The Right to Commit Suicide
Por Thais Campos, em Suite101.com.
Does a person have the right to kill himself? From a legal perspective, they don’t, but from a philosophical perspective, there are other factors that must be examined.
Much has been debated about the right to suicide. In the argument against committing suicide, the list of arguments is endless. The arguments include religious and spiritual values, legal comdemnation and irresponsibility towards those who are left behind. But most importantly, some argue that a person who suffers from depression — depression that’s severe enough to elicit a belief that it’s best to end life — may not be in a position to make a proper judgment about whether it’s best to live or die. In these cases, it’s generally believed that stopping suicide attempts is the wisest course of action.
But should a person be forced to continue to live, even against his will? Philosophers have provided different answers to this question throughout history, but before analyzing the different philosophical views on suicide, it is necessary to establish the medical aspects surrounding the wish to die.
Suicide Causes – Depression and Mental Illness
According to medical findings, mental conditions such as dysthymia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis, along with various kinds of depression, that modify the normal level of hormones are responsible for the symptoms that lead to suicidal behaviour. These symptoms can be controlled with prescribed drugs, thereby minimizing the risk of suicide attempts.
From this perspective, it is valid to say that when a person is in a crisis, his behaviors are not a result of his free will but a result of a dysfunction and therefore, although it may sound paradoxical, preventing suicide is not considered a violation of the free will, but rather, it is a way to ensure that a person does not harm himself when he is not in a condition to exercise his free will properly.
However, not every suicidal behaviour is a result of a mental problem. While it is true that statistically most of suicidal people suffer from depression, it is also true that many people continue to take their own lives even after the symptoms are controlled by drugs. This indicates that there are other factors involved in the decision of committing suicide – suicide is not only a reaction to hormonal problems.
This is when the suicidal behaviour causes controversy among doctors, psychologists, philosophers and the general public.
Suicide Ethics – The Right to Commit Suicide
Generally speaking, there are two conflicting assumptions regarding the ethics of suicide, they are:
- the body belongs to God and therefore, committing suicide is inflicting upon a divine law, which is a vision that classical philosophers advocated, including Plato, and;
- the body is a person’s property and he may decide what to do with it. If one is forced to live against his will, the basic right of free will is violated. This position was defended by Goethe, Hume, Thomas Szasz and Jean Améry.
So, from a philosophical standpoint, the ruling on whether a person has the right to suicide lies in one’s belief concerning who the body “belongs” to and whether life is meaningful enough to be worth the trouble of enduring suffering.
Defending the Right to Suicide – Thomas Szasz
According to Hungarian psychiatrist and professor Thomas Szasz, the State should not interfere in suicide matters as the decision concerning suicide should be a private choice and not a a result of coercion. Only the person should decide whether he considers suicide to be moral or immoral and not the government.
Szasz also argues that every person has the right to self-ownership and when the State forces a person to live (as it is illegal to attempt suicide and doctors must stop any form of suicidal attempts), then a person’s body and mind does not belong to him anymore, but to the doctors and government. This, Szasz says, is a violence.
Hume on Suicide
David Hume, in a reaction against those who believe that suicide is immoral, defended that interrupting a miserable life, that brings more sorrow than joy does not generate such bad consequences since the death of a person (or how a person dies) is insignificant to God’s plan – a person who takes his own life does not have the power to disturb the Providence’s order with his voluntary death.
Hume argued that a suicide could bring some harm to the society in the sense that one will not be useful to the community if he is dead, but this service to the social order implies in a reciprocity, and one shouldn’t have to continue to help the society in exchange of a miserable life. So, if the pain and suffering is greater than the small good that one could do to society, then suicide is fair.
Should a person live in pain and suffering only to satisfy other people or the community? No matter what the answer is, even the theories in favour of suicide understand that in order to be fair, a suicide must be a result of free will and not any form of coercion.
Establishing when a person is exercising his free will and not being a victim of a mental condition that predisposes to suicidal behaviors is the central point of the suicide debate. Some thinkers go further believing that even in situations of mental illness one should still have to right to end his own life since many mental problems are not treatable (only controllable). In any case, problems start to arise when people want to impose their own vision rather than allowing others to choose their own beliefs.
Hume, David. The Philosophical Works of David Hume, T.H Green and T.H Grose. London, 1882.