The Rationality of Suicide

[Disclaimer:  Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I feel it necessary to mention that the purpose of this article is not to convince anyone to commit suicide, nor is it meant to trivialize the seriousness of suicide as a psychiatric issue.  On the contrary, I see this as a very serious matter, and encourage anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts to seek immediate help from trained professionals, and/or turn to trusted friends and family in their lives to manage through their personal distress.]

For the sake of brevity, allow me to list what forms of suicide I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of saving another life.  Generally, people think quite highly of these sort of acts, and view them as very dissimilar to what most of us commonly refer to when we speak of suicide (a point I won’t be arguing against, because I agree that the two are in fact not the same).  Likewise, most people can imagine themselves empathizing with persons who are experiencing such agonizing physical suffering that it would be cruel to deny them their wish to be free of their pain permanently; even going so far as to accept the moral necessity to assist such individuals in their final act.  I would argue that when it comes to the topic of suicide most people see the above scenarios as exceptions to the norm, and therefore wouldn’t hesitate to call for a moment’s worth of pause, sympathy, and contemplation over the circumstantial details surrounding each situation.  However, the sort of suicide I wish to discuss here isn’t warrant for such nuanced introspection in most people’s eyes.  What I’m talking about is the act of a physically healthy, seemingly autonomous individual deciding to take his/her life for no greater reason other than simply not wanting to live any longer.

From what I’ve gathered in the public discourse on this type of suicide (i.e. the definition most people picture when they think of suicide) the topic inspires an almost universal revulsion, condescension, and condemnation of the very idea of it (and, often, the person who committed the act).  At best, the response garners a pitying tsk-tsk from onlookers, before they opine how cowardly and selfish the person is for taking his/her life.  There is an intense knee-jerk hostility in the tone directed towards those who kill themselves, where it almost sounds as if the person who chose to end his/her life has committed some great offense against all our collective sensibilities.  Additionally, there is very much a “How dare you?” subtext that seems to linger between the lines of the reasons people give for their disgust with the act (and, as mentioned before, the individual who has committed it).

“How dare you?  Don’t you know that life is sacred?”

Perhaps, perhaps not.  However, no matter what the objective merit of life may be, this is not much of a retort against the individuals who commit suicide for the mere fact that these individuals might very well agree that life, in general, is sacred and valuable, but they simply don’t extend this moral axiom to themselves as individuals.  This is actually not a contradiction in reasoning, as it’s undeniable that generalized precepts always break down at the level of the individual.  For instance, take the statement that all societies have developed some sort of moral code of behavior for their communities.  This is true, and usually gets internalized by the individuals within the society who follow the moral norms of their community–except for the individuals who don’t.  The existence of individuals who don’t follow societal morals does not invalidate the value of said morals.  Similarly, a person can be within the bounds of reasonable thought to deduce how although life as a whole is important/sacred/valuable/etc., his/her life as an individual plays too negligible of a factor in the greater scheme on which this moral precept operates to matter one way or another.

And there is a dose of rationality behind this, in that as far as society is concerned individuals are largely interchangeable, and even dispensable.  Your life has as much meaning as you can attribute to it on a personal level.  Thus, if an individual person ceases to be able to attribute any worthwhile meaning to his/her life, insisting otherwise isn’t going to instill a different perspective into his/her mind.  This in itself is not a justification for committing suicide, but it is a retort to the insistence that those who commit suicide are committing a crime against the “sanctity” of life as a whole.

“How dare you?  You’re going to die one day anyway, so you might as well appreciate the gift of life you’ve been given no matter how bad you might think it is.”

The problem with this line of logic is that a suicidal person can easily turn it around and ask why, since s/he is going to die one day anyway, it matters whether it’s now or 80 years from now?  In all fairness, I know that the point this reactions is driving at is the notion that no matter how dire one’s circumstances may be, the very fact that you have the opportunity to experience these circumstances, and experience life itself, is something worth preserving for as long as possible; precisely because there will come a time in which you will no longer have the ability to choose between life over death (neither its desirable or less desirable components).  Yet, as poetically appealing as this is, the truth is that this reaction commits the same error in reasoning that the previous one does.  Namely, it conflates the notion of Life (writ large) and generalizes the connotations and values ascribed to it with the values of any individual life.  Yes, life is a rare and fleeting phenomenon that those of us who have had the chance to be born and experience should consider ourselves lucky to have done so.  But this is a meaningless statement to the individual suicidal person who does not feel this way about his/her individual life.

To continuously hark this person about how life itself is grand and a blessing, in all these general terms does not give an iota of a reason why such qualifiers need necessarily be extended to said person’s individual life.  It is a fallacy to take the general attributes ascribed to a group and apply them to the random individual in said group (it’s called the ecological fallacy, to be precise).  Not to mention it is very likely that one motivating factor that drives suicidal persons to kill themselves is the realization that relative to the grand lives they observe all those around them, their individual existence falls short of any such splendor.  Hence, if the argument against suicide rests on the premise that one shouldn’t do it because life is too awesome, and the individual is painfully aware that in contrast his/her individual life is not at all awesome, what exactly is the rationale to continue on (from the perspective of the individual)?

“How dare you?  Suicide is an act of cowardice.  You should face your problems instead of running from them.”

This is where the condescension comes into play.  The demand to face one’s problems becomes a bit of an absurd statement to the individual who views life itself as his/her primary problem.  This person has no choice but to face “their problem” on a daily basis, which is…well…sort of the major part of their problem.  What the statement is really trying to say is that you should face the things in life that are causing you grief and deal with them.  But what if you honestly cannot resolve the issues in life that are causing you to contemplate ending it?  What if you have tried and tried, and searched for decades to find some means to overcome your grief, but have found no remedy, and have concluded that no remedy exists?  Have you failed to “deal” with your problems at this point?  Other than a few catchy, bumper-sticker worthy, feel-good slogans, what actual practical advice can be said to an individual in this situation?  Because to tell someone that they need to “face their problems” is a very, very easy thing to do on anyone’s part, but unless this statement is accompanied with a feasibly attainable set of solutions the distressed individual can utilize to overcome their distress, your profound insights are more likely to just make him/her feel even more hopeless about life.

Suicide is undoubtedly a taboo in most of Western society (in modern times and antiquity), for if it were not we would not have bothered to make it an unpardonable sin both in religious doctrines and secular philosophies.  We, as collective members of what we like to think of is a relatively stable and well-functioning community (and, generally speaking, it is), do tend to empathize strongly with fellow travelers in this land who are suffering and seek out help (though unfortunately we often find ourselves making exceptions this instinctive reaction, too, all for varying reasons and interests).  Yet, when it comes to those who took it upon themselves to permanently withdraw from the anguish they felt in life, we respond with a sense of defensiveness and betrayal.  And I would argue it’s not really because of the individual who committed suicide itself, because unless we knew the individual personally our reactions to the act can only dwell within the realm abstract idealism.  I think it has more to with the fact that we spend a great deal of energy convincing ourselves that whatever pain, whatever setback, whatever dilemma or trauma we have to endure, life itself–that is life for the sake of life–must still be worth pursuing, if for no other reason than that it is the only grand experience of which we can be certain.  Thus, we will always reason that, more often than not, even a painfully tormented life is better than no life at all.  And we will emotively dismiss any suggestion that the act of suicide can be the result of a valid and sound line of reasoning on the part of the individuals who take the dire step.  Because, to be honest, we would rather tolerate for a person to continue living in mental distress, as long as it means we get to preserve our ideals about the greater value of our lives.  Which is what it all ultimately boils down to.

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