from Dissertation on Suicide


Born at Pudsey, near Leeds, Richard Hey was an English mathematician and essayist. In 1768, he received his B.A. from Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was a tutor and fellow from 1782 to 1796 after completing M.A. and LL.D. degrees at Sidney Sussex College. Hey received a call to the bar in 1771 at the Middle Temple, but did not succeed in practice. He published Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and the Principles of Government in 1776; his principal work was the Dissertation on the Pernicious Effects of Gaming (1783). This latter work won Hey a monetary writing prize from an anonymous donor, as did his following works, Dissertation on Duelling (1784) and Dissertation on Suicide (1785). In addition to a play and a novel, Hey composed pamphlets and contributed papers to magazines. He died in Hertingfordbury in his 91st year.

In the lengthy Dissertation on Suicide, Hey discusses the guilt of suicide, its status as murder, its pernicious effects, and its imprudence. In the section presented here, Hey outlines the “bad effects of the principle which permits Suicide,” arguing that the possibility of escape by suicide or the notion of suicide as a “resource” would induce “irregular and pernicious conduct.” He also believes that the social acceptance of suicide would undercut the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent. Hey’s point is more subtle than most writers who point to the negative consequences of suicide; for Hey, the problem lies not so much in the effects of the act itself as actually carried out, but in the social role of the principle under which it is performed—the background conception that suicide is an alternative to social responsibility and suffering, a way out. Hey’s example of the young man deciding whether to live within his means and his inheritance for the full term of his life as a “useful member of society”—say, 60 years—or, dissolute, spend it all in 20 years and then kill himself when his resources are gone, anticipates later “balance-sheet” conceptions of suicide as the subject of rational, prudential decision-making, where the problematic issue is how to weigh nonexistence versus the value of continuing life.

Richard Hey, Three Dissertations on the Pernicious Effects of Gaming, On Duelling, and On Suicide, revised and corrected in 1811 by the author. Cambridge, UK: J. Smith, Printer to Cambridge University, 1812, pp. 208-219.


Effects of the Principle which permits Suicide

The pernicious Effects of Suicide, actually committed, might have been drawn out to a much greater length.  But being for the most part, obvious to the observing eye, they would be liable to lose much of their force if delineated with a prolix minuteness.  They have likewise been repeatedly a subject of disquisition to the Moralist and Divine. It seems therefore better to pass over to an important consideration, which appears not to have been regarded with sufficient attention—the Effects produced in the actions of any person, by an habitual and prevailing idea in his mind, approving (in some sort) or Permitting suicide.  The meaning of this may be explained more at large.

Probably the commission of other crimes, as well as of Suicide, is frequently avoided less through Principle than from the absence of temptation.  But he who is thus prevented by mere circumstances from the commission of them, is not only deficient in the integrity of virtuous Sentiment, but may be led in Actions which are hurtful, though distinct from the Crimes, which, as we have supposed, he escapes by having no temptation to commit them.  A man, having no scruple of removing out of his way by treachery or open force those who may obstruct his pursuits, will be ready to engage in enterprises highly detrimental to society, though they may not happen to draw him into actual Murder.  He who would deceive, whensoever occasion should prompt, may perhaps never be reduced to perjure himself; nay, it is possible that he may never in fact utter a falsehood: but he will probably be guilty of many actions in which he would not have allowed himself, if he had been firmly attached to the Principle of veracity; if a real abhorrence of the arts of deceit had precluded the use of them as a security from detection.

In like manner, though a person have Suicide in his eye, as a Resource in case of extreme distress, it may happen that he shall never be reduced to what he calls a Necessity of removing himself out of the world: but he may nevertheless, by his confidence in such a resource, be incited to an irregular and pernicious conduct.  If we can make this to appear, the Guilt of Suicide will be not a little confirmed.  And the harm derived from this particular origin, may be called, the bad Effects of the Principle which permits Suicide.

It is not meant that every one, who acts upon the Principle thus expounded, has formed a full and determinate resolution to die when his affairs are brought to any certain crisis, or when life becomes an evil in his estimation.  Nor, of those who may keep an eye more or less distinctly directed to such a Refuge, is it probable that all have similar sentiments.  One has reasoned himself into a persuasion of its Rectitude: another has possibly fixed his resolution in opposition to a full conviction; or he has combated and suppressed a nascent belief of the Guilt, or forced away his attention from a latent Doubt.  And the degrees of doubt are infinitely variable.  But men, in their general conduct, give proof of little foresight or thoughtful predetermination.  Wherefore it is probable, that those who have made a formal (though only eventual) resolution to take refuge in suicide, are but few in comparison of those who, without a similar resolution, would actually put a period to their lives in similar cases; and who, by their habitual state of mind, being at the mercy of conspiring circumstances, which may impel them to Suicide, are to be conceived as acting from the Principle now under discussion.

But here again is an infinite variety of persons, of whom this habitual state of mind may be predicated.  Some would sooner be reduced to the commission of the crime; others with more difficulty.  Some, thinking it allowable in general to quit life at pleasure, would yet refuse to do it when they distinctly foresaw consequential injury to surviving friends.  Others, with the cruelty of cowards, would knowingly plunge the innocent survivors into the deepest calamities, rather than abstain from this unnatural outrage upon themselves first, may be mentioned an inferior Effect; more confined and less flagrant than some remaining to be noticed afterwards.  But the consideration will have its weight with a generous mind:—a mind capable of commiserating in others the pain of anxious suspense; the continued Fear of an event which yet may never happen.  If a person is known or suspected to have embraced the Principle here condemned, he becomes the cause of serious distress to those who are naturally interested in every thing that regards him.  Apprehensions for his fate cannot be entirely suppressed, even while his circumstances wear a face of prosperity.  But, when clouds obscure his prospects, when disappointment has given a shock to his sensibility, when heavy calamities threaten or oppress him, his friends then tremble with anxiety, endeavouring with painful attention to prevent the dreaded catastrophe, but sensible that prevention is not altogether in their power.

Although this were the only accusation which could be brought against Suicide, we are confident there are to be found persons of so generous and enlarged sentiments, that, to restore a peaceful serenity of mind to their anxious friends, they would disavow every idea which could give just cause of Apprehension.  But accusations of a higher nature claim to be heard.

If a person, who admits Suicide as a Resource, should analyze his inmost thoughts with impartiality, and utter them without reserve; we might hear him expressing himself to the following effect.

“I am told by solemn and supercilious preachers of morality, that the Being who placed me in this world intended me for purposes of a nature superiour (as they pretend) to the mere enjoyment of my life.  I shall not undertake a laborious investigation, to examine the ground and proof of their assertions.  Time presses on; and that short portion of life which alone affords enjoyment may easily be wasted in the speculation.  I feel within me an impulse to pursue my immediate Happiness; and I will not check that impulse.  Why may I not presume it to be the voice of my Creator, dictating the conduct which I should pursue?  Why should I perplex myself with the artificial and fallible deductions of Reason, whether my own, or of other men?  Here, then, I consign to oblivion those dull maxims; which, under the title of Virtue, would teach me to distract myself by an assiduous attention to the rights and interests of others, instead of giving myself freely to my own gratification; or, under the name of prudence, to lay in a stock of health and riches, before the approach of that season in which I must expect the vigour of all my powers and capacities to abate.  Be these the maxims of persons who conceive themselves to be imprisoned here by a tyrant!  I have no other dread of poverty, disease, or old age, than as putting an end to my enjoyments.  Against a continued suffering, under such evils, I am fully provided.  Secure of a retreat from every misfortune, I will exhaust my wealth upon such objects as it can procure for me, while my mind and body retain the vigour which alone can stamp a value upon those objects.  Why should I shackle myself with the fetters of frugality?  Why be my own tormentor, in reserving this pelf to a season when impotence and insensibility must render it useless to me?  Or, why should I lay the tax of an abstemious temperance upon my pleasures, under pretence of preserving my health and faculties?  Life is of doubtful duration.  Why should I, in hopes of future enjoyments still more uncertain, spare my bodily constitution; when, for this end, I must deny myself what is present and certain?  In what service can this mortal frame better be worn out, than in administering to my immediate Happiness?  When it is no longer able to answer this purpose, I can readily procure my own dismission; after having compressed into the space of a few years all the Good which others by intermixing it with the misery of labour, temperance, and discipline, expand into a much more tedious length of time.  When I have extracted from life all that makes it worth preserving, I will release myself; secretly exulting in triumph, over those who imagine themselves bound to drag on an old age of disease, pain, stupor, and infirmity.”

Who does not see that this is a language which leads to a general dissoluteness of manners, a contempt of all the obligations which arise in social life?  And who, that sees this, will afterwards maintain that the Principle, permitting Suicide, is a matter of small consequence, though it should not end in the Act itself?

Suppose then a person, at the age of twenty years, entering into life; who looks forward to his resources, and to the particular manner in which he should desire to pass through the world, with more accuracy than is perhaps very usual at that age.  He finds upon his survey, that, with a moderate degree of industry in some particular profession, joined to the annual produce of his patrimony, he shall be able, not only to procure all the advantages of life which his birth and early habits can demand, but also to provide an honourable and indulgent retreat for old age.  But he finds, on the other hand, that, if he will break through the limits of his annual income, and enter upon the substance of his paternal property, he shall then be able, without the aid of his own industry, to supply himself, during the space of twenty years to come, with a plentiful share of those luxuries in which he esteems Happiness to consist.  The question is, whether he shall take the former method, become a useful member of society, content himself with that moderate and mixed enjoyment which the natural course of things allows to men, and continue his life long as he is permitted to live; or shall take the latter method, banish from his thoughts the interests of society, give himself up to his own private enjoyments, and put an end to his life when he has thus exhausted the means of continuing it in riot and debauchery.

If he adopt the former method, it will be no unnatural supposition to conceive that he lives to the age of sixty years: in which case he will have been a useful member of society, for the space of forty years, from the time when he formed his resolutions and plan of life.  If the latter method be his choice, he perishes after having existed (from the same time) a noxious member of society during twenty years.

It is immaterial to the main conclusion, whether he completes the period of time which he had fixed upon, and carries his predetermined suicide into execution, or, after a considerable portion elapsed, is called away by an earlier death.  For, in either case, the continued injuries committed, the duties neglected, through a course of years, and the Guilt by these means contracted, have arisen from the Principle upon which a scheme of action, so inequitable and so ungenerous, was planned.

To see distinctly and fully the pernicious nature of such conduct, the way would be to conceive every person as embracing it: that is, every person who is unable to command, by the annual produce of his patrimonial property, so much of the industry of other men as is requisite for his wishes; but who can command it during some certain portion of time, if he be willing to exhaust that property.  The number of persons in this situation is great.  Should they all pursue a dissolute course of life so long as their finances would support them in it, depending upon Suicide as the means of escaping poverty and distress; the consequences would be extensively felt.  Society must be burdened with a number of useless Beings; whose industry is lost to the public, not merely for that portion of time by which their lives are shortened, but even while they remain in life.

But the Principle under consideration leads to actions more highly pernicious, than such as are usually comprised within the general description of a dissolute life.  The connexion between Murder and Suicide, both in theory and experience, we have already seen.  In other actions also to which the municipal laws have annexed capital punishments, men who are fearless of Death, though not insensible to the Ignominy of a public execution, are freed from restraint, when once they have determined to become their own executioners in case of immediate danger from the civil power.

That there are men perfectly fearless of death, may be doubted.  But what comes to the same thing, in the present argument, will readily be granted: which is, that there are men in whom the fear of death is not strong enough to restrain them from the commission of crimes.  And it will also be easily granted, that the fear of Ignominy is frequently found more powerful than the fear of Death; (howsoever inconsistent this may appear, where death is considered as the introduction to future Punishment.)  Upon the whole, then, it may sometimes happen, that a person, with whom the fear of Death has lost its effect, of restraining him from the commission of a capital crime, may yet be restrained from it by the fear of Ignominy; unless this latter fear has been removed by a confidence in voluntary death, to prevent the ignominy.

But, whensoever a person has, by this confidence, armed himself with a security against the Ignominy, which is all that he sees sufficiently terrible, in Death, to restrain him from crime; we may apprehend Effects of a most alarming nature.  With respect to him, capital punishments are annulled.  Mankind have the same reason to dread from him every violation of their rights, as if the laws which affix the punishment of death to certain actions had never been established.  Augment the Number of such persons; and the first purposes of society are destroyed.  Security is fled; life and property are precarious; perpetual consternation and alarm cast a damp upon private felicity, and check the happy progress of civilization.  But what presents this terrible aspect, when conceived as prevailing to a great extent, is equally reprehensible, in respect of mental depravity, howsoever small the Number of those who adopt it.  And the Principle which has a natural tendency towards crimes so flagitious, ought to meet with a peremptory exclusion, when, under the most specious pretences, it solicits admittance into the human breast.

It is evident that all these Effects are distinct from the consequences of Suicide itself, and may arise without the actual Commission of it.  But, since all moral evil has its existence in the mind rather than in external action, and since the Guilt of Suicide is therefore to be looked for in the Principle, Sentiment, or Passion, from which it proceeds; for this reason, all the Effects of the Principle (provided they appear to follow from the nature of it, and not to be merely incidental) are properly taken into the account, as well as the final act, in estimating the Guilt of Suicide.

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