Suicide remains a well-entrenched taboo in American culture. We see this taboo in discussions of how media should cover the suicides of public figures like Robin Williams, and in criticism of a commemorative tweet by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which some felt romanticized suicide.
Suicidal behavior is far and away pathological. In the vast majority of cases, it is irrational, deeply hurtful to one’s community, and the result of self-deception about one’s quality of life. Suicide survivors deserve compassion and inclusion rather than shame and rejection.
There are difficulties with assembling a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for suicide, especially involving the mental state of the suicide victim. Should we describe a participant in a “suicide mission” as “suicidal,” for instance? The vagueness of the concept, however, doesn’t affect what I take to be the core intuition behind the suicide taboo, or the paradigm case of morally blameworthy suicide. The paradigm case is suicide resulting from nihilism–a judgment not only that there is nothing of value in one’s life, but that one’s life, a precondition of value, lacks value itself.
I take this thought to be the basic idea behind the classical, Christian, and Kantian prohibition against suicide. Suicide on this view repudiates and disrespects the existence of value in the world.
There is something important to this view. Consider what would happen if every human person tomorrow decided to stop living. The result would be a disaster worse than any world war, disease, or natural calamity–it would foreclose all future human progress, expressing the thought that “this is good enough”, or perhaps express the conclusion that what achievements the human race had made were illusory and temporary. In either case, it conveys an attitude of hopelessness and despair.
I think the analogy holds with individual suicide, where one’s life is a project whose undertaking has intrinsic value. The paradigm case of blameworthy suicide denies that value.
Suicide reflects loneliness, but it needn’t signify despair or hopelessness–it can signify principle and defiance. Cato the Younger took his own life, for example, as an act of defiance against the new Roman Empire. As we learn from Plutarch’s report of his death, Cato’s choice of suicide reflected his moral unwillingness to compromise with the new regime:
“I suppose,” said he, “that ye also have decided to detain in life by force a man as old as I am, and to sit by him in silence and keep watch of him: or are ye come with the plea that it is neither shameful nor dreadful for Cato, when he has no other way of salvation, to await salvation at the hands of his enemy? Why, then, do ye not speak persuasively and convert me to this doctrine, that we may cast away those good old opinions and arguments which have been part of our very lives, be made wiser through Caesar’s efforts, and therefore be more grateful to him? And yet I, certainly, have come to no resolve about myself; but when I have come to a resolve, I must be master of the course which I decide to take.”
The possibility of suicide arises in tragic cases. Often, our objection to suicide reflects our sadness at the situation itself. A tragic choice set, however, shouldn’t make us indifferent among its members.
The sense of a suicide is plastic, not fixed. We have some control over the meaning of our deaths, and in the appropriate circumstances express the values of our lives through them.