Having recently had a scare related to suicide, I find myself wondering about the ethics and morality of suicide. Is it wrong always, some of the time, or never? Is it ever the right thing to do?
Some religious theologies make the claim that one's life actually belongs to God, and therefore to take one's life is to steal from God (in essence). But I'm an atheist. That idea holds no water with me, so I need to approach this idea of suicide from a different angle, or angles.
There seems to be various issues that are wrapped up in this issue. Value of one's life, for example, and whether there are limits to one's right to do as one wishes with one's own body and life. There's also the issue of flourishing in our powers (at least if, like me, you lean toward empowerment ethics), which suicide would seem to contradict. Let's take a look at some of these things.
Value of individual life.
In "Schindler's List" there is a quote given "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire," which apparently comes from the Talmud. I think there is truth to this idea, metaphorically speaking. Each of us has within ourselves an entire view, a model, of the world, which we construct day by day, moment by moment. It is not a literal world. I do not believe that all of physicality is illusion constructed by mind itself, or anything like that. But the model of the world that each of us creates is nonetheless unique, and powerful. It's powerful because that model shapes, and is in turn shaped by, the way we think, feel, and act. It has very real effects on the world as a result. The world outside of ourselves responds in some way to those effects, which changes (sometimes in the smallest of ways, and sometimes in very large ways) the model of the world that we have in our minds. No model is going to be a perfectly accurate model of the world, but every model will be unique.
Every person is unique in this. No two world models are the same, nor could they be. Similar, yes. The same, never. No two people ever have the same, exact down to the tiniest detail, experience of life. Thus I think there is a very real, metaphorical truth that every human life is a world onto itself.
So, when a human life is lost, a world is lost. What value is there to an entire world? It's priceless, and priceless things should not be destroyed without very good reason.
Right to life or death.
Does this then place a limit of some sort on what each of us can do with our own life, our own world? If it can be said that someone owns a person, it can only be that the person owns themselves. A person may choose to give certain privileges to another, but those privileges are not rights, and in no way confer ownership on the person receiving privileges. For example, my wife may choose to give me the privilege of having sex with her, and I may choose to give her the privilege of sex with me, but in neither case is a right conferred, and most certainly there is no transfer of ownership. If one owns oneself, then it would seem that the only person with any right to decide such things as what to do with one's life falls only to oneself. No one else has a right to take your life from you.
But does having a right to life, give you the right to die?
Maybe if I start by considering what seems to be the easier case: euthanasia, or assisted suicide. Generally speaking, when we are looking at cases of assisted suicide, it's in a situation in which someone is suffering a great deal, with no prospect of reprieve, and potentially a guaranteed death sentence. The prospect of dying in order to escape such suffering is an attractive option. This is when quality of life enters the picture. If we continue with the metaphor that a single life is like an entire world, then in such cases it can be said that a world is suffering, and a world may be dying. It doesn't seem a difficult thing to say that when such is the case, it is kinder to allow the suffering to cease through death. We are willing to give this mercy to our pets, so why not to ourselves?
But what of times when it is not the case that there is no prospect of reprieve?
I think when it comes down to it, I'm left with looking at what it means to live, which will hopefully lead to what it means to die.
We exist, in a crucial sense, as our powers (or abilities). To live an ethical life means to become better, more effective, in our power, or effectiveness. When we speak of being good, we're speaking of being effective: good at chess=effective at chess; good person, morally speaking= effective at being a moral person. If we're flourishing, then we're being effective as our individual powers (intellectual, physical, artistic, sexual, etc). Our meaning in life comes from our personal flourishing, and how it impacts and empowers others to flourish.
When we're flourishing, we're striving. We're striving to become better in our strengths, and striving to shore up our weaknesses. We're doing this not just in ourselves, but in others as well, which increases our own power as it's expressed and spread through others. And other's powers are expressed through us, as they help us flourish and become more empowered. An intricate, complex web is formed through these connections with others. Even with deep introspection we may not be able to see the totality of that web (it's probably not even possible).
When we live, we impact others. We can't help it, nor should we want to. If we are indeed flourishing as our powers, then it's likely that we are helping others to flourish as well (or so one hopes). So when we die, we stop helping. We lose the ability to empower others to flourish more. We break that web. We can no longer save worlds, or help build worlds. If we do this deliberately, then that loss, that incalculable loss, is on us. So from this, it would appear that suicide is not ethical.
But now I need to reexamine the case for assisted suicide. As I said, cases of assisted suicide happen when there is tremendous suffering without hope of reprieve, and most frequently when there's a clear case of guaranteed death anyway. At times like these, it is easy to see that flourishing may very well be out the window. Things may get to a point where all someone has the strength to do is manage symptoms. Striving to empower oneself and others is out the window. I think then that making the choice to end it all is not only rational, but ethical. That decision, however, must rest with the one who's life is on the line, and no one else.
There is more to examine in this issue I think (I'm not entirely confident in my construction of the individual life equaling an entire world, for instance), but for now, this is where my thinking has led me. So, what do you think?