ASH FAQ part 4/4: The Debate
This article attempts to answer claims which state that suicide is necessarily immoral or irrational. Such claims and answers to them were collected from the usenet news group alt.suicide.holiday (ash), and other sources. This article is part 4 of the alt.suicide.holiday FAQ. Other parts can be found at .
The first version of this article was written by EverDawn. In this later revision, additional material was contributed, and the foreword was edited by Mori Qendi. Some sections have moved to to a web page titled To be or not to be.
0.1 Goals of FAQ
0.2 Organization of FAQ
1 Duty to god
1.1 Life is a gift from god
1.2 People who commit suicide go to hell
1.3 Believe in god and he will save you
1.4 Only god decides in matters of life and death
2 The Philosophical Debate
2.1 Duty to society (Suicide is selfish)
2.2 Life is the only thing you have
2.3 Kant's arguments
3 Layman cliches
3.1 Suicide is not a solution
3.2 Suicide is not natural
4 The Suicidological Debate
5.1 Suicide is the easy way out
5.2 Suicide is an act of a coward
5.3 Aren't all suicidal people mentally ill?
5.4 People who want to commit suicide have impaired judgment
5.5 People who commit suicide have a chemical brain disorder
5.6 Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem
5.7 Suicide is an irreversible act
Most people believe suicide is foolish, crazy, and/or immoral. When suicide is discussed it is routinely condemned, however, since the topic is taboo, people are rarely willing to discuss it even hypothetically.
It is ironic that an event as common as suicide is one that permits little discussion in any venue due to the fiercely held opinions against it.
Although some people may agree in theory to a person's right to suicide, they are unwilling to address the individual's right to a reliable means of death. A suicidal person has no access to professional assistance in self-delivery.
Suicide is reported in the media and many people have known someone who committed suicide. Why is such a relevant topic not explored in open conversation? How can such an intractable issue be approached? Why are so many people so sure about their convictions? Why is it that ash, one of the few places where the pros and cons of suicide may be discussed freely, is seen as a terrible influence that should be bombarded with the same invalidating, condemnatory comments again and again?
Cliches allow society to bridge the gap between the inherent complexities of the problem and the will of society to preserve life. Some cliches divert attention from the topic. Some exploit the psychological situation of people who want to commit suicide. But many of them are simply irrelevant, illogical or rely on questionable assumptions . Cliches are simple enough for everyone to understand but they don't really address the issues.
The current state is one of paranoia, where any suicidal tendency is regarded as an illness to be cured. In some cases, suicidal desires are indeed a symptom of illness, but many other situations are not so clear cut as society would have us believe.
Even dying patients in excruciating pain are not allowed to end their life. How can society be so numb to the needs of its citizens? In the 21st century, we are still using the Hippocratic oath, which is more than 2000 years old, as our moral guide.
Changing these attitudes is not an easy task. This is demonstrated by the fight of euthanasia organizations around the world to change legislation and allow the terminally ill and the aged to end their lives in peace. Their slow progress is due to the democratic society we most live in. Indeed democracy is the rule of the majority via representatives, and people who wish to commit suicide are always the minority (and are a weak one at that since suicidal people often do not have the energy to be politically active).
However, modern democracy is not simply the rule of the majority. Democracy is not the only ideal of our societies; liberal principles are also important. The essence of liberal democracy is in the restrictions that should be placed on the government to preserve the individual's rights from the will of the majority.
We are lucky to live in times where values are constantly changing. Minorities around the world are reclaiming their natural rights, from the progress of women's liberation movements to the fall of apartheid. Sexual preferences, for which in the past one could be sent to jail, are increasingly recognized as the private concern of the individuals involved. The control over our bodies, the ultimate civil right, is yet another limit our governing bodies should acknowledge and embrace.
The only thing demonstrated here is that suicide is not proven to be wrong by these attacks.
This should come as no surprise. Most moral questions are difficult or even impossible to resolve one way or the other. What *is* surprising is the conviction of some pro-life posters and total disregard to the opinions of ashers. Although this document might actually convince some pro-lifers that they are wrong, its real purpose is to help people who are new to ash to *understand* our point view and realize that the issues are far from trivial.
For regular ashers, the FAQ can serve as a repository of answers to various pro-life arguments, but as a whole it serves another purpose. Being depressed, suicidal, and always hearing 'suicide is not a solution', 'only madmen contemplate suicide' makes some people feel more guilty and more depressed. Seeing it as a choice can help people, without having to burden them more by getting more depressed by their depression.
The first question if obvious: "is suicide immoral?". This breaks up into three different questions. Is suicide immoral towards god? towards society? or towards oneself?
Suppose that the conclusion is that suicide cannot be proven to be immoral. The debate is not over. A pro life advocate can still claim that suicide is irrational. Informally, we consider an act to be irrational if neither the person doing the act, nor anyone else, is able to explain the act by showing that there are good reasons for doing it.
Immorality towards god is discussed in section 1, and towards society and self in section 2. Section 3 contains arguments which usually appear on ash as unsubstantiated statements against suicide in general.
The first 3 sections answer a-priori arguments against suicide, i.e. arguments derived by reasoning from self-evident propositions which are independent of experience. Such arguments claim that no person can be justified in committing suicide. In contrast, the following 2 sections implicitly acknowledge that in some cases, suicide is justified, however, in practice, most cases are not. This direction is pursued, using findings from suicidology, in section 4. The arguments in section 5 makes generalizing claims about the rationality of those committing suicide.
The question of whether society has a right to prevent people from committing suicide (e.g. by legislation) is not in the scope of this FAQ.
To make things interesting we assume that answers to the following cliches are made by a somewhat sceptical theist who believes in a super being but questions the insight of common religions. Such a combination is possible: David Hume , an 18th century philosopher, believed in god but did not consider suicide to be a crime against ourselves, society or god.
If life is a gift then I should be allowed to do whatever I want with it once it's mine, this includes throwing the gift away. 
What the cliche suggests is that since god has given us the precious gift of life (and thus has been good to us) then we should return the favor and preserve ourselves to the best of our ability since this is gods wish ( well thats the reason he gave us life in the first place isn't it? ). Many ashers will say that life is a burden, not a gift, so they feel no need to return gods "favor".
Islam has clear principles regarding suicide. The prophet Muhammad said that people who commit suicide will spend eternity killing themselves just as they did in this world. This is a form of torture.
In Buddhism , the basic belief is that whatever effects from whatever karma you're suffering from now will follow you into your next life, and in fact probably have followed you from your last life because you didn't deal with it then. In other words, you might as well deal with it now and change whatever is bothering you as you'll have to eventually.
Ancient Rome largely accepted suicide: in Vergilius' Aeneis some people who committed suicide are in the Elysean Fields while others in Hell.
Lets ignore the fact that we do not really know what happens after death and we probably never will. If indeed people who commit suicide go to hell, then this is definitely a good reason not to commit suicide. However, it is not a moral reason. Rather, it is part of a method of social control, to control people's behavior, by convincing them that, depending on their behavior, they would wind up in someplace pleasant or unbearable for eternity, after their death.
Yet a truly benevolent God would want his followers to be moral, not out of fear of god, but because doing moral deeds is the right thing to do. Actually, if the only reason to do something is fear from being punished, this may be viewed as coercive, and from a moral standpoint, there is reason to oppose and defy such coercion.
So why do most religions use social control to prevent suicide? This can be viewed as an issue of religion evolution. A religion which would encourage suicide would not survive very long. However, a religion which condemns suicide is more attractive ( to most people ) so such religions have prevailed. Most people are not in a suicidal state, so such religions are a better match to their point of view.
It wasn't the grace of the benevolent and merciful god which saved you from suicide, but simply -your belief- in him. Your power of decision.
... life is God's gift to man, and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God, even as he who kills another's slave, sins against that slave's master, and as he who usurps (holds without right) to himself judgment of a matter not entrusted to him. For it belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence of death and life ...
St. Thomas Aquinas , Summa Theologica II-II, 64,5
Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the Almighty, that it were an encroachment on his right, for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the Almighty, by lengthening out my life beyond the period which by the general laws of matter and motion he had assigned it.
David Hume, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul 
The paradox is that if life and death is totally in the hands of god then to extend our lives or to terminate them is equally sinful. In this case a rock is about to fall on someone's head. This is a natural event. Since god created the universe and all the physical laws which govern matter then the fall of the rock is god's will. To avoid the rock would be a sin.
... every part, as such, belongs to the whole. Now every man is part of the community, and so, as such, he belongs to the community. Hence by killing himself he injures the community ...
St. Thomas Aquinas , Summa Theologica II-II, 64,5
The sole argument that suicide is selfish doesn't mean that it shouldn't be allowed or that it is immoral. Consider a young unmarried man who leaves his country, family and friends, and goes to India to join a secluded religious sect. He too has abandoned all of his previous duties, but his acts are not immoral, even though his family may be sad . Another example: a girl breaks up with her boyfriend and he is devastated. His family got to know the girl and are also in pain. Even though the acts of the recluse and the girl caused pain to other, they are not immoral, since we realize they have the right of individual liberty and that in their acts they are not violating the rights of others. In many cases of suicide, the situation is similar.
Also note that if duty to society is the main reason for not allowing suicide, then this implies that in cases where one has *no* duties to society, suicide is permissible. For example, an old lonely man who wants to die, yet has no friends and family and is retired ( so he is also of no use to society ). The death of this man does not cause any harm to the community. Furthermore, even if it might be possible for this man to contribute to society ( doing some volunteer work at a hospital for example ) then the cost of suffering for this man might still substantially outweigh the benefits for society.
A different way to view the argument that "suicide is selfish" is that society is more important than the individual. However, this is a problematic view since it might imply that people who are a burden for society (such as retarded people or the terminally ill) should be killed. Taken to the extreme one could claim that *not* to suicide (for example, in the light of the vast overpopulation of the world) is an extremely self-centered act, and therefore evil.
Suicide might be considered a selfish act, but aren't most actions we take selfish? And don't our family and friends want us to continue to live for their own selfish reasons? Note also that in some cases the people around the person considering suicide are the ones contributing or causing to the person's suffering, and thus to the will to commit suicide. Should people be bound by duties to others in such a case?
People who use the cliche are performing a "mapping" from the state of mind of an individual to ... lets say the non negative integers! Where death = 0 and anything else is positive. The analogy seems logical since when we die we dont exist, there is nothing, zero. The problem is that they are mixing up between the physical state and the mental state. Nobody can have a negative amount of bodies, but why map the mental state ( which is what matters ) into the non negatives? Are there mental states which are worse than death? I think there are but there is no way to prove it one way or the other.
One reason for his opposition to suicide is that it violates the duty to treat humanity as an end in itself and not as a means. This degrades man's inner moral being below that of animals. This views suicide as perhaps tragic, or a pointless waste, but it does not seem to be an argument for why suicide is morally wrong. Perhaps Kant assumes that rational life is of highest value, and destroying it would be immoral, but having this as an assumption would make the argument against suicide almost cyclical.
A different claim of Kant is that the contradiction of the "right to suicide" comes from the fact that the drive to sustain life, which is expressed by man's self-love, cannot turn into a drive to terminate life, without self contradiction.
Actually, the situation is not as Kant describes, since people who wish to end their life frequently choose this option out of self-love, wanting to stop pain. Furthermore, most people would agree that some circumstance justify suicide in dire circumstance, again, precisely because of the person's own self-love.
Perhaps what people really mean when they say this cliche is actually a bit more complicated. What they mean is that committing suicide is not in the framework, it does not conform to the moral system of the society.
Like if somebody comes up with an original solution to a riddle. Suppose the riddle involves crossing a river with some limited means and somebody tries to solve it by saying "They can cross the river with a helicopter" albeit a helicopter was not mentioned in the riddle. Someone might then say "thats not a solution" because the framework was broken. Generally in riddles you should use only the presented objects.
Society has its own framework - values. And when it's broken some people might reply "that is not a solution".
But perhaps the real problem in this cliche is defining the problem to which suicide is or is not a solution. Indeed there are many problems that suicide does not solve, Islamic fundamentalism and global warming to name a few. If the problem is "find happiness" then suicide is not a solution, but if it's "stop pain" then it is. At least give us the credit of defining our own problems.
... everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature,... Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law
St. Thomas Aquinas , Summa Theologica II-II, 64,5
It is not true that all things naturally avoid self destruction. It is a well known phenomena that groups of whales get stranded on beaches, and ultimately die. This does not seem to be just an accident.
Furthermore, some people are also naturally inclined to kill themselves. For instance, people suffering from unbearable pain and who are terminally ill.
Another point is that the fact that an act runs against one's nature this doesn't mean that this act is immoral or unlawful. Ear piercing is quite unnatural, and in fact painful, yet acceptable. John Donne gives the example of ascetism (the practice of strict self-denial of pleasure, especially for religious reasons) , which is un-natural yet valued by Christians. One who value un-natural ascetic behavior cannot reject suicide simply on the ground of it being (supposedly) not natural.
Suicidology is a field of research which employs methods and findings from sociology, psychology and psychiatry for the research and prevention of suicide.
Some suicidologists feel that the philosophical approach to the issue of suicide is too distant and abstract. They claim that this approach has lead people to the misguided conclusion that rational suicide is to be accepted. According to , a better approach might be to use the knowledge and findings made by mental health practitioners and researches which are familiar with suicide in reality, and thus have a better understanding of the issues involved.
However, the suicidological approach has several problems. Suicidology, as any social science, uses empirical research that can only provide predictions which are probabilistic by nature. For example, even if it would be possible to perform some research which would conclude that suicide, in practice, is irrational, the most that could be hoped to predict is that it would be irrational for a high percentage of the population. Yet still for some of the population it could be rational.
No research in the social sciences can lead to a conclusion that suicide is categorically wrong or irrational. The refusal of the mental health establishment to assist in cases where suicide is rational is evidence that the real reason behind their approach is their moral values, which brings us right back to the philosophical debate.
Another problem is cultural. All findings are based on research which is performed in a society which is predominantly pro-life. This may have a great affect on the results of the research, not just because of the assumptions of the ones carrying out the research, but mainly because the subjects of such research have grown up in such a society.
Note that the subject of suicide is mostly taboo. Mental health professionals provide no counseling on choosing whether or not to commit suicide. They can only help in *exploring* *life*. By not providing counseling on choice, mental health practitioners are encouraging irrational decisions about suicide.
Finally, the fact that suicidologists are not versed in philosophy makes much of their research prone to logical fallacies. These are usually circular arguments where the researcher assumes that suicide is wrong and the research is used to reaffirm that assumption.
Returning to the problem of choosing between the philosophical and the suicidological approaches, the question remains: what is the *appropriate* tool for analyzing the problem of suicide. Perhaps philosophy may seem too distant from the problem, but suicidology is too close. One main goal of suicidology is to prevent suicide. One cannot expect a discipline which is based so deeply on the assumption that suicide is wrong, to be able to turn back and question its own foundations. Only philosophy allows us to look at our cultural influences and false beliefs from a distance, and clarify the big picture.
The fact is that committing suicide is not easy ( see part 3 ), however if at a given situation suicide is indeed the easiest solution, this alone is not a negative property and does not comprise a reason not to take it. In fact easiness is usually positive, isn't this what the western society is all about. Doing things more efficient, faster, easier.
Again, committing suicide requires courage, however even if it is least courageous option it does not make the action itself wrong. In combat a soldier might commit an act of bravery just because he is afraid of the reaction of his peers if he would not do that action ( this is part of the way how soldiers are conditioned to behave like killing machines ). A good act was motivated by a seemingly bad reason ( cowardness ). The action also required courage, but perhaps less than facing the other soldiers in his unit.
The majority of individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness. They are people just like you and I who at a particular time are feeling isolated, desperately unhappy and alone. Suicidal thoughts and actions may be the result of life's stresses and losses that the individual feels they just can't cope with.Of course, some people who are suicidal do have some mental illness. Even so, describing suicidal individuals as mentally ill or "crazy", terms which have strong negative connotations, isn't helpful and is more likely to dissuade someone from seeking help which may be beneficial, whether they have a diagnosable mental illness or not.
Note that the definition of depression as a diagnosable mental illnesses is inexact, and varies according to the culture and also the person making the diagnosis. It is not unlikely that in a society which objects to suicide, more suicidal people would be unjustly classified as mentally ill in order to be able to enforce treatment upon them.
Even if we uncritically accept the psychiatric classification of sane and insane states of mind, mental diseases are still very different from one another. Some (like depression) are characterized by psychic suffering; others aren't. Some mental illnesses cause extreme distortion of judgment - like paranoid obsessional states or psychoses in which one believes one is possessed by aliens or demons. Few people who commit suicide are really "mentally ill" in the sense of having lost touch with reality and being unable to make common-sense judgments about matters of fact.
Even if the desire to die is a symptom of mental illness, this does not mean it is itself a part of the mental illness. A symptom of a bad thing is not necessarily a bad thing itself. Unlike mental illness, the suicidal desire is not necessarily irrational or involuntary. It may be a reaction to the mental illness, not a component of it.
Perhaps what is at issue when analyzing the relation between mental disease and suicide is the confusion between causing and motivating. We consider the relation of "causing" as being a natural, involuntary one ("there is smoke out there because there is a fire"), while "motivating" assumes the conscious evaluation with respect to one's purposes and values ("he went to the army because he wants to defend his country"). People who are opposed to suicide on the grounds that the desire to die is caused by mental illness generally think in the terms of a pathological condition that impairs sane judgment and which is more "acute" and in need of aggressive treatment when it reaches the stage of suicidal tendency. This is however an oversimplified medical model, which at best fits some suicidal individuals. In many cases, suicide is chosen as a solution to end excessive pain, but this option is filtered through one's values and convictions. Pain is here the motive, not simply the cause of the desire to die. It is possible for a person to be mentally ill (according to the current taxonomy of mental illnesses) and rationally decide to commit suicide.
There are people who, although have never considered suicide, admit they would choose it if they were in a particular bad situation: suicide is consistent with their moral framework. It may be that persistently suicidal people make different moral evaluations of everyday issues than the rest of society - but trying to accommodate a moral conflict within the medical model of clinical disease is utterly inappropriate. Those who use the Psychiatric term "judgment impairment" in the context of mental disease, should carefully distinguish between moral judgment and judgment about matters of fact. Ascribing "mental illness" to someone only on the grounds of their desire to end their life at a self-chosen moment is an abusive way of preventing any attempt to discuss the ethical relevance of suicide.
Assuming this is true for most suicidal people, we should ask: is suicide the only case when people are biased about decisions concerning their own persons and neglect evidence for alternative solutions? A person who plans to get married with someone whom he has known only for a week (or a month) can be said to be irrational. But such a marriage is not illegal in any Western society. Most people would approve of it saying "if they love each other so much, then nobody should prevent them from marrying". Our society accepts that love is a good motivation for doing good things (love for one's homeland, for a sex partner, for parents etc). But isn't love too a factor that "impairs judgment" ?
Think of a society where marriages are forbidden if they are motivated by love. If one is in love another, then he must be over-estimating her qualities, not paying attention to her faults; One should draw an accurate list with all the reasons why the other is the best match, and only if the reasons are objectively compelling will the marriage be allowed to take place. It seems monstrous, reminding of Orwell's "1984".
People who get married because of love obviously don't act rationally; they don't examine all possible partners and then make a decision about which one is best for them. But this is not an argument for imposing restrictions on marriages. The wish to die, even if motivated by depression and even if depression is judgment-impairing, can sometimes be understood as love of death. Even if such a feeling is irrational, this is not by itself a reason for delegitimizing it.
First, even if it were true that a physiological state (say, decreased serotonine level) is constantly associated with, and causally responsible for suicidal tendencies, searching for anti-suicide medication can be at best regarded as a program for future psychiatry. Experience shows that psychiatric drugs presently used are not always effective; otherwise how could it be that some people are persistent in wanting to die after long term treatment, that many suicides occur in psychiatric hospitals and that psychiatrists are the medical profession with the highest suicide rate  ?
But the problem here is again an ethical, not an empirical one. Simply the fact that suicidal tendencies are constantly associated with, or even caused by a specific state of the brain, does not imply that they are pathological and "bad". Much psychological research has been done to establish correlation between certain states of the brain and different aptitudes and propensities. Maybe people who are extremely talented at mathematics or music or, are very courageous or very shy or even homosexual, have different brains from the majority; does this mean we must correct them by drugs ? Even if medication were available to eliminate suicidal tendencies, would it be appropriate to use it when someone explicitly rejects treatment and prefers to die no matter what would happen ?
Also a problem is weighing the possible negative effects such drugs could have: if they induced delusions or other forms of morally unacceptable behavior (as judged by the patient), do we have the right to force people to use them ? If physiological states are causally responsible for mental states, then the decision to alter the physiological states (and implicitly the mental ones) in some cases and not in others is governed by pre-determined moral beliefs. The correspondence between psychical and physical states is thus of no moral interest in itself.
However, even in cases where the problem is temporary suicide could still be a rational decision.
However, in fact, everything that happens is irreversible once it happened. It is impossible to go back to the past and alter or abolish any event in the past, no matter how intensely you regret it. If you decided yesterday to go to a movie instead of reading a book and acted according to your decision, it will forever be impossible to cancel the past event and make your going to a movie not have happened. What you can do, if you regret what you did yesterday, is to change the present undesired consequences of the past event (and read that book today).
What is meant by "irreversibility" in this cliche is not only that suicide, once completed, will be impossible to alter, but that suicide leads to a future state that will is impossible to modify. Arguably, performing actions with permanent uncontrollable consequences is irrational, since you may have regrets in the future, and thus suffer because of not being able to further influence the situation.
But suicide is also special insofar as, once completed, it will be impossible even to regret its completion; so even the suffering associated with the regret about something with unalterable consequences is out of discussion. If regret is a bad feeling, one has to live to be able to regret something; being dead puts one, among other things, away from any regret and frustration.
The irreversibility argument doesn't distinguish between the following two positions:
- Do not do anything about which you can change your mind later without being able to correct its consequences.
- Do not do anything you will not be able to change your mind about !
David Hume, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, 1783,
Version 1.0, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995) http://www.infidels.org/library/ historical/david_hume/suicide.html
 Robert Wright, The Evolution of Despair, TIME Magazine August 28, 1995 Volume 146, No. 9 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/ archive/1995/950828/950828.cover.html
 Alt.Atheism FAQ: Logic and Fallacies - Constructing a Logical Argument http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/logic.html
 The Oath, Hippocrates, 400 B.C http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/hippooath.html
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 64,5 http://www.newadvent.org/summa/306405.htm
 Fred Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper, Oxford University Press, 1992
 Karolynn Siegel, Rational Suicide, in "What we Know about Suicidal behavior and how to treat it", Ed. Stanley Leese, 1988.
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 "To Be or Not to Be", To be published
Hendin, "Suicide in America", 2nd edtion, p 217, 1995.
 Rich CL, "Suicide by Psychiatrists", Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1980, 41(8), pp 261-263.
 Montesquieu, Persian Letter no. 76.
 John Donne, "Biathanatos", 1647.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.