One of the main arguments against suicide is that suicide is tragic:
it causes great suffering to family and friends of the person
committing suicide. In this article we claim that most of the
suffering is actually caused by the policy of suicide prevention
Furthermore, labeling all suicides as "tragic" assumes
should be prevented, and therefore using this argument to prove
suicide should be prevented results in cyclic, flawed, argumentation.
In theater, the classical tragedy has a common formula: the hero has
some flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall. The flaw is often
hubris (over-reaching pride, trying to do something beyond the limits
fate has set for him), but it can also be a physical weakness, a lapse
of judgment, or simple ignorance of some circumstance that leads to a
If only this flaw had been detected, acknowledged, and confronted
by the hero, the ending could have been avoided. In hindsight, the
hero could regret not confronting this flaw.
This seems to apply to our everyday use of the word "Tragic". It is
regret which distinguishes events which are merely sad from those
which are tragic.
Regret, in this context, means more than just sorrow. It is regret
that something could
have and should
have been done, but was not.
the Montagues and the Capulets were able to put their
differences aside. If only
Romeo and Juliet acted more reasonably,
their suicides could have been avoided. After their death, the heroes
are not even able to regret what they have done. Their imagined regret
is transferred and embedded in the minds of the audience, making a
The crux of a Tragedy is often the idea that a sad event is the
culmination of some avoidable flaw or mistake in the past. What could
have and should have been done to prevent such an outcome? It is
these lingering questions which give the Tragedy its appeal.
A tragic event is just a specific kind of sad event. A tragic event is
always sad, but there are sad events which are not tragic.
Consider an old man in a nursing home who died from a heart attack.
The funeral was sad, but due to his old age, the constant medical
care, and his quick death, everybody comes to terms with it very
The man's death may have been impossible to prevent, furthermore, his
life quality was diminishing, so perhaps there was no reason to
prevent it even if we could. There is reason to believe that his death
couldn't have and shouldn't have been prevented.
In some cases, even if the event could have been prevented, it still
may be that it shouldn't have been prevented. Consider an unmarried
couple, still in love, who decide to break up because the woman wants
to study abroad and the man doesn't want to move. Everybody involved
is sad about the breakup. It may be that with sufficient persuasion
the woman would give up her dreams. The breakup could be prevented
this way. However the woman would probably be resentful at her missed
opportunity, and this would result in an unhappy marriage and unhappy
For events which could have been prevented, we still have to take into
consideration any bad consequences of taking such course of
action. These might lead us to the conclusion that the event shouldn't
have been prevented.
In the two examples above, the events are not tragic because they
couldn't have or shouldn't have been prevented. Therefore, there is
nothing to regret.
What is considered tragic depends on the culture (the beliefs, norms
and values) in which the event occurs.
Honor is of central importance in many Muslim cultures. The breach of
honor is considered tragic. Honor killings of woman, still common in
places such as Pakistan, Jordan and Palestine , are simply the
transition from perceiving an event as tragic ( where something could
or should have been done ) to real action. For example, in one case, a
woman who married a Muslim from England, returned to her home village
in Palestine, for a visit. Her attire was considered dishonorable.
This was perceived as tragic, to such a degree that she was murdered
by a family member.
There are ultra-orthodox Jews who sever all ties and mourn over their
children if they marry to people of another faith. The parents may
feel they have failed in raising the child to be sufficiently
religious and faithful. Surely they perceive the marriage as tragic,
although we might consider their mourning as barbaric.
Such perceptions of what is tragic are alien to most of us. Actually,
it is the counter actions, murder and severing ties, which we consider
Perceptions of what is tragic can change over time. In the past
having a gay child would be considered tragic. The father with a
homosexual son perceived a flaw either in the son or in himself, or both -
'What did I do wrong to cause my son to be this way?'.
What caused the change is that society shifted its perception of what
is bad, and what could and should be prevented. Instead of blaming gay
people for following their tendency, society has taken responsibility
for the arbitrary perception of homosexuality as tragic. Society
acknowledged its blame for causing much suffering to gay people and
their families, and changed its perception.
We all agree that suicide is often sad. Also, some suicides are
tragic. Society portrays suicide as tragic, resulting from a
preventable flaw, in the person who commits suicide, and often in the
family who 'failed' to steer the suicidal loved one to a happy life.
Our disagreement with society is whether suicide is always
determine this we need to look at whether suicide could always be, and
should always be prevented.
Suicide could be prevented in principal if it is known that the person
is suicidal, by locking him in a mental institution. In practice, a
suicidal person who is aware of the practices of suicide prevention,
can avoid them, by not disclosing suicidal intentions, or by
pretending to abandon the option of suicide, if already in a mental
institution. The utopian approach for how we could prevent suicide is
to bring people up in a way which makes them feel happy, and
Turning back to reality, dealing with people who are suicidal today:
even if we could
prevent their suicide, should we? There are numerous
negative consequences to the policy of suicide prevention, which are
A suicidal person who goes on living is suffering pain, perhaps
pain that can never be successfully treated (the psychiatric
profession plays down the degree of failure in their treatment), pain
which can be far worse than taking one's own life.
Another negative consequence is that suicidal people, knowing that the
system is only interested in suicide prevention, avoid consultation.
This commonly leads to the truly tragic suicides, which indeed should
have been prevented and could have been prevented if only suicidal
people perceived the mental health establishment as being able to
assist them to choose whether or not to commit suicide, without bias.
Mental health practitioners also suffer, since they are bound, by law
and by professional norms, to betray their clients. Even if they think
a client has little chance of reaching a state where their life seems
of value, they are forced to lie to their clients to raise their
hopes, so they will not attempt suicide.
In addition, suicide prevention has negative consequences for people
who have bypassed the system and have committed suicide. Such people
must hide intentions from relatives and friends, which are surprised
by the suicide, and are left with many troubling questions which
could have been resolved had the suicidal person been able to
discuss the situation freely.
Finally, carrying out a suicide can be dangerous. A failed attempt can
lead to injuries which make the situation much worse, not just for the
person, but also to the family which needs to provide additional
support. Suicide attempts are also dangerous to innocent
bystanders. The TV show "Oprah", featured a case where a woman
attempted to commit suicide. She crashed her car into a wall,
however, on the other side of the wall was a restaurant. The car
crashed through the wall and injured an entire family, killing a
Putting aside the question of whether suicide could or should be
prevented, we focus on how pro-life advocates argue that it should
One of the main assumptions pro-life, suicide-prevention advocates
make is that suicide is tragic, however, as we explained, a tragic
event is one which could and should have been prevented. So, by
uncareful use of language they are assuming what they intend to
prove. Such proofs are always successful of course, the problem is
that using such a method, we can prove any claim, even false ones. So
using such a proof, even if it appears intuitively convincing, says
nothing about the validity of the claim which one wants to prove.
Psychologists and psychiatrists, the main advocates for suicide
prevention, base their entire work on the assumption that suicide
should be prevented. This permeates into their thought patterns
and language in a manner which taints their reasoning. It is almost
impossible for them to argue against suicide, without introducing
cyclic argumentation, even in the innocent form of words, like
Philosophers, who are trained to properly separate one's assumptions
from what one is trying to prove, are much better suited for analyzing
such issues. Philosophers are trained to avoid such flawed logic.
The policy of suicide prevention promotes the belief that suicide
could be and should be prevented. This causes the suicide to be
perceived as tragic. It is this perception of suicide as tragic
which causes most of the suffering for survivors, and makes it much
more difficult to come to terms with.
Perceiving an event as tragic makes it difficult to come to terms with,
in contrast to an event which is just sad. If a sad event couldn't
have and shouldn't have been prevented, then there is no blame to be
placed, and nobody to be angry at. But a tragic event raises the
questions: how could it be prevented, who should have prevented
it. This leads to anger ( when blaming others ) and despair ( when
blaming self ). The questions linger on, unanswered, making it far
more difficult to come to terms with the event.
We have been lead to believe that suicide should be prevented because
suicide is tragic, when in fact, the reason why suicide is tragic is
society has chosen
a policy of suicide prevention.
Suicide is a sad event, however, the perception of suicide as tragic
is a result of the choice society has made - a choice which society is
responsible for. Ultimately, society is to blame for the negative
consequences of this choice.
Creative Commons License
Hermotimus Boukephalos, EverDawn
 Adam Jones, "Case Study: Honour Killings and Blood Feuds",
 The Oprah Winfrey Show, "Incredible Stories of Forgiveness",
Original Air Date: 22.4.2002 .