Can Suicide Ever be Justified?
Jonathan Hald
Help Received: Works Cited
WC: 1455
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In this essay I will be discussing several of the many interpretations of suicide and
attempt to explain in what cases it can be justified. I will begin by explaining the beliefs of David
Hume who argues that suicide is not wrong as long as it doesn’t offend our duties to God, our
neighbors, or ourselves. I will then counter Hume’s argument with Immanuel Kant’s theory that
suicide is wrong because the Natural Law Theory which says that God put us on this earth for
specific reasons and it is our duty to fulfill these means. Once I discuss these two theories I will
apply them to assisted suicide to explain why Hume’s view on suicide can be a justifiable endlife alternative to suffering.
To begin, David Hume in his essay titled “Tragedy, The Standard of Taste, Suicide, The
Immortality of the Soul”, makes the argument that suicide can be justified on the basis of our
rationality. Hume believes we have duties to God, our neighbors, and ourselves, but if suicide
doesn’t impede on these responsibilities then it is not wrong.1 Hume’s first justification of
suicide is that is doesn’t conflict with our duty to God. His argument is based on the fact that
men can change the course of rivers for our own purposes. Whether it is to dam a river for the
production of energy or to channel a waterway to prevent flooding, God has granted us the skills
necessary to alter nature for our benefit. When applied to life Hume’s argument is that a man
who is suffering ought to be able to change his disposition by ending his misery. Additionally, if
death is nonbiased in that we are bound to die solely by nature, then even the act of defending
oneself from a falling stone would be wrong because the course of nature would kill us without
human interaction. With these objections we can conclude that it is not an objection to God to
kill ourselves because we constantly change the natural course of nature for our benefit. Another
1
Hume, David. "Suicide." Four Dissertations; And, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul. South
Bend, IN: St. Augustine's, 2001. 20-26. Print.
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way to explain why suicide isn’t an affront to God is that if our life is too valuable to allow
permit an early death or harm then we shouldn’t glorify heroes or soldiers who put themselves in
harm’s way.
Hume’s second justification of suicide is that suicide is unjust if harmful if it impedes on
our duties to our fellow man. To prove that suicide can be justified if it doesn’t prevent us from
doing our duties to others he gives the example of a retired man by saying that if his retirement
isn’t harmful to others then neither is a suicide. In both cases the men stop contributing to society
but only suicide is considered wrong. By Hume’s reasoning, a man who commits suicide doesn’t
hinder society he just fails to continue to contribute to it. To further this approach Hume writes
that a man who is a burden to society ought to be able to commit suicide because he no longer
contributes and is only brings the community down.2
The third justification of suicide proposed by Hume is that suicide can coincide with our
self-interests. This is because in old age, sickness, or other extreme cases of angst living can be
worse than suicide. Hume believes that a man won’t commit suicide if he believes that life is still
worth living.3 By this logic only someone who is in psychological or physical distress would
want to commit suicide. According to Hume it is not cowardice that drives people to suicide, it is
a form of courage and practicality to limit suffering and prevent ourselves from becoming a
burden to society.
Immanuel Kant’s belief of suicide is in direct competition with David Hume’s views on
suicide because he believes that suicide is making a human life a means of avoiding pain. Kant’s
writings are centered on the ideology known as metaphysics which means that ethics are based
2
3
Hume, 20-26
Ibid.
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on the intentions of the people who perform their acts. In the case of suicide Kant argues that we
as humans have more of a responsibility to life than as a simple animal because we are divine in
the fact that we were put on this earth by divine will. Kant believes that there are three reasons
why suicide cannot be justified.4 The first reason is that suicide goes against God’s will because
we are considered to be God’s belongings. The second is that suicide is incompatible with the
natural law and is not universally practiced. Humans are alone in this act because it is an end to
suffering but not a universal concept in the natural world. The third reason behind Kant’s
argument against justice is that suicide a counter to rational will. This means that we only look to
suicide to end suffering and as such is a means to an end. Kant believes that we do not have the
authorization to decide that human life can be objectified in this way.5
To further develop why suicide can be justifiable I will provide the example of assisted
suicide which is becoming an increasingly common practice in the medical world. The purpose
behind this example is to compare Immanuel Kant’s theory which is widely accepted to
understanding the ethics of suicide as according to David Hume. There are two types of medical
euthanasia which are active and passive; however, for the purpose of this example I will only
refer to medical euthanasia as assisted suicide. The example of this is one provided by James
Rachels in his 1975 paper titled “Active and Passive Euthanasia”. The example provided is a
dying man with cancer is suffering so much that his pain can no longer be handled by medicine
and he wants to be allowed to die. By not allowing himself to die either through medical
intervention or negligence of care his death is ruled a suicide. Kant would disagree with this
because he believes that it is wrong to choose death as it is not the man’s decision but God’s.
4
Kant, Immanuel. "The Moral Law, or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." Ed. Jonathan Bennett.
(1950): 85-86. July 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785.pdf&gt;.
5
Cholbi, Michael J.. “Kant and the Irrationality of Suicide”. History of Philosophy Quarterly 17.2 (2000): 159–176
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While other animals in nature would not be capable of killing themselves they would also likely
not survive like the patient without extensive medical care. This mercy killing as according to
David Hume is and act not only of compassion but also of courage. By ending his life the patient
is not only ending his suffering but also preventing himself from becoming a burden to society.
Due to the fact that the man’s life is no longer worth living he is in the right to diverge from the
natural path of death which is also inevitable.6 By Hume’s logic suicide is ethical because it is in
the better interest for himself, his community who he is ending the burden on, and God because
he has the right to diverge from the natural course of death.7
In conclusion, it is the works of Hume and Kant who primarily make up the arguments
for and against suicide. While Kant has some striking insights on why suicide is unethical, David
Hume’s philosophical analysis of suicide provides a better example of why it can be justified.
Hume’s belief that the people who are truly suffering and can no longer contribute to society can
call their suicide just because it does not contradict their duties to God, their neighbors, or
themselves.
6
Hume, David. "An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals." An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals (n.d.): 1-8. May
2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/hume1751.pdf>.
7
Rachels, James. "Active Euthanasia." Springer Reference (1975): 1-6. Colorado State. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
<http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil1100/Rachels.pdf>.
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Help Received
Cholbi, Michael J.. “Kant and the Irrationality of Suicide”. History of Philosophy Quarterly 17.2
(2000): 159–176
Hume, David. "An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals." An Enquiry into the Sources of Morals
(n.d.): 1-8. May 2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
<http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/hume1751.pdf>.
Hume, David. "Suicide." Four Dissertations; And, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the
Soul. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's, 2001. 20-26. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. "The Moral Law, or Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." Ed.
Jonathan Bennett. 25.92 (1950): 85-86. July 2010.Web. 6 Dec. 2015. &lt;
http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785.pdf&gt;.
Rachels, James. "Active Euthanasia." Springer Reference (1975): 1-6. Colorado State. Web. 6
Dec. 2015. <http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil1100/Rachels.pdf>.
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Hald Can Suicide Ever be Justified? Jonathan Hald Help Received