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Suicide - Sad or Tragic?


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 itself.

Furthermore, labeling all suicides as "tragic" assumes that suicide should be prevented, and therefore using this argument to prove that suicide should be prevented results in cyclic, flawed, argumentation.

What is Tragic?

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 depressing conclusion.

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.

If only 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 lasting impression.

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.

What is Not Tragic?

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 quickly.

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 children.

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.

Culture and the Perception of what is Tragic

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 [1], 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 as tragic.

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.

Suicide - Sad or Tragic?

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 tragic. To 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 fulfilled.

The Consequences of Suicide Prevention

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 usually overlooked.

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[2]. 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 4-year-old daughter.

The Closed Logic of Suicide Prevention

Putting aside the question of whether suicide could or should be prevented, we focus on how pro-life advocates argue that it should be prevented.

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 "Tragic".

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 because 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: Creative Commons License

Hermotimus Boukephalos, EverDawn

[1] Adam Jones, "Case Study: Honour Killings and Blood Feuds", http://www.gendercide.org/case_honour.html

[2] The Oprah Winfrey Show, "Incredible Stories of Forgiveness", Original Air Date: 22.4.2002 .

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