A reader poses a question:
A 45 year old lady wants to kill herself. This is not a view that she has come to lightly. She has been thinking about suicide fairly systematically for the last five years – ever since she turned forty in fact. She can think of reasons to live – her sister, for example, will miss her if she’s gone – but she can think of many more reasons not to live.
She has thought hard about the morality of suicide. She knows that there are religious objections to the taking of one’s own life. She is aware, for instance, that the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states that suicide is ‘seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity’. But she isn’t religious, and doesn’t believe in the afterlife, so she isn’t much impressed by such pronouncements. She has taken into account that some people, such as her sister, will mourn her death. But she does not believe that their suffering will be very great, and certainly not great enough to outweigh what she sees as her right to do as she wishes with her own life – including ending it. She is also aware that she might feel differently about things at some point in the future. However, she thinks that this is unlikely, and, in any case, she is not convinced of the relevance of this point: certainly, she does not think that she has any responsibility towards a purely hypothetical future version of herself.
She has canvassed other people’s opinions about suicide, but so far she has heard nothing to persuade her that killing herself would be wrong. She is frequently told that she "shouldn’t give up", that "things will get better", and that she "should just hang on in there", but nobody has been entirely clear about why she should do these things. For her part, she can’t really see that she stands to lose much of anything by ending her life now. She does not value it, and in any case, if she’s dead, she’s hardly going to regret missing out on whatever it is that might have happened to her had she lived.
Would it be [morally] wrong for this woman to commit suicide? If so, why?
I will assume that the lady in question has no human dependents and that her sister has agreed to take care of her cats or other pets. My answer is that I see no compelling reason to think that it would be wrong for this woman, precisely as described, to commit suicide, assuming that she harms no one else in doing so. Of course, one can give reasons contra. But I see no rationally compelling reason contra. Let's run through some reasons that have merit. The 'argument' that suicide is always an act of cowardice has no merit.
Augustine's Main Argument
Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 20): “Hence it follows that the words ‘Thou shalt not kill’ refer to the killing of a man—not another man; therefore, not even thyself. For he who kills himself, kills nothing else than a man.”
To kill oneself is to kill a man; to kill a man is wrong; so, to kill oneself is wrong. Suicide is homicide; homicide is wrong; ergo, etc. Tightening up the argument:
1) Every intentional killing of a human being is morally wrong.
2) Every act of suicide is the intentional killing of a human being.
3) Every act of suicide is morally wrong.
The syllogism is valid, but the major is not credible. Counterexamples in decreasing order of plausibility: just war, capital punishment, self-defense, abortion in some cases, and, of course, suicide!
Note that (1) cannot be supported from the "Thou shalt not kill" of the Decalogue. As Paul Ludwig Landsberg correctly comments, "The Christian tradition, apart from a few sects, has always allowed two important exceptions: [just] war and capital punishment." (The Experience of Death, p. 78) I would add that the allowance is eminently reasonable.
How could suicide count as a counterexample to (1)? Well, as Landsberg points out, killing oneself and killing another are very different. (79) As I would put it, in a case of rational suicide such as the case my reader proposes, one kills oneself out of loving concern for oneself whereas the killing of another is typically, though not always, a hostile and hateful act.
Although Augustine's argument cannot be dismissed out of hand it is not rationally compelling.
Next time: The arguments of the doctor angelicus.
I'll end with one of my famous aphorisms:
One Problem with Suicide
Suicide is a permanent solution to what is often a merely temporary problem.
So don't do anything rash, muchachos. Your girlfriend dumped you and you feel you can't go on? Give it a year and re-evaluate.