There is a pleasant tale of an ingenious person, captive of savages and obliged to watch the horrors of his comrades’ dreadful deaths. When his turn came, he told the credulous natives that he knew of an herb which, when rubbed upon the skin, rendered it impervious to any weapon and which he would show them if they would spare him.

So they accompanied him here and there in the forest, till he picked a certain rare plant, which he rubbed well on the side of his neck. Then he laid his head on a log and told them to strike as hard as they liked. Down came the ax, and off went a grinning ghost, enjoying their discomfiture—at least it is pleasant to think so. At any rate he was not tortured. But he had lied, to be sure, and practically committed suicide. Was it sin?

Suicide was a gentleman’s exit in ancient Rome, as it is yet in the Orient. It must have been too popular in the misery of the Dark Ages, for a discerning church soon decided that it was extremely wrong. It was a difficult offense to penalize, the offender having escaped, so they punished the corpse, burying it with a stake through the body, at a crossroads, that, instead of enjoying seclusion and consecrated ground, it might be trampled over by all who passed.


A very special damnation having been provided for such rebellious souls, suicide fell into disrepute. It is now becoming popular again, not merely as a justifiable escape from an unbearable position but as a hopeful experiment for discouraged youth. And no more pathetic instance of the blind groping of such religionless young people could be asked. They no longer believe in the kind of God worshiped by their ancestors, not in “His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” They quite repudiate the earlier moral sense and have not yet succeeded in evolving any satisfactory substitute.

It might be advanced, as consolation in these too-frequent tragedies, that minds so word-befuddled would not in all probability have been of much service to the world had they survived; but such harsh criticism fails to estimate the capacity for suffering which belongs to youth.

As with most moral questions, the confusion lies in our outdated sense of individuality, our failure to recognize social responsibility. Youth is, of course, naturally egotistical, and in home, school, church, and ordinary contact little is done to develop social consciousness.

That an individual’s life, growth, and happiness are dependent on interrelation with other people and that each of us owes to others the best service of a lifetime is not accepted by those who back out of life because it hurts. Such premature and ill-based suicide is timid, feeble, foolish, and, in respect to social responsibility, dishonorable. It is desertion, not in the face of the enemy but before imagined enemies.

On the other hand, military law forbids the attempt to hold an indefensible position. There are times when surrender is quite justifiable. If men or women are beyond usefulness, feel that they are of no service or comfort to any one but a heavy burden and expense, and, above all, if they suffer hopelessly, they have a right to leave.

But, while we are beginning to open the door for a man to take his own life with good reason, we are trying to close it upon the right of society to take the life of a criminal. The opponents of capital punishment rest their arguments largely on the alleged sanctity of human life and further on the fact that the severe and cruel penalties of earlier times did not prevent crime.

This sudden application of sanctity to man at the point of death, a life neglected and corrupted from babyhood, is unconvincing. It is true that severe punishment does not prevent crime, but neither does light punishment or no punishment at all. Can we prevent crime after it has been committed? The prevention must begin with birth, must ensure the best conditions for growth and education, for rightly chosen employment, for rest and recreation.

But, unfortunately, criminals sometimes appear from families of the enlightened and well-to-do, cases of atavism, primitive characters breaking out into the modern world most mischievously. And, furthermore, society is open to many kinds of perversion and disease.

Since we have criminals, engaged in transmitting and increasing evil, what are we to do with them? The most tenderly sentimental would hardly suggest leaving them at large.

To remove such a diseased character as this is not an act of “punishment”; it is social surgery, the prompt excision of the affected part. Those who call death cruel and urge imprisonment instead do not realize the greater cruelty and cumulative danger of confinement.

Much of vice and crime is distinctly infectious. “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” and no antitoxin has been found to prevent that corruption. We may call our prisons isolation hospitals if we like, but if the prisoner is really isolated he goes mad—no punishment is so cruel as solitary confinement. Not being isolated, the prisoners infect and reinfect one another. The cumulative influence of these carefully maintained collections of diseased characters affects not only the prisoners but those who restrain them. It is held by some that the care of the helpless develops noble qualities in those who tend them. These theorists have failed to study the effect of such activity on warders, keepers, guards, and those who wait on and serve utter idiots and maniacs.


The elimination of diseased parts from our body politic should not be discussed as punishment but as an operation on the social body. One does not either “forgive” or “punish” an inflamed appendix but one does cut it out.

The same position may be taken in regard to the incurable idiot or maniac. If, to the best of our present knowledge, such cases are hopeless, why should we isolate and preserve the affected parts? Why should we not painlessly remove them? Affection, gratitude for previous services may be urged, but this attitude is based on the assumption that it is some pleasure or advantage to the ruined minds to live thus ignominiously.

Here is a case of a fine woman who has lived a good and fruitful life. She is affected with a progressive mental disorder, and for fifteen years two daughters are sacrificed to the unfruitful service of increasing idiocy, their lives crippled, wrecked.

But she is their mother, she has loved and served them, we protest. Yes, and what would any mother feel, if she could know it, to realize that she who loved them was now the means of slowly ruining her children?

In another instance we see a man once strong and intellectual, eminent in scholarship, honorable in service to society, now a paretic. Slowly he fails in physical and mental power, reaching the condition of a gross baby, a huge, brainless baby lying like a log in an unclean bed, while nurse and doctor wait for him—for it—to die. What is sacred in that dreadful ignominy? When intelligent consciousness is gone forever, the man is gone, and the body should be decently removed.

The record of a previously noble life is precisely what makes it sheer insult to allow death in pitiful degradation. We may not wish to “die with our boots on” but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.

In New York, some years ago, an elderly woman was suffering from a complication of diseases; recovery was impossible; she know that she must die; and her constant and terrible pain was such that she begged piteously for release.  She was attended by a devoted daughter and by a trained nurse, a sturdy Nova Scotian, rigidly religious.

The patient died somewhat sooner than was expected by the physician. The nurse testified that she had seen the daughter put something in her mother’s drinking glass. Careful inquiry ascertained that there was no inheritance to offer a “motive” for murder and that this mother and daughter had been attached and congenial friends, wholly devoted to each other. The inquest ignored the nurse’s testimony, and no charge, fortunately, was brought against the daughter.

More recently, in England, a man whose beloved little girl was in constant suffering from an incurable disease, after long daily and nightly care and tender nursing, relieved the child’s agony with a quick death. The judge, in charging the jury, pointed out how long and lovingly the poor father had nursed his child and urged upon them that, if he had allowed a dog in his possession to so linger in pain, he would have been liable to punishment for cruelty. The prisoner, and rightly, was not convicted.


Practical Germany has discussed a law allowing physicians to administer euthanasia in certain cases. It was not passed, the two principal objections being the chance of a safe variety of murder and the effect of the patient’s loss of confidence in his physician. That confidence is a valuable asset in the cure of disease. If a sick man felt that, if his doctor decided he could not recover, anesthesia would be promptly administered, it would certainly add fear to his other difficulties and jeopardize his chance of life.

No such power should be left to any individual, physician of other, though it might be advanced that no doctor would voluntarily shorten his “case.” Too many mistakes in diagnosis have been made, too many patients have been given up to die and rebelliously recovered, to permit of any one man governing such a decision.

But suitable legal methods may be devised by a civilized society. When the sufferer begs for release or when the mind is gone and the body going, as in a case where intestinal cancer is accompanied by senile dementia and when the attending physician gives his opinion that there is no hope, then an application to the Board of Health should be made.

That Board should promptly appoint a consulting committee, varying from case to case, to avoid possible collusion and including a lawyer as well as doctors for inquiry should be made in regard to possible motives for the sufferer’s death, among members of the family, and in regard to their attitude toward the patient.

If this committee recommends euthanasia, the Board of Health should issue a permit, and merciful sleep end hopeless misery. What rational objection can anyone make to such procedure?

There is the suggestion that sometimes doctors are all mistaken, and recovery is made after life has been despaired of.  That is of course true.

There might be a small percentage of error, even with careful consulting assistance. This error is present in all matters involving the human equation. It is too small to weigh equally with the mass of misery to be relieved. And it does not apply at all to those still able to decide for themselves.

Our love, our care, out vivid sympathy with human life should be applied most strongly at the other end. With eugenics and euthenics, care and education from infancy, better living conditions for everyone, all that can be done to safeguard and improve human life we should do as a matter of course.

But the dragging weight of the grossly unfit and dangerous could be lightened, with great advantage to the normal and progressive. The millions spent in restraining and maintaining social detritus should be available for the safeguarding and improving of better lives.

Instead of being hardened by such measures of release, we shall develop a refinement of tenderness which will shrink with horror at the thought of the suffering and waste we now calmly endure. Death is not an evil when it comes in the course of nature, and when it is administered legitimately it is far less than the evil of unnecessary anguish.

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Filed under Americas, Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Illness and Old Age, Rights, Selections, The Modern Era


from Is Suicide a Sin? Col. Ingersoll’s Reply to his Critics


Robert Green Ingersoll, raised in New England as the son of a Congregational minister, became a noted agnostic lecturer. The family moved often because of his father’s unpopularity for his liberal views; when young Ingersoll was nine, his father was prohibited from preaching altogether. Ingersoll’s family settled in Illinois, where he and his brother became prominent trial lawyers. During the Civil War, Ingersoll led a volunteer Union regiment; he was captured along with many of his men, but was paroled and discharged in 1863.

Attacking popular Christian beliefs and supporting the views of Darwin and Huxley, Ingersoll became known as “the great agnostic”—the word was newly coined—a title he proudly claimed. While his radical views on topics such as religion and women’s suffrage limited his political success, he did serve as attorney general of Illinois from 1867–69, and was an influential spokesman for various Republican candidates.

Ingersoll’s lectures on religion, science, literature, politics, and history became famous, and the legendary force of his oratory won him many patrons, clients, and lecture opportunities. In 1879, he moved to Washington with hopes of expanding his law practice and finding a larger audience for his views. His religious thinking during this time, highly critical of conventional Christian beliefs such as the existence of God and immortality, was expressed in lectures including “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), “Why I am an Agnostic” (1896), and “Superstition” (1898). He continued to insist, however, that he neither affirmed nor denied the existence of God—rather, he said, “I wait.”

In this reply to his critics, originally published in the New York Evening Telegram of 1892, addressing the question of whether suicide is a sin, Ingersoll affirms man’s right to kill himself and dismisses religious arguments to the contrary. Suicide is not cowardly; it can be the result of a rational decision. In fact, Ingersoll argues, suicide lies at the very heart of Christianity: “If Christ were God,” Ingersoll insists, he could have protected himself from his assailants, and since he did not do so, “he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.” Christ could have made himself known; he could have avoided pain; he could have “changed the crucifixion to a joy.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin? Colonel Ingersoll’s Reply to His Critics,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Dresden Publishing Co., C. P. Farrell, 1895, 1903, Vol. 7, pp. 388-408. Also available from the Secular Web Library.


In the article written by me about suicide the ground was taken that “under many circumstances a man has the right to kill himself.”

This has been attacked with great fury by clergymen, editors and the writers of letters. These people contend that the right of self-destruction does not and cannot exist. They insist that life is the gift of God, and that he only has the right to end the days of men; that it is our duty to bear the sorrows that he sends with grateful patience. Some have denounced suicide as the worst of crimes — worse than the murder of another.

The first question, then, is:
Has a man under any circumstances the right to kill himself?

A man is being slowly devoured by a cancer — his agony is intense — his suffering all that nerves can feel. His life is slowly being taken. Is this the work of the good God? Did the compassionate God create the cancer so that it might feed on the quivering flesh of this victim?

This man, suffering agonies beyond the imagination to conceive, is of no use to himself. His life is but a succession of pangs. He is of no use to his wife, his children, his friends or society. Day after day he is rendered unconscious by drugs that numb the nerves and put the brain to sleep.

Has he the right to render himself unconscious? Is it proper for him to take refuge in sleep?

If there be a good God I cannot believe that he takes pleasure in the sufferings of men — that he gloats over the agonies of his children. If there be a good God, he will, to the extent of his power, lessen the evils of life.

So I insist that the man being eaten by the cancer — a burden to himself and others, useless in every way — has the right to end his pain and pass through happy sleep to dreamless rest.

But those who have answered me would say to this man: “It is your duty to be devoured. The good God wishes you to suffer. Your life is the gift of God. You hold it in trust and you have no right to end it. The cancer is the creation of God and it is your duty to furnish it with food.”

Take another case: A man is on a burning ship, the crew and the rest of the passengers have escaped — gone in the lifeboats — and he is left alone. In the wide horizon there is no sail, no sign of help. He cannot swim. If he leaps into the sea he drowns, if he remains on the ship he burns. In any event he can live but a few moments.

Those who have answered me, those who insist that under no circumstances a man has the right to take his life, would say to this man on the deck, “Remain where you are. It is the desire of your loving, heavenly Father that you be clothed in flame — that you slowly roast — that your eyes be scorched to blindness and that you die insane with pain, your life is not your own, only the agony is yours.

I would say to this man: Do as you wish. If you prefer drowning to burning, leap into the sea. Between inevitable evils you have the right of choice. You can help no one, not even God, by allowing yourself to be burned, and you can injure no one, not even God, by choosing the easier death.

Let us suppose another case:

A man has been captured by savages in Central Africa. He is about to be tortured to death. His captors are going to thrust splinters of pine into his flesh and then set them on fire. He watches them as they make the preparations. He knows what they are about to do and what he is about to suffer. There is no hope of rescue, of help. He has a vial of poison. He knows that he can take it and in one moment pass beyond their power, leaving to them only the dead body.

Is this man under obligation to keep his life because God gave it, until the savages by torture take it? Are the savages the agents of the good God? Are they the servants of the Infinite? Is it the duty of this man to allow them to wrap his body in a garment of flame? Has he no right to defend himself? Is it the will of God that he die by torture? What would any man of ordinary intelligence do in a case like this? Is there room for discussion?

If the man took the poison, shortened his life a few moments, escaped the tortures of the savages, is it possible that he would in another world be tortured forever by an infinite savage?

Suppose another case: In the good old days, when the Inquisition flourished, when men loved their enemies and murdered their friends, many frightful and ingenious ways were devised to touch the nerves of pain.

Those who loved God, who had been “born twice,” would take a fellow-man who had been convicted of “heresy,” lay him upon the floor of a dungeon, secure his arms and legs with chains, fasten him to the earth so that he could not move, put an iron vessel, the opening downward, on his stomach, place in the vessel several rats, then tie it securely to his body. Then these worshipers of God would wait until the rats, seeking food and liberty, would gnaw through the body of the victim.

Now, if a man about to be subjected to this torture, had within his hand a dagger, would it excite the wrath of the “good God,” if with one quick stroke he found the protection of death?

To this question there can be but one answer.

In the cases I have supposed it seems to me that each person would have the right to destroy himself. It does not seem possible that the man was under obligation to be devoured by a cancer; to remain upon the ship and perish in flame; to throw away the poison and be tortured to death by savages; to drop the dagger and endure the “mercies” of the church.

If, in the cases I have supposed, men would have the right to take their lives, then I was right when I said that “under many circumstances a man has a right to kill himself.”

Second. — I denied that persons who killed themselves were physical cowards. They may lack moral courage; they may exaggerate their misfortunes, lose the sense of proportion, but the man who plunges the dagger in his heart, who sends the bullet through his brain, who leaps from some roof and dashes himself against the stones beneath, is not and cannot be a physical coward.

The basis of cowardice is the fear of injury or the fear of death, and when that fear is not only gone, but in its place is the desire to die, no matter by what means, it is impossible that cowardice should exist. The suicide wants the very thing that a coward fears. He seeks the very thing that cowardice endeavors to escape. So, the man, forced to a choice of evils, choosing the less is not a coward, but a reasonable man.

It must be admitted that the suicide is honest with himself. He is to bear the injury; if it be one. Certainly there is no hypocrisy, and just as certainly there is no physical cowardice.

Is the man who takes morphine rather than be eaten to death by a cancer a coward?

Is the man who leaps into the sea rather than be burned a coward? Is the man that takes poison rather than be tortured to death by savages or “Christians” a coward?

Third. — I also took the position that some suicides were sane; that they acted on their best judgment, and that they were in full possession of their minds. Now, if under some circumstances, a man has the right to take his life, and, if, under such circumstances, he does take his life, then it cannot be said that he was insane.

Most of the persons who have tried to answer me have taken the ground that suicide is not only a crime, but some of them have said that it is the greatest of crimes. Now, if it be a crime, then the suicide must have been sane. So all persons who denounce the suicide as a criminal admit that he was sane. Under the law, an insane person is incapable of committing a crime. All the clergymen who have answered me, and who have passionately asserted that suicide is a crime, have by that assertion admitted that those who killed themselves were sane.

They agree with me, and not only admit, but assert that “some who have committed suicide were sane and in the full possession of their minds.”

It seems to me that these three propositions have been demonstrated to be true: First, that under some circumstances a man has the right to take his life; second, that the man who commits suicide is not a physical coward, and, third, that some who have committed suicide were at the time sane and in full possession of their minds.

Fourth. — I insisted, and still insist, that suicide was and is the foundation of the Christian religion. I still insist that if Christ were God he had the power to protect himself without injuring his assailants — that having that power it was his duty to use it, and that failing to use it he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.

To this the clergy answer that it was self-sacrifice for the redemption of man, that he made an atonement for the sins of believers. These ideas about redemption and atonement are born of a belief in the “fall of man, on account of the sins of our first “parents,” and of the declaration that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” The foundation has crumbled. No intelligent person now believes in the “fall of man” — that our first parents were perfect, and that their descendants grew worse and worse, at least until the coming of Christ.

Intelligent men now believe that ages and ages before the dawn of history, man was a poor, naked, cruel, ignorant and degraded savage, whose language consisted of a few sounds of terror, of hatred and delight; that he devoured his fellow-man, having all the vices, but not all the virtues of the beasts; that the journey from the den to the home, the palace, has been long and painful, through many centuries of suffering, of cruelty and war; through many ages of discovery, invention, self-sacrifice and thought.

Redemption and atonement are left without a fact on which to rest. The idea that an infinite God, creator of all worlds, came to this grain of sand, learned the trade of a carpenter, discussed with Pharisees and scribes, and allowed a few infuriated Hebrews to put him to death that he might atone for the sins of men and redeem a few believers from the consequences of his own wrath, can find no lodgment in a good and natural brain.

In no mythology can anything more monstrously unbelievable be. But if Christ were a man and attacked the religion of his times because it was cruel and absurd; if he endeavored to found a religion of kindness, of good deeds, to take the place of heartlessness and ceremony, and if, rather than to deny what he believed to be right and true, he suffered death, then he was a noble man — a benefactor of his race. But if he were God there was no need of this. The Jews did not wish to kill God. If he had only made himself known all knees would have touched the ground. If he were God it required no heroism to die. He knew that what we call death is but the opening of the gates of eternal life. If he were God there was no self-sacrifice. He had no need to suffer pain. He could have changed the crucifixion to a joy.

Even the editors of religious weeklies see that there is no escape from these conclusions — from these arguments — and so, instead of attacking the arguments, they attack the man who makes them.

Fifth. — I denounced the law of New York that makes an attempt to commit suicide a crime.

It seems to me that one who has suffered so much that he passionately longs for death, should be pitied, instead of punished — helped rather than imprisoned.

A despairing woman who had vainly sought for leave to toil, a woman without home, without friends, without bread, with clasped hands, with tear-filled eyes, with broken words of prayer, in the darkness of night leaps from the dock, hoping, longing for the tearless sleep of death. She is rescued by a kind, courageous man, handed over to the authorities, indicted, tried, convicted. clothed in a convict’s garb and locked in a felon’s cell.

To me this law seems barbarous and absurd, a law that only savages would enforce.

Sixth. — In this discussion a curious thing has happened. For several centuries the clergy have declared that while infidelity is a very good thing to live by, it is a bad support, a wretched consolation, in the hour of death. They have in spite of the truth, declared that all the great unbelievers died trembling with fear, asking God for mercy, surrounded by fiends, in the torments of despair. Think of the thousands and thousands of clergymen who have described the last agonies of Voltaire, who died as peacefully as a happy child smilingly passes from play to slumber; the final anguish of Hume, who fell into his last sleep as serenely as a river, running between green and shaded banks, reaches the sea; the despair of Thomas Paine, one of the bravest, one of the noblest men, who met the night of death untroubled as a star that meets the morning.

At the same time these ministers admitted that the average murderer could meet death on the scaffold with perfect serenity, and could smilingly ask the people who had gathered to see him killed to meet him in heaven.

But the honest man who had expressed his honest thoughts against the creed of the church in power could not die in peace. God would see to it that his last moments should be filled with the insanity of fear — that with his last breath he should utter the shriek of remorse, the cry for pardon.

This has all changed, and now the clergy, in their sermons answering me, declare that the atheists, the freethinkers, have no fear of death — that to avoid some little annoyance, a passing inconvenience, they gladly and cheerfully put out the light of life. It is now said that infidels believe that death is the end — that it is a dreamless sleep — that it is without pain — that therefore they have no fear, care nothing for gods, or heavens or hells, nothing for the threats of the pulpit, nothing for the day of judgment, and that when life becomes a burden they carelessly throw it down.

The infidels are so afraid of death that they commit suicide.

This certainly is a great change, and I congratulate myself on having forced the clergy to contradict themselves.

Seventh. — The clergy take the position that the atheist, the unbeliever, has no standard of morality — that he can have no real conception of right and wrong. They are of the opinion that it is impossible for one to be moral or good unless he believes in some Being far above himself.

In this connection we might ask how God can be moral or good unless he believes in some Being superior to himself?

What is morality? It is the best thing to do under the circumstances. What is the best thing to do under the circumstances? That which will increase the sum of human happiness — or lessen it the least. Happiness in its highest, noblest form is the only good; that which increases or preserves or creates happiness is moral — that which decreases it, or puts it in peril, is immoral.

It is not hard for an atheist — for an unbeliever — to keep his hands out of the fire. He knows that burning his hands will not increase his well-being, and he is moral enough to keep them out of the flames.

So it may be said that each man acts according to his intelligence — so far as where he considers his own good is concerned. Sometimes he is swayed by passion, by prejudice, by ignorance — but when he is really intelligent, master of himself, he docs what he believes is best for him. If he is intelligent enough he knows that what is really good for him is good for others — for all the world.

It is impossible for me to see why any belief in the supernatural is necessary to have a keen perception of right and wrong. Every man who has the capacity to suffer and enjoy, and has imagination enough to give the same capacity to others, has within himself the natural basis of all morality. The idea of morality was born here, in this world, of the experience, the intelligence of mankind. Morality is not of supernatural origin. It did not fall from the clouds, and it needs no belief in the supernatural, no supernatural promises or threats, no supernatural heavens or hells to give it force and life. Subjects who are governed by the threats and promises of a king are merely slaves. They are not governed by the ideal, by noble views of right and wrong. They are obedient cowards, controlled by fear, or beggars governed by rewards — by alms.

Right and wrong exist in the nature of things. Murder was just as criminal before as after the promulgation of the Ten Commandments.

Eighth. — Many of the clergy, some editors and some writers of letters who have answered me, have said that suicide is the worst of crimes — that a man had better murder somebody else than himself. One clergyman gives as a reason for this statement that the suicide dies in an act of sin, and therefore he had better kill another person. Probably he would commit a less crime if he would murder his wife or mother.

I do not see that it is any worse to die than to live in sin. To say that it is not as wicked to murder another as yourself seems absurd. The man about to kill himself wishes to die. Why is it better for him to kill another man, who wishes to live?

To my mind it seems clear that you had better injure yourself than another. Better be a spendthrift than a thief. Better throw away your own money than steal the money of another — better kill yourself if you wish to die than murder one whose life is full of joy.

The clergy tell us that God is everywhere, and that it is one of the greatest possible crimes to rush into his presence. It is wonderful how much they know about God and how little about their fellow men. Wonderful the amount of their information about other worlds and how limited their knowledge is of this.

There may or may not be an infinite Being. I neither affirm nor deny. I am honest enough to say that I do not know. I am candid enough to admit that the question is beyond the limitations of my mind. Yet I think I know as much on that subject as any human being knows or ever knew, and that is — nothing. I do not say that there is not another world, another life; neither do I say that there is. I say that I do not know. It seems to me that every sane and honest man must say the same. But if there is an infinitely good God and another world, then the infinitely good God will be just as good to us in that world as he is in this. If this infinitely good God loves his children in this world, he will love them in another. If he loves a man when he is alive, he will not hate him the instant he is dead.

If we are the children of an infinitely wise and powerful God, he knew exactly what we would do — the temptations that we could and could not withstand — knew exactly the effect that everything would have upon us, knew under what circumstances we would take our lives — and produced such circumstances himself. It is perfectly apparent that there are many people incapable by nature of bearing the burdens of life, incapable of preserving their mental poise in stress and strain of disaster, disease and loss, and who by failure, by misfortune and want, are driven to despair and insanity, in whose darkened minds there comes like a flash of lightning in the night, the thought of death, a thought so strong, so vivid, that all fear is lost, all ties broken, all duties, all obligations, all hopes forgotten, and naught remains except a fierce and wild desire to die. Thousands and thousands become moody, melancholy, brood upon loss of money, of position, of friends, until reason abdicates and frenzy takes possession of the soul. If there be an infinitely wise and powerful God, all this was known to him from the beginning. and he so created things, established relations, put in operation causes and effects, that all that has happened was the necessary result of his own acts.

Ninth. — Nearly all who have tried to answer what I said have been exceedingly careful to misquote me, and then answer something that I never uttered. They have declared that I have advised people who were in trouble, somewhat annoyed, to kill themselves; that I have told men who have lost their money, who had failed in business, who were not good in health, to kill themselves at once, without taking into consideration any duty that they owed to wives, children, friends, or society.

No man has a right to leave his wife to fight the battle alone if he is able to help. No man has a right to desert his children if he can possibly be of use. As long as he can add to the comfort of those he loves, as long as he can stand between wife and misery, between child and want, as long as he can be of any use, it is his duty to remain.

I believe in the cheerful view, in looking at the sunny side of things, in bearing with fortitude the evils of life, in struggling against adversity, in finding the fuel of laughter even in disaster, in having confidence in to-morrow, in finding the pearl of joy among the flints and shards, and in changing by the alchemy of patience even evil things to good. I believe in the gospel of cheerfulness, of courage and good nature.

Of the future I have no fear. My fate is the fate of the world — of all that live. My anxieties are about this life, this world. About the phantoms called gods and their impossible hells, I have no care, no fear.

The existence of God I neither affirm nor deny, I wait. The immortality of the soul I neither affirm nor deny. I hope — hope for all of the children of men. I have never denied the existence of another world, nor the immortality of the soul. For many years I have said that the idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death.

What I deny is the immortality of pain, the eternity of torture.

After all, the instinct of self-preservation is strong. People do not kill themselves on the advice of friends or enemies. All wish to be happy, to enjoy life; all wish for food and roof and raiment, for friends, and as long as life gives joy, the idea of self-destruction never enters the human mind.

The oppressors, the tyrants, those who trample on the rights of others, the robbers of the poor, those who put wages below the living point, the ministers who make people insane by preaching the dogma of eternal pain; these are the men who drive the weak, the suffering and the helpless down to death.

It will not do to say that God has appointed a time for each to die. Of this there is, and there can be, no evidence. There is no evidence that any god takes any interest in the affairs of men — that any sides with the right or helps the weak, protects the innocent or rescues the oppressed. Even the clergy admit that their God, through all ages, has allowed his friends, his worshipers, to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered by his enemies. Such is the protection of God. Billions of prayers have been uttered; has one been answered? Who sends plague, pestilence and famine? Who bids the earthquake devour and the volcano to overwhelm?

Tenth. — Again, I say that it is wonderful to me that so many men, so many women endure and carry their burdens to the natural end; that so many, in spite of “age, ache and penury,” guard with trembling hands the spark of life; that prisoners for life toil and suffer to the last; that the helpless wretches in poorhouses and asylums cling to life; that the exiles in Siberia, loaded with chains, scarred with the knout, live on; that the incurables. whose every breath is a pang, and for whom the future has only pain, should fear the merciful touch and clasp of death.

It is but a few steps at most from the cradle to the grave: a short journey. The suicide hastens, shortens the path, loses the afternoon, the twilight, the dusk of life’s day; loses what he does not want, what he cannot bear. In the tempest of despair, in the blind fury of madness, or in the calm of thought and choice, the beleaguered soul finds the serenity of death.

Let us leave the dead where nature leaves them. We know nothing of any realm that lies beyond the horizon of the known, beyond the end of life. Let us be honest with ourselves and others. Let us pity the suffering, the despairing, the men and women hunted and pursued by grief and shame, by misery and want, by chance and fate until their only friend is death.

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from Philosophy of Right


Born to a Protestant family in Stuttgart, Hegel received an excellent early education. He studied philosophy and theology at the seminary of Tübingen, where he was particularly influenced by the works of Kant and Schiller. After passing his theological examinations in 1793, Hegel worked in Bern and Frankfurt as a tutor for several years.

Among the German idealists, Hegel attempted to formulate a complete system of philosophy that would account for the differences and similarities of all previous philosophies. In 1801, with a dissertation written in Latin entitled On the Orbits of the Planets, Hegel secured a lectureship at the University of Jena, where he spoke on a wide variety of subjects. On October 13, 1806, the same day that Napoleon victoriously entered the city, he finished his Phenomenology of Spirit. In this work, an early masterpiece much influenced by German Romanticism, Hegel describes the process by which both individuals and societies can grow to “absolute knowledge” by developing consciousness from sense perceptions to reason, which is the ultimate essence of the world and the guiding principle of history. Reconciliation is reached when a concept progresses through an endless dialectical process; thesis leads to antithesis, which finally leads to synthesis, which itself inherently contains a contrasting element that negates it and serves as the antithesis in the next stage of development.

Due to the war, Hegel left Jena and eventually settled in Nürnberg, where he served as headmaster of the Royal Gymnasium, met his future wife, and wrote the Science of Logic (1812–16). In 1816, he resumed his academic career at the University of Heidelberg and published The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline (1817), which serves as an introduction to his philosophy. His major work of his last period was the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, or Elements of the Philosophy of Right, known in English as the Philosophy of Right (published 1820, title page 1821), which argues that the nation-state is a manifestation of God and that the ideal state is the real materialization of the ethical idea. The work was heavily criticized as a hidden apologia for the Prussian state., but more recent scholarship challenges this view. Hegel’s philosophy of government and law became highly influential in Prussia, and Hegel himself became a power in the political and academic life of Germany. He died suddenly, at the peak of his career, from an attack of cholera.

In this brief selection from the Philosophy of Right, along with an addition made by Hegel’s students from his oral lectures and comments, Hegel argues that there is no right to suicide since there is no right over one’s own life—indeed, the concept is a contradiction. Central to Hegel’s thinking is the notion of the individual as secondary to moral and societal interests; “the particular person,” he says, “is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Paragraph 70 and Addition, tr. S. W. Dyde. London: George Bell and Sons, 1896, p. 76.

from The Philosophy of Right

Since personality is something directly present, the comprehensive totality of one’s outer activity, the life, is not external to it. Thus the disposal or sacrifice of life is not the manifestation of one’s personality so much as the very opposite. Hence I have no right to relinquish my life. Only a moral and social ideal, which submerges the direct, simple and separate personality, and constitutes its real power, has a right to life. Life, as such, being direct and unreflected, and death the direct negation of it, death must come from without as a result of natural causes, or must be received in the service of the idea from a foreign hand.

The particular person is really a subordinate, who must devote his life to the service of the ethical fabric; when the state demands his life, he must yield it up. But should the man take his own life? Suicide may at first glance be looked upon as bravery, although it be the poor bravery of tailors and maid-servants. Or it may be regarded as a misfortune, caused by a broken heart. But the point is, Have I any right to kill myself? The answer is that I, as this individual am not lord over my own life, since the comprehensive totality of one’s activity, the life, falls within the direct and present personality. To speak of the right of a person over his life is a contradiction, since it implies a right of a person over himself. But no one can stand above and execute himself. When Hercules burnt himself, and Brutus fell upon his sword, this action against their personality was doubtless of an heroic type; but yet the simple right to commit suicide must be denied even to heroes.

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from Grounding for the Metaphysics of    Morals
from The Metaphysical Principles of    Virtue: Man’s Duty to Himself    Insofar as He Is an Animal Being
from Lectures on Ethics: Duties    Towards the Body in Regard to Life


Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia (today Kaliningrad, Russia), to a devoutly religious Lutheran Pietist family. At the age of 16, he entered the University of Königsberg, initially to study theology, and later to read natural science and philosophy. During this period of his life, Kant was influenced by the thought of the German rationalist Christian Wolff, as well as by Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. He left the university after the death of his father to work as a private tutor. He returned, however, in 1755, and within the next year, completed his degree and was made a lecturer. For the next 15 years, he published primarily scientific works, many critical of Leibniz and Wolff; between 1770 and 1780, he published very little. He had come to be influenced by Hume and Rousseau as well. Kant was 57 when he published his famous Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which attempted to resolve the conflict between rationalism and empiricism—between the view that knowledge is a priori or innate and the view that it is attained solely by sense perception. This first Critique sought to ascertain the limits of human reason. Kant also held that practical reason, unlike speculative reason, could be used to understand moral problems: in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and in the second Critique—the Critique of Practical Reason (1788)—he attempted to work out a rational principle of morality. The Critique of Judgment (1790), the third Critique, addressed teleological and aesthetic judgment. Subsequently, he published Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), Towards Perpetual Peace (1795), and the Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

In his works on ethics, Kant argues that an act can be held to be good if it is done in accord with duty, at the dictate of the good will, and that the “Categorical Imperative” can be employed by the rational agent to determine what is in accord with duty; an action is moral only if one could will without contradiction that it be universal law.

Three selections from Kant’s ethical writings are included here. In the first selection, from the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (also called the Prolegomena or Groundwork), Kant demonstrates how it is possible to show that suicide is inherently wrong. He uses suicide as an illustration of the kind of action that cannot satisfy the Categorical Imperative, since one could not, without contradiction, will that committing suicide be universal law. To put it another way, under an alternative formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it is not possible to commit suicide and yet still treat oneself as an end in oneself (as morality requires that one treat all humanity), not just as a means only. In The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Kant raises a number of “casuistical questions”—moral dilemmas that explore and challenge the theoretical account he has given. One of them concerns “a great, recently deceased monarch” (Frederick the Great), who in fact always carried poison with him in war. Frederick actually did contemplate suicide with poison on several occasions and came closest to using it on August 12, 1759, at Kunnersdorf, when he led 43,000 troops into battle against the Russians and Austrians but lost 19,000 men; just 3,000 were left as an organized force by nightfall. In a related situation two years earlier, Frederick had said, “. . . nothing is left for me but trying the last extremity . . . and if we cannot conquer, we must all of us have ourselves killed.”

In the Lectures on Ethics, Kant discusses several of the suicides celebrated by the Roman Stoics—Cato, Lucretia, and briefly, Atticus. Although acknowledging that Cato’s suicide is a virtue and that appearances are in its favor, Kant insists that it is the only such example. Kant continues on to argue that while one must not kill oneself, nevertheless in some circumstances, one must be prepared to give life up in order to have lived honorably and “not disgrace the dignity of humanity.”

Kant died in Königsberg at the age of nearly 80. He never traveled more than a few dozen miles from the city.

Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section; and The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals), I. The Elements of Ethics, First Part, First Book, First Chapter: “Man’s Duty to Himself Insofar as He Is an Animal Being,” both in Immanuel Kant, Ethical Philosophy, Tr. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983, pp. 23-24, 26, 30-31, 35-36; 82-85; Lectures on Ethics, Tr. Louis Infield. New York: Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 147-157. Passages on Frederick the Great in biographical note are from Frederick the Great on the Art of War, ed. and tr. Jay Luvaas (New York: The Free Press, 1966), pp. 9, 224, 242.


Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the power to act according to his conception of laws, i.e., according to principles, and thereby has he a will.. . The representation of an objective principle insofar as it necessitates the will is called a command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative.  There is one imperative which immediately commands a certain conduct without having as its condition any other purpose to be attained by it.  This imperative is categorical.  It is not concerned with the matter of the action and its intended result, but rather with the form of the action and the principle from which it follows; what is essentially good in the action consists in the mental disposition, let the consequences be what they may.  This imperative may be called that of morality. . . .

Hence there is only one categorical imperative and it is this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. . . .

The universality of law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form), i.e., the existence of things as far as determined by universal laws.  Accordingly, the universal imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

We shall now enumerate some duties, following the usual division of them into duties to ourselves and to others and into perfect and imperfect duties:

1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels sick of life but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether taking his own life would not be contrary to his duty to himself.  Now he asks whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature.  But his maxim is this: from self-love I make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction.  There only remains the question as to whether this principle of self-love can become a universal law of nature.  One sees at once a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would destroy life by means of the very same feeling that acts so as to stimulate the furtherance of life, and hence there could be no existence as a system of nature.  Therefore, such a maxim cannot possibly hold as a universal law of nature and is, consequently, wholly opposed to the supreme principle of all duty.

Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will.  He must in all his actions whether directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be regarded at the same time as an end. …Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.  On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves, i.e., as something which is not to be used merely as means and hence there is imposed thereby a limit on all arbitrary use of such beings, which are thus objects of respect.  Persons are, therefore, not merely subjective ends, whose existence as an effect of our actions has a value for us; but such beings are objective ends, i.e., exist as ends in themselves. . . .

If then there is to be a supreme practical principle and, as far as the human will is concerned, a categorical imperative, then it must be such that from the conception of what is necessarily an end for everyone because this end is an end in itself it constitutes an objective principle of the will and can hence serve as a practical law.  The ground of such a principle is this: rational nature exists as an end in itself.  In this way man necessarily thinks of his own existence; thus far is it a subjective principle of human actions.  But in this way also does every other rational being think of his existence on the same rational ground that holds also for me; hence it is at the same time an objective principle, from which, as a supreme practical ground, all laws of the will must be able to be derived.  The practical imperative will therefore be the following: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.  We now want to see whether this can be carried out in practice.

Let us keep to our previous examples.

First, as regards the concept of necessary duty to oneself, the man who contemplates suicide will ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself.  If he destroys himself in order to escape from a difficult situation, then he is making use of his person merely as a means so as to maintain a tolerable condition till the end of his life.  Man, however, is not a thing and hence is not something to be used merely as a means; he must in all his actions always be regarded as an end in himself.  Therefore, I cannot dispose of man in my own person by mutilating, damaging, or killing him.



The first, though not the principal, duty of man to himself as an animal being is the preservation of himself in his animal nature.

The opposite of such self-preservation is the deliberate or intentional destruction of one’s animal nature, and this destruction can be thought of as either total or partial. Total destruction is called suicide (autochiria; suicidium); partial can be subdivided into material, as when one deprives himself of certain integral parts (organs) by dismembering or by mutilating, and into formal, as when he deprives himself (forever or for a while) of the physical (and hence indirectly also the moral) use of his powers, i.e., self-stupefaction.

Since this chapter is concerned only with negative duties, i.e., duties of omission, the articles of duty must be directed against the vices which oppose duties one has to himself.

Concerning Suicide
The deliberate killing of oneself can be called self-murder (homocidiumdolosum [“deceptive murder”]) only when it can be shown that the killing is really a crime committed either against one’s own person, or against another person through one’s own suicide (e.g., when a pregnant person kills herself).

Suicide is a crime (murder).  To be sure, suicide can also be held to be a transgression of one’s duty to other men, as, for instance, the transgression of the duty of one of a married couple to the other, of parents to children, of a subject to his government or to his fellow citizens, and, finally, of man to God by forsaking the station entrusted to him in this world without being recalled from it.  However, we are here concerned with nothing but the violation of a duty to oneself, with whether, if I set aside all the aforementioned considerations concerning one’s duty to other men, a man is still obligated to preserve his life simply because he is a person and must therefore recognize a duty to himself (and a strict one at that).

It seems absurd that a man can injure himself (volentinon fit injuria).  The Stoic therefore considered it a prerogative of his personality as a wise man to walk out of this life with an undisturbed mind whenever he liked (as out of a smoke-filled room), not because he was afflicted by actual or anticipated ills, but simply because he could make use of nothing more in this life.  And yet this very courage, this strength of mind—of not fearing death and of knowing of something which man can prize more highly than his life—ought to have been an ever so much greater motive for him not to destroy himself, a being having such authoritative superiority over the strongest sensible incentives; consequently, it ought to have been a motive for him not to deprive himself of life.

Man cannot deprive himself of his personality so long as one speaks of duties, thus so long as he lives.  That man ought to have the authorization to withdraw himself from all obligation, i.e., to be free to act as if no authorization at all were required for this withdrawal, involves a contradiction.  To destroy the subject of morality in his own person is tantamount to obliterating from the world, as far as he can, the very existence of morality itself; but morality is, nevertheless, an end in itself.  Accordingly, to dispose of oneself as a mere means to some end of one’s own liking is  to degrade the humanity in one’s person (homonoumenon), which, after all, was entrusted to man (homophaenomenon) to preserve.

To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to mutilate oneself), e.g., to give away or to sell a tooth so that it can be planted in the jawbone of another person, or to submit oneself to castration in order to gain an easier livelihood as a singer, and so on, belongs to partial self-murder.  But this is not the case with the amputation of a dead organ, or one on the verge of mortification and thus harmful to life.  Also, it cannot be reckoned a crime against one’s own person to cut off something which is, to be sure, a part, but not an organ of the body, e.g., the hair, although selling one’s hair for gain is not entirely free from blame.

Casuistical Questions

Is it self-murder to plunge oneself into certain death (like Curtius) in order to save one’s country?  Or is martyrdom—the deliberate sacrifice of oneself for the good of mankind—also to be regarded, like the former case, as a heroic deed?

Is committing suicide permitted in anticipation of an unjust death sentence from one’s superior?  Even if the sovereign permitted such a suicide (as Nero permitted of Seneca)?

Can one attribute a criminal intention to a great, recently deceased monarch [Frederick the Great] because he carried a fast-acting poison with him, presumably so that if he was captured in war (which he always conducted personally), he might not be forced to submit to conditions of ransom which might be harmful to his country?  (For he can be credited with such a purpose without one’s being required to presume that he carried the poison out of mere arrogance.)

Bitten by a mad dog, a man already felt hydrophobia coming upon him.  He declared that since he had never known anybody cured of it, he would destroy himself in order that, as he said in his testament, he might not in his madness (which he already felt gripping him) bring misfortune to other men too.  The question is whether or not he did wrong.

Whoever decides to let himself be inoculated against smallpox risks his life on an uncertainty, although he does it to preserve his life.  Accordingly, he is in a much more doubtful position with regard to the law of duty than is the mariner, who does not in the least create the storm to which he entrusts himself.  Rather, the former invites an illness which puts him in the danger of death.  Consequently, is smallpox inoculation allowed?



What are our powers of disposal over our life? Have we any authority of disposal over it in any shape or form? How far is it incumbent upon us to take care of it? These are questions which fall to be considered in connexion with our duties towards the body in regard to life. We must, however, by way of introduction, make the following observations. If the body were related to life not as a condition but as an accident or circumstance so that we could at will divest ourselves of it; if we could slip out of it and slip into another just as we leave one country for another, then the body would be subject to our free will and we could rightly have the disposal of it. This, however, would not imply that we could similarly dispose of our life, but only of our circumstances, of the movable goods, the furniture of life. Infact, however, our life is entirely conditioned by our body, so that we cannot conceive of a life not mediated by the body and we cannot make use of our freedom except through the body. It is, therefore, obvious that the body constitutes a part of ourselves. If a man destroys his body, and so his life, he does it by the use of his will, which is itself destroyed in the process. But to use the power of a free willfor its own destruction is self-contradictory. If freedom is the condition of life it cannot be employed to abolish life and so to destroy and abolish itself.   To use life for its own destruction, to use life for producing lifelessness, is self-contradictory. These preliminary remarks are sufficient to show that man cannot rightly have any power of disposal in regard to himself and his life, but only in regard to his circumstances. His body gives man power over his life; were he a spirit he could not destroy his life; life in the absolute has been invested by nature with indestructibility and is an end in itself; hence it follows that man cannot have the power to dispose of his life.


Suicide can be regarded in various lights; it might be held to be reprehensible, or permissible, or even heroic. In the first place we have the specious view that suicide can be allowed and tolerated. Its advocates argue thus. So long as he does not violate the proprietary rights of others, man is a free agent. With regard to his body there are various things he can properly do; he can have a boil lanced or a limb amputated, and disregard a scar; he is, in fact, free to do whatever he may consider useful and advisable. If then he comes to the conclusion that the most useful and advisable thing that he can do is to put an end to his life, why should he not be entitled to do so? Why not, if he sees that he can no longer go on living and that he will be ridding himself of misfortune, torment and disgrace? To be sure he robs himself of a full life, but he escapes once and for all from calamity and misfortune. The argument sounds most plausible. But let us, leaving aside religious considerations, examine the act itself. We may treat our body as we please, provided our motives are those of self-preservation. If, for instance, his foot is a hindrance to life, a man might have it amputated. To preserve his person he has the right of disposal over his body. But in taking his life he does not preserve his person; he disposes of his person and not of its attendant circumstances; he robs himself of his person. This is contrary to the highest duty we have towards ourselves, for it annuls the condition of all other duties; it goes beyond the limits of the use of free will, for this use is possible only through the existence of the Subject.

There is another set of considerations which make suicide seem plausible. A man might find himself so placed that he can continue living only under circumstances which deprive life of all value; in which he can no longer live conformably to virtue and prudence, so that he must from noble motives put an end to his life. The advocates of this view quote in support of it the example of Cato. Cato knew that the entire Roman nation relied upon him in their resistance to Caesar, but he found that he could not prevent himself from falling into Caesar’s hands. What was he to do? If he, the champion of freedom, submitted, every one would say, “If Cato himself submits, what else can we do?” If, on the other hand, he killed himself, his death might spur on the Romans to fight to the bitter end in defence of their freedom. So he killed himself. He thought that it was necessary for him to die. He thought that if he could not go on living as Cato, he could not go on living at all. It must certainly be admitted that in a case such as this, where suicide is a virtue, appearances are in its favour. But this is the only example which has given the world the opportunity of defending suicide. It is the only example of its kind and there has been no similar case since. Lucretia also killed herself, but on grounds of modesty and in a fury of vengeance. It is obviously our duty to preserve our honour, particularly in relation to the opposite sex, for whom it is a merit; but we must endeavour to save our honour only to this extent, that we ought not to surrender it for selfish and lustful purposes. To do what Lucretia did is to adopt a remedy which is not at our disposal; itwould have been better had she defended her honour unto death; that would not have been suicide and would have been right; for it is no suicide to risk one’s life against one’s enemies, and even to sacrifice it, in order to observe one’s duties towards oneself.

No one under the sun can bind me to commit suicide; no sovereign can do so. The sovereign can call upon his subjects to fight to the death for their country, and those who fall on the field of battle are not suicides, but the victims of fate. Not only is this not suicide; but the opposite, a faint heart and fear of the death which threatens by the necessity of fate, is no true self-preservation; for he who runs away to save his own life, and leaves his comrades in the lurch, is a coward; but he who defends himself and his fellows even unto death is no suicide, but noble and high-minded; for life is not to be highly regarded for its own sake. I should endeavour to preserve my own life only so far as I am worthy to live. We must draw a distinction between the suicide and the victim of fate. A man who shortens his life by intemperance is guilty of imprudence and indirectly of his own death; but his guilt is not direct; he did not intend to kill himself; his death was not premeditated.For all our offences are either culpa or dolus. There is certainly no dolus here, but there is culpa; and we can say of such a man that he was guilty of his own death, but we cannot say of him that he is a suicide. What constitutes suicide is the intention to destroy oneself. Intemperance and excess which shorten life ought not, therefore, to be called suicide; for if we raise intemperance to the level of suicide, we lower suicide to the level of intemperance. Imprudence, which does not imply a desire to cease to live, must, therefore, be distinguished from the intention to murder oneself. Serious violations of our duty towards ourselves produce an aversion accompanied either by horror or by disgust; suicide is ofthe horrible kind, crimina carnis of the disgusting. We shrink in horror from suicide because all nature seeks its own preservation; an injured tree, a living body, an animal does so; how then could man make of his freedom, which is the acme of life and constitutes its worth, a principle for his own destruction? Nothing more terrible can be imagined; for if man were on every occasion master of his own life, he would be master of the lives of others; and being ready to sacrifice his life at any and every time rather than be captured, he could perpetrate every conceivable crime and vice. We are, therefore, horrified at the very thought of suicide; by it man sinks lower than the beasts; we look upon a suicide as carrion, whilst our sympathy goes forth to the victim of fate.

Those who advocate suicide seek to give the widest interpretation to freedom. There is something flattering in the thought that we can take our own life if we are so minded; and so we find even right-thinking persons defending suicide in this respect. There are many circumstances under which life ought to be sacrificed. If I cannot preserve my life except by violating my duties towards myself, I am bound to sacrifice my life rather than violate these duties. But suicide is in no circumstances permissible. Humanity in one’s own person is something inviolable; it is a holy trust; man is master of all else, but he must not lay hands upon himself. A being who existed of his own necessity could not possibly destroy himself; a being whose existence is not necessary must regard life as the condition of everything else, and in the consciousness that life is a trust reposed in him, such a being recoils at the thought of committing a breach of his holy trust by turning his life against himself. 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, and, having himself discarded his humanity, he cannot expect that others should respect humanity in him. Yet humanity is worthy of esteem. Even when a man is a bad man, humanity in his person is worthy of esteem. Suicide is not abominable andinadmissible because life should be highly prized; were it so, we could each have our own opinion of how highly we should prize it, and the rule of prudence would often indicate suicide as the best means. But the rule of morality does not admit of it under any condition because it degrades human nature below the level of animal nature and so destroys it. Yet there is much in the world far more important than life. To observe morality is far more important. It is better to sacrifice one’s life than one’s morality. To live is not a necessity; but to live honourably while life lasts is a necessity. We can at all times go on living and doing our duty towards ourselves without having to do violence to ourselves. But he who is prepared to take his own life is no longer worthy to live at all. The pragmatic ground of impulse to live is happiness. Can I then take my own life because I cannot live happily? No! It is not necessary that whilst I live I should live happily; but it is necessary that so long as I live I should live honourably. Misery gives no right to any man to take his own life, for then we should all be entitled to take our lives for lack of pleasure. All our duties towards ourselves would then be directed towards pleasure; but the fulfillment of those duties may demand that we should even sacrifice our life.

Is suicide heroic or cowardly? Sophistication, even though well meant, is not a good thing. It is not good to defend either virtue or vice by splitting hairs. Even right-thinking people declaim against suicide on wrong lines. They say that it is arrant cowardice. But instances of suicide of great heroism exist. We cannot, for example, regard the suicides of Cato and of Atticus as cowardly. Rage, passion and insanity are the most frequent causes of suicide, and that is why persons who attempt suicide and are saved from it are so terrified at their own act that they do not dare to repeat the attempt. There was a timein Roman and in Greek history when suicide was regarded as honourable, so much so that the Romans forbade their slaves to commitsuicide because they did not belong to themselves but to their masters and so were regarded as things, like all other animals. The Stoics said that suicide is the sage’s peaceful death; he leaves the world as he might leave a smoky room for another, because it no longer pleases him; he leaves the world, not because he is no longer happy in it, but because he disdains it. It has already been mentioned that man is greatly flattered by the idea that he is free to remove himself from this world, if he so wishes. He may not make use of this freedom, but the thought of possessing it pleases him. It seems even to have a moral aspect, for if man is capable of removing himself from the world at his own will, he need not submit to any one; he can retain his independence and tell the rudest truths to the cruellest of tyrants. Torture cannot bring him to heel, because he can leave the world at a moment’s notice as a free man can leave the country, if and when he wills it. But this semblance of morality vanishes as soon as we seethat man’s freedom cannot subsist except on a condition which is immutable. This condition is that man may not use his freedom against himself to his own destruction, but that, on the contrary, he should allow nothing external to limit it. Freedom thus conditioned is noble. No chance or misfortune ought to make us afraid to live; we ought to go on living as long as we can do so as human beings and honourably. To bewail one’s fate and misfortune is in itself dishonourable. Had Cato faced any torments which Caesar might have inflicted upon him with a resolute mind and remained steadfast, it would have been noble of him; to violate himself was not so. Those who advocate suicide and teach that there is authority for it necessarily do much harm in a republic of free men. Let us imagine a state in which men held as a general opinion that they were entitled to commit suicide, and that there was even merit and honour in so doing. How dreadful everyone would find them. For he who does not respect his life even in principle cannot be restrained from the most dreadful vices; he recks neither king nor torments.

But as soon as we examine suicide from the standpoint of religion we immediately see it in its true light. We have been placed in this world under certain conditions and for specific purposes. But a suicide opposes the purpose of his Creator; he arrives in the other worldas one who has deserted his post; he must be looked upon as a rebel against God. So long as we remember the truth that it is God’s intention to preserve life, we are bound to regulate our activities in conformity with it. We have no right to offer violence to our nature’s powers of self-preservation and to upset the wisdom of her arrangements. This duty is upon us until the time comes when God expressly commands us to leave this life. Human beings are sentinels on earth and may not leave their posts until relieved by another beneficent hand. God is our owner; we are His property; His providence works for our good. A bondman in the care of a beneficent master deserves punishment if he opposes his master’s wishes. But suicide is not inadmissible and abominable because God has forbidden it; God has forbidden it because it is abdominal in that it degrades man’s inner worth below that of the animal creation. Moral philosophers must, therefore, first and foremost show that suicide is abominable. We find, as a rule, that those who labour for their happiness are more liable to suicide; having tasted the refinements of pleasure, and being deprived of them, they give way to grief, sorrow, and melancholy.

Care for One’s Life 

We are in duty bound to take care of our life; but in this connexion it must be remarked that life, in and for itself, is not the greatest of the gifts entrusted to our keeping and of which we must take care. There are duties which are far greater than life and which can often be fulfilled only by sacrificing life. . . . It is cowardly to place a high value upon physical life. The man who on every trifling occasion fears for his life makes a laughing-stock of himself. We must await death with resolution. That must be of little importance which it is of great importance to despise.

On the other hand we ought not to risk our life and hazard losing it for interested and private purposes. To do so is not only imprudent but base. . . .How far we should value our life, and how far we may risk it, is a very subtle question. It turns on the following considerations. Humanity in our own person is an object of the highest esteem and is inviolable in us; rather than dishonour it, or allow it to be dishonoured, man ought to sacrifice his life; for can he himself hold his manhood in honour if it is to be dishonoured by others. If a man cannot preserve his life except by dishonouring his humanity, he ought rather to sacrifice it. . . Thus it is far better to die honoured and respected than to prolong one’s life for a few years by a disgraceful act and go on living a rogue. If, for instance, a woman cannot preserve her life any longer except by surrendering her person to the will of another, she is bound to give up her life rather than dishonour humanity in her own person, which is what she would be doing in giving herself up as a thing to the will of another.

. . .Necessity cannot cancel morality. If, then, I cannot preserve my life except by disgraceful conduct, virtue relieves me of this duty because a higher duty here comes into play and commands me to sacrifice my life.

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