Can suicide be a moral choice?


A minister in a liberal Christian church once told me that a friend of his had committed suicide.

“I know that he is going to hell. That’s what my religion teaches me. But I can’t accept that. He was a good person. And good people don’t go to hell.”

In some religious circles suicide is still a sin, one that consigns the deceased to eternal hell, no matter how virtuous that person may have been. But today many have substituted mental illness for sin. This is part of the redefining of traditional sins, such as drunkenness, not as moral failings, but as a mental illness or an addiction. A sin is self-chosen; a mental illness or an addiction is some that happens to you.

But these aren’t the only two ways to understand suicide. There is a third possibility: suicide as a rational choice, neither a sin nor an illness.

I’ve known several people who committed suicide. One was a former psychiatric patient who was doing fine, until she stopped taking her medication. She then walked in front of a train. Another was involved in a divorce, precipitated in part by his emotional instability. He drove his car around the lowered track barriers and was struck by the speeding train.

No doubt many suicides are like these: irrational acts that should be prevented. If only the woman had taken her meds, I assume she wouldn’t have wanted to die. And if the husband, depressed by life’s circumstances, could only see how counseling and time may have made life worth living, he, too, wouldn’t have killed himself.

There is a widespread belief that suicide is, by definition, irrational and should always be prevented, if at all possible. But I don’t share this view. There can be a concatenation of circumstances so overwhelming that life may not be worth living. It is not unusual for an elderly person to conclude that extraordinary measures taken to be kept alive isn’t an option they want. They refuse treatment, and this may very well be a rational choice.

So, too, a combination of poverty, deteriorating health, unceasing pain and the lack of intimate, day-to-day sustaining relationships may be too much to bear. Realistically, the future will only be worse. The quality of life is so minimal, with no prospect of improvement, that no life at all may be the better choice.

It is very difficult to sort out when the choice for suicide is rational and when it is irrational, one that cannot see future possibilities that may well be there. But when the choice is thought out, carefully chosen and not clouded by temporary circumstances that may well change, then suicide can be a rational choice, a tragic one but one that a person is entitled to make.

Sometimes, all things considered, suicide may not only be rational but courageous. It may be neither moral nor immoral, but a personal choice, one that confers dignity upon a person that life itself can no longer provide.

Suicide is a complex subject and I have more to say about it here: https://arthurdobrin.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/suicide.pdf

You can also listen to one clergyman’s view at http://people.hofstra.edu/podcast/ It is the podcast #2.

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7 thoughts on “Can suicide be a moral choice?

  1. I enjoyed reading “Suicide: A Typology” as it presented a wide array of philosophical/ethical perspectives and scenarios… but I was a bit confused as to the practical implications of your conclusion….If suicide is not to be a right, (because that might lead to an air of acceptance that leads to irrational taking of one’s own life on a greater scale) then the situation wherein the social worker finds him/herself forced to make a decision is really more than merely ‘tragic.’ He or she will then face legal consequences, presumably. Without legality, how can the social worker make the tragic decision to assist? Should suicide be “legal” only via professional consultation with a social worker/psychologist?

  2. Thank you for clarifying. Decriminalization would be tricky I think with something like suicide because unlike decriminalization of “victimless” acts like prostitution or marijuana use, the death would of necessity require an investigation by authorities to make sure it wasn’t a homicide. Then, the social worker (or whoever assisted) would be brought into a complicated scenario. Who would determine whether the death was a “rational” suicide versus one that was irrational and perhaps facilitated by a party with ill-intent (i.e. a family that wants their elderly grandmother to pass on so to collect the inheritence etc.). Would the social worker be subject to civil penalties (as drugs are under a system of decriminalization) etc. etc.
    I don’t have the type of knowledge on the subject necessary to make a strong assertion, but I doubt that legalization would lead to an atmosphere of giddy freedom to kill oneself…the legalization of marijuana in portugal, for instance, did not lead to a spike in usage. But I digress:):)

  3. Pingback: Xpatriated Texan » The morality of death

  4. Thurman, your post was also thought-provoking in its questioning the Christian Theological perspective on suicide and brings up many good points. I agree broadly with most of your conclusions. More questions than answers of course, but this is hardly an easy topic, even if one approaches it from a religious standpoint. Catholicism permits a “just war” which includes, presumably, “just suicide” for the noble purpose of such a war. In my many years of Catholic school I was taught suicide was a sin because it was essentially throwing God’s *gift* of the body/life back at Him. And yet, it seems that the bible is peppered with strong examples of sacrificing the body AS a gift to God (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Christ himself as sacrificial lamb).

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