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Why, if at all, is it morally unacceptable for me to bring about my own death?

In this essay, I shall be discussing suicide (and those cases which can be considered as borderline suicide) with reference to the moral guidelines that may or may not apply to them.

To begin, the principle of the sanctity of life will be examined to see whether it is sufficient grounds for holding suicide as morally unacceptable. The view that suicide is an infringement on God's territory will be contemplated with particular reference to Hume's argument in "Of Suicide". Following this, suicide will be considered in view of Utilitarianism and then Kant's Categorical Imperative.

When deliberating over the morality of suicide, it is necessary to also bring into the discussion those cases in which death is a highly possible risk, but not an intention, and the question of intervention, psychopathology and autonomy.

Those who hold that life is sacred, maintain that killing is not morally permissible and furthermore, that we should not shorten a worthwhile life. When considering suicide, we are able to question whether the life in question is indeed worthwhile. The arguments for sanctity of life can be reduced to simply survival and evolutionary considerations; if society abandons these principles, the society may not survive. Not all believers in this idea hold it because of this reason, however. It seems intuitive that life is sacred, although this could be a trait of our evolution (along with our inherent dislike of corpses, the commonality of phobias, etc.). There seems to be no persuasive argument for the sanctity of life. Indeed, Glover says, taking human life is normally directly wrong, foregoing whether there are side-effects or not.

Glover enters into some discussion about the boundary between life and death, questioning whether life requires bodily functioning, 'mere' consciousness, or full cognition. This is only relevant to the discussion insofar as it reduces the sanctity of life principle and does question the nature of life.

When considering life and living, it could be asked whether a truly miserable person, running the ongoing wheel of an unfulfilling job and a joyless home environment, is in fact living, as well as the purely biological considerations such as brain activity.

The doctrine proposes that we should not shorten a worthwhile life, because life is intrinsically valuable. Suicide may or may not infringe upon this if in a circumstance where the life is not in fact worthwhile. What does the concept of a worthwhile life mean? There is no satisfactory answer to this. It is contemplatable that the worthwhile life is one that the person in question desires to live, though this is fragile at best because in moments of despair, nothing seems worthwhile and a Prozac later, everything may be okay again.

The timing of our lives may not be ours to mess with and perhaps it is for the Deity to decide. A person who believes in and tries to obey the Deity, might face this problem. Hume pointed out that we have no way of knowing exactly what is the Deity's province and when we have to make our choices, being of free will that is. For example, it could be said that to deliberately bring about my own death is an encroachment on the deity, yet is this still true when it comes round to deliberately elongating my life? Furthermore, is the deliberate bringing about of my own death in fact part of the Deity's grand plan (which nobody can know), especially considering the view that men act under the providence of the Almighty (Hume mentions that a murdered man is said to have suffered at the hands of God)? We have no idea of the ill or of the good which could come about as part of this action.

Hume points out that human life is subject to termination by the smallest of things and it seems ridiculous that we cannot take charge of such a fragile thing as life. (Though this same sentiment would support murder.)

A problem facing the God argument is autonomy, that is, that we have free will. God granted us free will, and we cannot know where the line is drawn (if at all).

Aside from this, the argument for God being in charge of life and death is unhelpful to those who do not believe and should not be used, being religious, in the formation of laws (which is contentious and not relevant). The religious have their own texts to fathom out suicide.

Is suicide morally unacceptable because it treats humanity as a means? In killing himself, a person wishes to die, perhaps to escape his life, his sadness or his boredom. His end is to obtain death and he is using himself to bring about this end. Bearing in mind that living is in fact dying, he is perhaps using himself to bring forward death, to obtain a tolerable state of affairs until the inevitable.

It seems odd that morally, one is not entitled to use oneself for one's own purposes. Also, is suicide really treating oneself as a means? When the end and the means are so closely intertwined, it seems odd to speak of "using".

Conversely, how can one live without treating oneself as a means to an end. If an agent's purpose is to lead a moral life, is he not using humanity as a means? His acts have reasons, and he endeavours not to treat humanity as a means to his ends but to do anything, he has to use his self, whether that be just physical or mental also. Suicide is not always using himself to be in a more tolerable state of affairs until he dies because sometimes it's using himself as he always has been, integral to his moral conduct and activity, possibly for morally sound reasons. This is what seems weakest about the Formula of the End in Itself.

However, Kant's Formula of the End in Itself can allow, or sometimes provide the reasons for, suicide in certain conditions, such as the example of Cato, detailed below.

It has been said by HJ Paton that Kant's argument against suicide (which he uses as an illustration for the Formula of Universal Law - "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature") is particularly weak.

In his illustration, Kant uses the example of a man whose suicide is on the maxim that his life threatens more evil than pleasure, so from self-love he wishes to shorten it. Kant succinctly says that self-love promotes longevity intrinsically and if it could also promote the termination of life, it would work against itself. Kant says that because it is contradictory it can never exist as a sub-system of the universal law of nature.

As HJ Paton points out in his analysis of this particular section, that Kant seems to be fitting his philosophy with pre-existing moral assumptions he holds and asks whether it is inconceivable for self-love to occasionally aim at death in order to avoid continuous pain though it is ordinarily concerned with survival and life-preservation. He points out that Kant's view of the self-love principle could in fact be contradictory if it had no flexibility, if it did not alter its effects as the see-saw of pain and pleasure changed.

However, Kant is appealing to instinctive self-preservation and HJ Paton dismisses this because we cannot know that this instinct has been given to man as part of nature's perfection and that to go against it is going against nature. Survival instinct is very strong and it a lot more difficult to commit suicide that people might at first think. However, Paton is not talking about the survival instinct in a biological sense, but how it fits in with Kant's philosophy and whether one can appeal to it to formulate duties and universal laws.

Another point Paton brings up in his analysis is that Kant's argument would be more plausible if one looked at the possibility that suicide (on the basis of escaping pain) is avoiding one's duty to lead a moral life, aiming at the absolute good. There is a possibility that a right to commit suicide can be justified on the grounds of the agent no longer holding a prospect of living a moral life - HJ Paton's examples are that on unendurable pain or certain insanity.

The argument of continuing life despite agony because life is always better than death in the respect that a dead person can do no morally good acts once he is gone, is mirrored in much moral philosophy. It could be argued that from a utilitarian point of view, the consequences of staying alive may possible lead to the agent performing more acts that increase the general happiness. Realistically, this seems implausible because few live morally perfect lives anyway, let alone when considering suicide. (Although this seems irrelevant to the argument.)

The consequences of suicide can be wide-ranging. For a member of a family who is a burden and who is suffering, perhaps the intentions are all commendable and the act would increase the general happiness, just as might the suicide of a isolated, unknown miserable person.

Typically, the utilitarian account of morality provides no hard and fast answers about suicide - each case is different depending on it's consequences. It is questionable whether a person death is truly reducing the amount of suffering and/or increasing the general happiness.

It is said that a person can be harmed without them knowing about it (for instance, unbeknownst to Pooh Bear, wandering the Thousand Acre Woods, Piglet has stolen all his honey - he has been harmed, but he doesn't receive an instant pang of suffering). This is sometimes generalised to demonstrate that a person could be harmed after their death. However, Pooh Bear won't suffer until he comes home and finds out. On this basis, the deceased will never suffer, because they will never know (if death is a merciful end to conscious mental life). In a ceased-to-exist view of the afterlife, death is an end to suffering. Death is also the end of pleasure.

When considering suicide, the person thinking of the consequences can't possibly know the prospects with regards to her future pain and pleasure, or those of her loved ones. She can have a good guess, but it remains that a rash suicide attempt may be later regretted if it fails. This however is the same for all consequentialist morality and doesn't invalidate it because one acts as best one can given the information and cognitive resources at one's disposal.

If suicide is morally wrong in some cases, is it morally wrong in all cases? Kant's example above of someone motivated by self-love is limited, and excludes some accounts. To take the example of someone sacrificing her life for the greater good or a martyr seems intuitively less wrong. The noble death is almost admired where its close relation is misunderstood and frowned upon by many, but is there a difference, and if there is, can we separate the morality of both?

An example of suicide that Kant's Formula of the End in Itself might allow is demonstrated by the example of Cato who sacrificed his own life so that information about the Roman republican cause could not be tortured out of him. In this example, Cato avoids someone else using him as a means though perhaps he was still treating himself as a means to help his cause by not betraying them. Examples like this seem morally right because of the selflessness of the act, and certainly the Utilitarian account of morality would favour Cato's actions. On a Kantian level, Cato's actions may still be immoral, consequences not being considered.

These noble deaths, such as Captain Oates's, are just as much suicide as the adolescent (successfully) slitting her wrists. The intention is to end one's own life and whatever the causes, and however "noble" the motives, it is still an act carried out with the intention of self-termination. On these grounds, an intention-based or rule-based morality can not separate them, whereas consequentialist accounts may still.

High-risk jobs, such as bomb-disposal are considered borderline cases. Hume says that if one's life is not one's own it is just as "criminal…to put it in danger, as well as to dispose of it". Those arguing against him might point out that "Heroes" doing God's work are doing with their lives what God would want and therefore not treating their lives as their own. In high-risk activities the doctrine of double-effect comes into play, because death is a highly possible consequence but not the intention. Intention-based morality cannot condemn this as readily as some consequentialists might because the act's intentions can be perfectly morally sound, whereas the consequences are similar to that of suicide on the whole. (Though the bereaved might be reassured that the motive was not suicidal.)

Suicide is often seen as the act of a desperate or mentally unstable person, which seems a little harsh. Suicide can be entered into in a completely rational frame of mind, but, more importantly, what is sane? Is sanity simply agreement with those around you, or societal convention?

On the issue of intervention, the saviour could see the desperate's actions as irrational, but she is judging his actions by her own standards. For all she knows, he might be seeing things the way they really are. However, it remains that depression sometimes come to an end and those who fail in their attempts are sometimes very glad they did (when in-between further bouts of misery!).

Intervention can be seen as infringing on someone's autonomy, but as soon as the saviour is aware of what the desperate is going to do, she is as much a part of it as he, and if she's of the type that believes an omission is equivalent to an act, she is nigh on an accomplice to murder. The suicide, if truly wanting to be left alone, should ensure of his success regarding this issue and if he fails, then he has to accept the morality of his act has changed just by virtue of their being another party present.

If suicide is morally permissible, is intervention? On the face of it, it would seem not. But even if suicide is morally permissible, suicide with an audience may not be. The consequences for the observer may change the balance of pleasure and pain for the act. Duties may be transgressed.

So, why, if at all, is suicide morally unacceptable?

Suicide is not morally unacceptable in all accounts or in all situations. Probably the hardest and fastest ruling against it is that of the sanctity of life, which is not a particularly well backed argument.

It depends on the intentions behind it and the consequences that lie ahead for those involved. It is not wrong in itself.

A person has the right to die, the right to choose when to die. Her decision should be well-thought out and the act should be well executed. Those who believe that life is a gift that only God can take away have the right to sit and wait.

Suicide should be undertaken carefully and thoughtfully (after all, a successful attempt is irreversible), but within these parameters, it should be considered morally acceptable.

Copyright Ches (H. Staunton) ©1999


Kant, I, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Routledge, 1948 (Translator, H J Paton)

Paton, H J, The Categorical Imperative, Hutchinson & Co, 1947

Hume, D, On Suicide in Selected Essays, OUP, 1993

Glover, J, Causing Death and Saving Lives, Penguin, 1977