The Ethics of Suicide
Is suicide wrong, always wrong, or profoundly morally wrong? Or is it almost always wrong but excusable in a few cases? Or is it sometimes morally permissible? Is it not intrinsically wrong at all, though perhaps often imprudent? Is it sick? Is it a matter of mental illness? Is it a private or a social act? Is it something the family, community, or society should always try to prevent, or could ever expect of a person? Could it sometimes be a “noble duty”? Or is it solely a personal matter, perhaps a matter of right based in individual liberties, or even a fundamental human right?
This spectrum of views about the ethics of ending one’s own life—from the view that doing so is profoundly morally wrong, the gravest of sins, to the view that it is a matter of basic human right, and from the view that it is primarily a private matter to the view that it is largely a social one—lies at the root of contemporary practical controversies over how we die. These practical, often overlapping controversies include at least six specific issues of historical and contemporary salience:
• physician-assisted suicide in terminal illness, the focus of intense debate in parts of the world with long life expectancies and high-tech medical systems, particularly the Netherlands, the United States, the U.K., Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Australia;
• hunger strikes and suicides of social protest, as in Turkey, Northern Ireland, wartime Vietnam, China, Tibet under Chinese rule, and the Middle East following the 2010 self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor that touched off the “Arab Spring”;
• self-sacrifice and martyrdom, often distinguished from suicide, a distinction drawn in differing places in different religious traditions;
• religious and ritual practices that lead to death (especially sati or widow-burning, hara-kiri or ritual disembowelment, and ritual “fasting unto death,” called samadhi, santhara, or sallekhana, as sometimes practiced in Jain and other communities in India);
• suicides of honor or loyalty, ranging from the voluntary deaths of a king’s wives and retainers in many traditional cultures to deaths of shame or support for a superior; and
• suicide bombings and related forms of self-destruction employed as military, guerilla, or terrorist tactics, including kamikazi attacks in wartime Japan, suicide missions by groups from Tamil separatists to al-Qaeda, and suicide bombings in the conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Beneath these specific practical issues lies the question of the role a person may play in his or her own death. The focus here is on self-caused death, or suicide, and how it should be regarded from an ethical point of view. This collection of primary sources, in both the bound volume and the associated Digital Archive, is intended to facilitate exploration of such current practical issues by exhibiting the astonishingly diverse range of thinking about suicide throughout human intellectual history, in its full range of cultures and traditions. This collection has no interest in taking sides in these debates; rather, it hopes to expand the character of the rather linear recent debates on issues like physician-assisted suicide, suicide in social protest, and suicide bombing by making them, as it were, multidimensional. This is what a rich acquaintance with history and the diversity of cultures brings.
For much of the 20th and on into the 21st century, at least in the West and in regions affected by Western colonialism, thinking about suicide has been normatively monolithic. Suicide has come to be seen by the public, and particularly by health professionals, as primarily a matter of mental illness, perhaps compounded by biochemical and genetic factors and by social stressors, the sad result of depression or other, often treatable, diseases—a tragedy to be prevented. With the exception of the debate over suicide in terminal illness, also called “aid-in-dying” or “death with dignity,” the only substantive discussions about suicide in contemporary Western culture have concerned whether access to psychotherapy, improved suicide-prevention programs, or more effective antidepressant medications should form the principal lines of defense.
Indeed, suicide very often is a tragedy, and depression or other mental illness is often in play. However, a full exploration of historical and cross-cultural thought concerning suicide must also explore the many additional ways in which the phenomenon of self-destruction has also been understood—some of them bizarre, many of them profound. A full exploration seeks to broaden the current largely monolithic view, not replace it, and to provide a much wider context for understanding contemporary issues about a person’s role in his or her own death.
This volume and the associated Digital Archive are intended as a comprehensive sourcebook, a collection of primary texts covering as fully as possible the immense range of thinking about the ethics of suicide in both the Western and non-Western traditions, as well as in both literate and oral cultures—in short, the full range of human discussion and dispute that leads up to current times. It is particularly concerned with philosophical reflection on the morality of suicide. This takes many different forms: some texts are lengthy and discursive scholarly expositions; other texts involve vivid stories with implicit rather than explicit messages; some are firsthand accounts; others are secondary observations; some are exploratory; others are didactic or admonitory; and so on. There is a rich diversity here in the kinds of materials presented, as there is in the eras and cultures from which they come.
The History of Reflection on Suicide
The Western record of discussion and dispute about the morality of suicide begins almost four millennia ago with a rather personal dialogue between a man and his soul, a dialogue dating from the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt. Writing on suicide continues with the early Hebrew texts that record—without ethical comment—a handful of figures who caused their own deaths, among them Samson (who pulled the temple down upon himself, as well as the Philistines), Saul, and Saul’s armor bearer. In a different culture, ancient Greece, Plato developed a somewhat inchoate classification of acceptable and unacceptable suicides, including those subject to burial restrictions (like the Athenian practice of burying the hand apart) and those that were not; Aristotle took suicide generally to damage the state. In the following centuries, the Greek and Roman Stoics came to celebrate suicide as the act of the wise man, while the Christian church fathers, like the Jewish rabbis, though developing teachings that celebrated martyrdom, at the same time increasingly vigorously condemned suicide as sin; this view solidified during the period from Augustine through the time of Thomas Aquinas. Some Enlightenment writers defended suicide; some Romantic writers glorified it; and still others, like some Protestant clergy in 18th century America, denounced it in the most vitriolic terms. What is remarkable is the huge variety of accounts these writers give, both religious and secular, of what makes suicide wrong, or ethically neutral, or right.
Debate in the Western tradition continued apace until roughly the time of Durkheim and Freud at the beginning of the 20th century, with their respective theories of suicide as socially conditioned and as pathological. These thinkers in effect silenced the ethical debate, since they saw suicide as socially or psychiatrically caused rather than chosen. This laid the foundation for the view that, if suicide is not voluntarily chosen in any robust sense, it cannot be said to be culpable—not morally wrong, not sinful, and not criminal. Although debate over individual responsibility for suicide still continues, it has until recently been largely obscured by the dominant professional view that suicide is a product of mental illness, committed by people in the grip of depression or other psychopathology, hence incapable of reasoning clearly, and that, therefore, there really is no ethical issue here.
At the same time, however, views about self-caused and self-willed death have been evolving in Asia and the Middle East, beginning with ancient Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Islam, in India, early China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. These views have been carried forward within different religious and cultural traditions, often modified and intensified, but nevertheless each typically preserving a characteristic, unique, and fundamental ethical stance. In addition, over long spans of time, oral cultures in the Arctic, Africa, Oceania, and North, Central, and South America have been evolving, often including practices involving suicide and related forms of self-caused, self-willed death. From the practices of these cultures, it is possible to infer (though such inferences always involve a considerable degree of conjecture) the background normative views on which they rest. These views, and the practices in which they are exhibited, are often strikingly different from those of the literate cultures of the East and the West.
To be sure, reliance on historical accounts is far more problematic in oral traditions than it is in literate cultures that are able to preserve firsthand documents over long periods of time. For traditional oral cultures, contact with indigenous practices concerning suicide and the background worldviews and belief systems in which they are embedded is, to a considerable degree, filtered through Western eyes, since the written records from which the views of oral cultures can be distilled have become available only with the incursion of explorers, missionaries, conquistadores, adventurers, and amateur ethnographers, themselves largely from Western cultures. Just the same, the older sources from these cultures are invaluable since, despite their distortions, they depict societies comparatively innocent of Westernized attitudes about suicide.
Of course, it cannot be assumed that views of all the members of the various eras and cultures about suicide, whether in Western, Eastern, or traditional oral cultures, were or are alike. Cultures are rarely homogenous groups, but rather living collections of people whose views may differ considerably, though they may appear uniform when contrasted with the views of members of other cultures.
The Evolution of Views and Practices over Time
This collection is organized chronologically, even though dating, particularly of early texts, is often imprecise, and the identities of authors and sources are unclear. Chronological organization makes it possible to trace the development of thought about the morality of suicide in a culture over time. One might examine, for example, the development of thinking in Judaism, from the Hebrew Bible and its origins in the 12th–9th centuries b.c., through Josephus in the 1st century a.d., to the rabbinic writers and the Babylonian Talmud of the 3rd–6th centuries a.d., to the 10th-century Karaite writer Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, the Tosafist writers of the 12th–14th centuries, and on to Luria in the 16th century, Margoliouth in the 19th, and Szmul Zygielbojm in the 20th, whose wrenching suicide note in May of 1943 offers his own death in protest against the Allies’ indifference to the evolving holocaust for Polish Jews. Or one might examine the Japanese tradition, beginning with Daidoji Yuzan’s portrait of medieval Japan’s Bushido military and chivalric culture; then Chikamatsu’s plays and the developing tradition of love-suicide; then Lord Redesdale’s account of hara-kiri; and finally the letters from kamikaze pilots written just before their final missions in World War II. Or one might explore the entwined traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, beginning with the ancient Vedas and Upanishads of the 15th–5th centuries b.c.; the Dharmashastra law codes of the 7th century b.c. to the 1st century a.d.; the writings associated with the Buddha’s contemporary Mahavira, revered as the founder of Jainism; the Questions of King Milinda, an interchange between the Indo-Greek king Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena, dating from roughly 100 b.c. to 200 a.d.; the Lotus Sutra, composed sometime during the first several centuries a.d.; Bana from the late 6th century–early 7th century a.d.; an anonymous late 19th-century Hindu widow describing sati or widow-burning; and on to figures of the 20th and 21st century, Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh. Evolving concerns address (although in quite different ways) self-sacrifice as a form of social protest; self-immolation as a form of political protest; and the survival of the ancient Jain tradition of elective death in the form of ritual self-starvation, often in the modern context of terminal illness. These are long and rich traditions of reflection on this issue.
Although the various historical traditions initially developed independently, they came to interact and often mirror each other over time. For example, reflection on suicide within Judaism began long before the development of Christianity, but in the Talmudic period and during the Middle Ages, Judaism’s view of suicide appears to have evolved in part in tandem with that of Christianity; both exhibited an intensifying condemnation and prohibition of suicide, even though the specific details never fully coincided. Islam first arose several centuries after the view that suicide is almost always wrong had pervaded both Christianity and Judaism; Islam’s view remained comparatively uniform over time. But such mirroring is rarely perfect. While Islam’s repudiation of suicide in many ways parallels that of Judaism and Christianity, the distinctions these three traditions each draw between suicide and martyrdom may seem to fall in somewhat different places. Meanwhile, in the Far East, the evolution of Hindu spirituality and its fusion with Buddhist views about the illusoriness of life affected thinking about suicide in Confucian China, and in turn contributed to the Bushido tradition of medieval Japan that lionized suicide, which in turn played a major role in Japan’s military tactics in World War II. In still other areas of the globe, late medieval Catholic attitudes about the sinfulness of suicide were brought to the central and southern parts of the New World by Spanish conquistadores and the missionaries who traveled with them, while Protestant attitudes—no more tolerant of the sin they saw in suicide than were Catholic attitudes—were imported into Africa, India, North America, and other places colonized largely by Protestant nations.
The chronological organization of this collection also makes it possible to see one individual writer’s engagement with practices of another culture, as for instance the 19th-century German idealist philosopher Schopenhauer’s celebration of the practice of fasting unto death that had developed in Jainism. It also makes it possible to observe one author’s or one culture’s distortions of the views of another, as for instance Lactantius’ exaggerations of the views of Roman Stoics or al-Ghazali’s dismissive account of Hindu practices, as well as the extraordinary exaggerations of Christian conquerors and colonizers about the practices of peoples they subdued.
Chronological reflection on suicide is not easily accomplished, however, with respect to texts from oral cultures. It is usually impossible to determine in a reliable way the duration or scope of the views of the culture described. The texts themselves are often fragmentary or erratically preserved. And there is the ubiquitous problem of cultural overlay by foreign observers. Consequently, these selections are grouped together, entered in the chronological listing by the date of the earliest report. This permits at least a partial view of the range of beliefs and practices within a culture or a group of cultures, though they are filtered through the eyes of outside observers, the only sources available. It also makes it easier to see something of the philosophical assumptions concerning suicide prevalent in the intruding cultures, and hence easier to interpret Western texts written at about the same time. Although the texts of all traditions, both Western and non-Western, require interpretation, and though all texts can pose problems for readers from other cultures, the records of oral cultures require a double inference, both in extrapolating from practices described to the views that may have motivated them, and in subtracting as much as possible the overlay of Western, alien ideology (including its racist, sexist, and paternalist attitudes about “inferior” or “infantile” cultures) that also shapes such accounts. For this reason, an effort has been made to use the oldest accounts of an oral culture’s beliefs and practices, not only because they are temporally closer to pre-contact times but also because the ideological overlay—since it comes from an earlier period of Western history and is thus more evident to contemporary eyes—may be easier to subtract. In any case, whether in continuing oral traditions or in early observers’ accounts, there is no “pure” version of these views—and yet they represent some of the most varied, interesting, and challenging of those available.
A second partial exception to the chronological organization of this volume occurs with respect to cultures with highly sophisticated oral traditions capable of preserving material with considerable accuracy over long periods of time—early Islam, for example—so that the date of composition of written texts like the Quran and the Hadiths may be several centuries later than the actual genesis of the material. Further complicating the chronological presentation of sources, many significant texts are no longer extant, including not only individual works like Plutarch’s On the Soul, but virtually the entire corpus of a culture (as, e.g., all but three Mayan codices destroyed at the time of Western contact, all but one copy of disapproved books burned under the Qin dynasty, and almost the entire libraries of Baghdad and Nalanda).
It is of course not possible to include all texts from all authors, at all times, in all cultures; this would fill libraries. However, some of the authors included in this volume are allies here, themselves providing quite rich surveys of the then-known previous literature. John Donne does this for Western religious literature; Montaigne does this for secular, classical literature; and many other authors discuss and critique earlier works in the traditions within which they wrote. The unmeetable challenge of including everything of interest within the covers of a single bound volume is to some degree mitigated by the associated online Digital Archive; but even so, there are many authors and traditions that have not yet been discovered here. Reflection about self-caused death is something that has occupied thinkers in virtually every culture, and, given its saliency in medical practice, military action, social protest, and self-sacrifice, will no doubt continue to do so.
Conceptual Issues: Similarities and Differences among Traditions
There are many apparent parallels in thinking about suicide. For example, Greek and Roman Stoics saw suicide as rational and sensible in certain sorts of circumstances, as did the Bushido tradition in Japan; so have many indigenous cultures in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa, where dying to accompany one’s king or lord into the afterlife, or to keep the sun in its course, or to minimize the economic burden of the elderly in an economically marginal society was deemed the appropriate, rational thing to do. Of course, these are loose parallels, and there are many differences among these traditions’ views as well. It is important to remain sensitive to background differences in cultural assumptions about metaphysical, epistemological, and religious issues, as well as quite different systems of morality, even while noting striking parallels among texts and practices.
Nevertheless, similar elements and common problems are numerous, even across distant traditions. For example, for some traditions, like early and Talmudic Judaism, the early Christianity of St. Ignatius and later Christian theologians, and both traditional and contemporary Islam, the line between suicide and martyrdom—one prohibited, the other permitted and indeed celebrated—is very finely drawn, though in subtly different ways. Similarly, the line between the desire to die and suicide is also very finely drawn; this is true for writers from St. Paul and Angela of Foligno to Gandhi. Some writers and cultures think it ignoble to die in bed, deteriorating from illness: for the Vikings, the Yoruba, Bushido warriors, and Iglulik Inuit, death by violence, including death by suicide, is the more noble way. Then, too, writers in very different cultures have been concerned with quelling fashions for suicide: Plutarch, for example, describes an ingenious method of stopping the fad among the maidens of Miletus; similarly, Huang Liu-hung, a 17th-century provincial Chinese administrator, and Caleb Fleming, a fiercely conservative “dissenting” 18th-century English divine, both think exposing the naked body of a suicide in a public place is the most effective deterrent; so too the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who spoke of shaming by public hanging of the body of “every self-murderer, Lord or peasant,” though he did not insist that the body be unclothed. On the other hand, some writers and playwrights have been accused of fomenting fashions for suicide (Chikamatsu and Goethe, for instance) whether for thwarted love or to avoid descent into an ordinary, mundane existence. Roman generals, Japanese warriors, inhabitants of the Cook Islands in Polynesia, and kamikaze pilots have been alike in seeing military defeat as an occasion for suicide. Cultures in China, Africa, native North America, the Inca empire, Viking-controlled northern Europe, and pre-colonial and colonial India have seen suicide and/or voluntary submission to being killed as an appropriate part of funerary customs, especially for wives and retainers of kings and nobles. Although such parallels are never exact, they are nevertheless instructive.
There are conceptual similarities and differences among traditions as well. The distinctions between killing and letting die, between self-killing and being killed, between being killed at one’s request and killing oneself, or between self-killing and provoking another into killing oneself make an enormous difference in some cultures (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) but little in others (Viking culture, Buddhism). Politically motivated suicide may look very different in the East than in the West, partly because political systems are so different and partly because assumptions about what a person would accomplish by self-sacrifice or suicide are different. Different authors and cultures have sharply different views about whether concerns about the impact of a suicide on surviving family members or one’s society are important. Some think suicide is largely an individual matter (for example, the Roman philosopher Seneca, who in his famous Letter 70 wrote that “Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone,” and Paul-Louis Landsberg, who died in the Oranienburg concentration camp in 1943). For others (like those in kin-based societies, where the suicide of a young or middle-aged person breaks up social networks but the suicide of an elderly person who has ceased to play such roles does not), suicide is a social issue.
The scope of suicide prohibitions also varies widely, as does the matter of whether exceptions are ever to be made. Then there are group suicides (the mass suicide at Masada described by Josephus, or the ritual self-disembowelment of the 47 Ronins, mass suicides of Japanese troops in the face of defeat in WWII, or even the ultimate mass suicide of the whole human race imagined by Novalis and by Eduard von Hartmann). There are suicides of protest and social protest in many times and places and for many politically diverse reasons: Lucretia, Cato, Thich Quang Duc, and Yukio Mishima. Contemporary hunger strikers, suicide bombers, and those who immolate themselves to defend political or religious freedom may also belong in these categories. In some cultures, especially in Africa, suicide is often understood as revenge; in others, it is conceptualized primarily as altruistic, even when some self-killings are clearly egocentric; in some, it is understood as a matter of individual choice, however socially plausible the choice of death in that person’s specific circumstances may seem to be. Tracing these similarities and parallels is invited by this collection, but at the same time, the recognition of huge and often very subtle differences among authors and cultures is also encouraged.
Definition and Linguistic Issues
To note such similarities and differences raises the issue of definition: exactly what counts as suicide? Some definitions are extremely narrow; they count only cases in which a person has knowingly and voluntarily acted in a way that directly and intentionally caused his or her own death, with the intention that death result; others are more flexible, including cases of semi-intentional self-killing, semi-accidental self-killing, self-harm that results in the extinction of cognitive capacities though not the physical body, extreme asceticism that results in death, high-risk exploration, sports and other self-endangering activities, self-killing in which the person acts knowingly and voluntarily but does not want to die or wants to achieve some other goal, and so on. It can be argued that terminological differences often serve to mark views about the morality of self-killing in various circumstances or for various reasons, and that the wide range of terms used in cases of voluntary, knowing causation of one’s own death serves this purpose. “Suicide” is normally differentiated (in English) from “self-sacrifice,” “martyrdom,” “acquiescence in death,” “aid-in-dying,” “victim-precipitated homicide,” “self-deliverance,” and a variety of other terms, but the primary texts, providing the original wording, invite attention to the subtleties of these differences. Then too some authors employ unconventional definitions of suicide: for example, Lactantius’ insistence that the death of Cato, the Stoic example par excellence of praiseworthy suicide, was actually a homicide; Mao Zedong’s view that the death of Miss Zhao, a young peasant woman in 1919 China who slit her own throat rather than submit to an arranged marriage, was actually murder; but also, equally unconventional, John Donne’s claim that the death of Jesus Christ, the Christian example par excellence of an unjust execution, was actually a suicide.
Linguistic issues also arise in attempts to refer to the performance of the act of suicide. The expression “commit suicide” has been common; contemporary suicidologists typically use a variety of less stigmatizing alternatives, including “suicided,” “completed suicide,” and “died by suicide.” Depending on the background view of the ethics of suicide, these variant descriptions disguise much—or disguise little.
Problems of definition also arise as a product of translation from one language to another. Just as English had no unique term for suicide until the mid-1600s, when, for example, Walter Charleton used it in his Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons (“to vindicate ones self from extream, and otherwise inevitable Calamity, by Sui-cide is not [certainly] a Crime, but an act of Heroique Fortitude”), many other languages refer to this phenomenon in different ways. Greek, Latin, and other European languages did not have an explicit, unique term for suicide, though they had a wide variety of locutions. While English has just one principal term for it, “suicide,” German has four:“Selbstmord,” “Selbsttötung,” “Suizid,” and “Freitod,” the first three of which have varyingly negative or neutral connotations, but the fourth of which has generally positive ones; this means that German speakers can talk about suicide in a range of ways that English speakers cannot. Wider exploration would no doubt reveal differences among other languages as well.
Issues of definition are also important in examining the practices of traditional cultures. The only available early reports of practices in oral cultures, especially those made by clerics, conquistadores, and others not trained in ethnography, may distort the meanings of native words considerably. For example, in the Seneca myth called the Code of Handsome Lake, Edward Cornplanter speaks of “sin” and of the “Great Spirit”; these are probably imported concepts and mistranslations influenced by European sources, even if there is no adequate correct translation in English. On the other hand, some traditional practices that are not apparently conceptualized as suicide might meet contemporary Western definitions, insofar as they involve the knowing and voluntary taking of an action intended to bring about one’s own death. For example, the traditional practice of the Gã people of western Africa of holding individuals accountable for dying at times or in ways that are impermissible suggests that these deaths are understood as a matter of voluntary choice. So are the sallekhana or santhara deaths by ritual fasting that form the central austerity of the Jains, said to be practiced over 200 times a year in contemporary India. These are not understood as suicide by the group in question but might well be by outside observers, as for instance in court challenges to the practice in contemporary India on the grounds that it is a “social evil” and a violation of Indian law prohibiting suicide. Then again, some practices that are apparently conceptualized as suicide and, given the group’s beliefs, would meet common Western definitional criteria are nevertheless strikingly at odds with Western categories, such as the Mohave belief that stillborn infants are suicides, beings who (knowingly) surveyed the world into which they were about to be born but (voluntarily and deliberately) decided against it.
This sourcebook also tries to recognize—though to do so exhaustively would prove impossible—the significance of negative cases: the writings or accounts of individuals who did not consider suicide (like Angela of Foligno) though it might have been a plausible consequence of their reasoning; or who were urged toward suicide but did not do it (like Job, taunted by his wife); of authors who did not discuss it or address it directly (especially John Stuart Mill, who, given his views about liberty and impairment, could have been expected to do so far more fully than in his few scattered remarks); of texts where it is hinted at, if at all, only by implication (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus); of cultures (e.g., the Tiv of central Africa) where it was apparently not practiced; and religious traditions where it was barely mentioned at all (e.g., Shinto, although it coexisted with Bushido culture). This is a tricky matter but an important one if the full range of thought about suicide is to be displayed. What is not thought, not done, and not said about this issue can play an immense role in reflection and action about life and death as well.
The Bases of Analysis
Among the many issues raised by the full range of views on suicide is the question of the bases of analysis. This collection focuses on the ethical issues in suicide, but there are substantial differences in just what it is that is to be assessed. Is it the act itself that is the focus of normative assessment? Is it the intention under which it is done? Is it the pattern of behavior or cultural tradition within which it occurs? Is it the outcome of the act, its effects on other individuals or social groups, and if so, how broad is the scope of these effects?
Issues concerning the bases of analysis challenge traditional classifications used in the assessment of ethical issues in suicide. Of particular importance in this collection is the fact that no attempt has been made to differentiate what Durkheim understood as societally caused “institutional” suicide from the sorts of suicide usually understood under the label “suicide” in Western, professional contexts—roughly, between suicide expected in certain circumstances as a normal part of the practices of a culture, as distinct from suicide that is conceptualized as the individual’s own idiosyncratic act, whether reasoned or the product of mental illness or psychopathology. The sources in this collection clearly reveal that the line between “institutional” and “individual” suicide is not nearly as sharp as is often assumed, and that even in the anomic modern industrial cultures of which Durkheim spoke, individuals respond to quite subtle societal expectations. The West has seen only a few clear examples of what it recognizes as institutional suicide: the expectation that the Prussian army officer unable to pay his gambling debts kill himself, for example, or that the captain go down with his ship. Yet the expectation of, say, early Christianity that martyrdom is to be sought, or of Romantic culture (evident in Goethe’s Werther) that suicide may be preferable to a life of ordinariness may not seem institutional at all until examined against the broader backdrop of contrasting eras and cultures.
Issues of the bases of analysis are also involved in differentiating between suicide and euthanatic suicide, suicide and protest suicide, religiously motivated and ritual suicide, suicide and tactical suicide, or sorting out suicide by causes or motives like despair or revenge. They are also relevant in discerning differences in views of suicide as pathological—Hippocrates’ account of suicide in premenstrual dysphoric disorder, for example, or Sophocles’ portrait of the mad ravings of Ajax and his subsequent remorse, or Burton’s portrait of the anatomy of melancholy. They are relevant in understanding the enormous variation in ways that suicide can be conceptualized as understandable, noble, or indeed praiseworthy, as in Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of the suicide of the monk Thich Giac Thanh, which, like that of Thich Quang Duc and other Buddhist monks and nuns protesting the Diem regime during the Vietnam War, involved deliberate self-immolation. Their acts are portrayed as deaths of principle, a difficult act but one undertaken in a fully reflective, thoughtful, aware way, one with deep roots in the Buddhist tradition, and one in which psychopathology plays no role. Nevertheless, the term “suicide” is rejected, even though these self-immolations are undertaken knowingly, deliberately, with extensive prior training and preparation, and with full awareness of the consequences. Mao’s account of Miss Zhao is also one of resistance to an abusive society: is it a pathological suicide, a protest suicide, or what? Or is it resistance that simply takes the wrong form? In Mao’s view, Miss Zhao should not have killed herself but stayed alive to join the revolutionary effort. A selection from the Islamic jihad tradition poses the issue of tactical suicide in a contemporary light; it too illuminates the earlier distinction between suicide and martyrdom drawn in Islam since its beginning, and raises the issue of whether this distinction has been distorted for political ends.
Two selections from the early days of contemporary Western bioethics sketch some of the very extensive argumentation played out in the ferment over physician-assisted suicide, one from an English defender of rational suicide and “planned death,” the barrister Mary Rose Barrington, and one from an American opponent, the bioethicist Daniel Callahan. In the writings of both, the tensions between autonomous choice and the finality of terminal illness, as well as risk of abuse, play a real role. That the issue at hand is now frequently referred to not as “suicide” but as “assisted dying,” “aid-in-dying,” or “death with dignity” points not only to political strategy but also to questions about the bases of analysis and the deeper philosophical issues such a practice raises. The final selection, from an American philosopher using a Wittgensteinian form of analysis, emphasizes the complexity of the term “suicide” itself and makes it clear that this label alone cannot provide a firm foundation for moral judgments.
Even in the seemingly most isolated cases, the act of suicide is necessarily connected with background views about the meaning of death, the value of life, the relationship between the individual and the community, the nature of suffering, the significance of punishment, the existence of an afterlife, the nature of the self, and many other deep philosophical questions. The issue of suicide challenges all of these. As Camus is so often quoted, “There is but one truly philosophical question, and that is the issue of suicide.” Just one thing is clear. A full understanding of suicide cannot start with the assumption that all suicide is pathological, that it can almost always be attributed to depression or mental illness, that it is a matter of biochemical abnormality, that it is always wrong, or that there are no real ethical issues about suicide. These views are to be explored, not presupposed. To be sure, the history of reflection on the ethics of suicide will be a continuing history, as cultural conceptions of suicide and related issues like self-sacrifice, heroism, social protest, self-deliverance, martyrdom, and so on in each of these contexts evolve, but, in an increasingly global world in which once-independent traditions interact more and more fully and in the process shape and reshape each other, it is important to be able to view the deeper roots of these issues.
Margaret Pabst Battin
Salt Lake City, Utah, 2015
Invitation to Submit Further Selections, Corrections, and Comments
Readers of this volume are invited to submit corrections, comments, and further texts for inclusion in this Digital Archive. Please send a note of inquiry to the Archive Librarian, at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the tab at the top of the home page.
For Help Concerning Suicide
Some of the material in this collection may prove disturbing. For help with thoughts of suicide or impulses to harm oneself, contact the American Association of Suicidology and/or the International Association for Suicide Prevention. In the U.S., the national crisis hotline number is 800-273-TALK (8255). Similar services and suicide prevention lifelines are available in many other countries.