The Ethics of Suicide

04 Jun

While looking for something to write about, I came upon this question: do people have the right to commit suicide?

Before I jump right into an extremely sensitive topic, let’s take a look at the definition of suicide:

The intentional taking of one’s own life.

This obviously discounts any accidental death at the hands of oneself, which has been mistakenly dubbed “accidental suicide.” By definition, no suicide is accidental, though it is possible to kill oneself without that intention. So all you people who argue “but he didn’t mean to kill himself” about every suicide are going to have to hear me out when I say that there are people who kill themselves with the intent of killing themselves. It isn’t just a myth, and the threat of suicide doesn’t always indicate a need for attention. Those who do argue this are just gearing themselves up for a lot of psychological disparity.

Culturally and historically, suicide has taken on additional definitions. In some nations it has been seen as patriotic, an act of courage in the face of defeat. In others, it has been condemned as the ultimate act of heresy. Current policy in the United States is against suicide, due to the belief that all suicides must be a cry for help.

I’m here to say that’s not quite right. The reality is always more complicated than the black-and-white world a lot of people like to live in.

Keep in mind that I’m not condoning suicide. By no means do I believe that suicide is always right, that it’s not sometimes a cry for help from somebody on the edge. But before we can look at whether or not the ability to commit suicide is deserved, we have to acknowledge that it exists. And because it exists, the question of justification is not as relevant as it was before.

In the Catholic sect of Christianity, suicide is considered heresy. A person who has committed suicide is denied the right to be buried on sacred ground. A few centuries ago, this denial would probably be accompanied by the fear of vampirism. Stakes might be driven through the heart, arms and legs, and the deceased might be placed face-down inside the coffin. It was believed that the soul could never achieve contentment and would be forced to wander aimlessly, perhaps in limbo. But these beliefs did not change the fact that suicide existed, that people still decided to end their own lives, regardless of belief in metaphysical consequences.

Perhaps the effect of suicide, then, is not the best way to determine the answer to this question. Instead, why don’t we look at the reasons behind the commitment of suicide? It won’t let us completely into the heads of those who commit suicide, but it is important to understand some of the causes.

Issues such as depression may be caused by genetic and environmental factors. Harassment and other forms of bullying can cause one to become depressed, but it takes a multitude of factors to drive a person so far off the edge. Drug use can be a factor, prescription or otherwise. Another problem in northeastern United States is a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This is a form of depression or anxiety that occurs with the changing of the seasons. Most depression occurs in the winter, supposedly due to a lack of Vitamin D, though the spring and autumn rains can be especially brutal. School grades, unemployment rates, and receiving a slew of bad news can all contribute greatly to the formation of a deep sense of hopelessness and loneliness.

Any form of trauma can also create these feelings. Rape, death of a loved one and post-traumatic stress disorder can be common causes; actually, one cause of PTSD is rape, though it is not the only cause. Victims of abuse or someone who is simply alienated from their community may be driven to depression. And let us not forget genetics, which may cause a predisposition all on its own.

This question is difficult to answer even with knowledge of some of the causes, isn’t it? There are so many survivors of each scenario, it can be difficult to see why anyone would commit suicide. And yet they do. There are also otherwise perfectly happy people who aren’t content with life any more. And there are those who believe in choosing their own death, for whatever reason. Are we right in attempting to judge them for their decisions? Can we really be so condescending of such people as to say that they didn’t deserve to die? What good would that do?

Rather than asking ourselves whether suicide is deserved, we should instead look at what we can do to help prevent what we can. Suicide exists, whether it is deserved or not. So the question now is: what are you going to do about it? Will you stand by, or will you at least listen and try to help?

1 Comment

Posted by on June 4, 2011 in Controversial Topics


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One response to “The Ethics of Suicide

  1. nrhatch

    June 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Enjoyed how you explored this topic. If you’re interested in a discussion we had last month:

    And also in connection with bullying:

    Welcome to the blogosphere!


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