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Humanist thoughts about death and suicide



By Paul Ewans

Paul is a Trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. When not struggling with ethical questions he spends his time growing vegetables and learning about the history of progressive causes. In this article he considers the ethics of killing. Killing is rarely justified except in self-defence or when it is necessary to kill in order to save some innocent person’s life. But ethical considerations relating to suicide are much harder to resolve.



Why is it bad to die?

Why is it bad to die? The obvious answer seems to be correct. It is bad to die because death takes from us all that we have and all that we hoped to have. Life is a precious possession which we lose when we die, and in dying we also lose whatever good we find in living. Death takes from us the life which we have and which we cherish. But death also takes our future. Our desires will not be fulfilled and our plans will not be realised. In death we lose the future that belonged to us, the future which we wanted, and which is now gone. Death is bad because in death everything is lost.


We know that death is certain so what concerns us most is dying ‘before our time’. We believe that we are entitled to a certain length of life and that it is bad to die prematurely. But we should accept an important truth – it is not always bad to die. A time will come for some of us when we will have to choose between the value which we place on life and the release from suffering which comes with death. The question then will be, ‘Is death now better for me than life?’


Glover's Principle

As the philosopher Jonathan Glover has emphasised, it is almost always wrong to kill someone. We should accept ‘Glover’s principle’:

‘Except in the most extreme circumstances, it is directly wrong to kill someone who wants to go on living, even if there is reason to think this desire is not in their own interests.’ Jonathan Glover

Killing someone who does not want to die is wrong because it takes from that person the life and the future which are uniquely important and valuable to them. And it is still very wrong to kill someone even if we are convinced that they would be better off dead. Respecting personal autonomy means that we should allow every competent adult to direct the course of their own life and decide for themselves whether it is best for them to live or to die. We should not kill someone who wants to live.


One person’s death almost always causes direct harm to people other than the one who dies, and this is a further reason why killing is wrong in all normal circumstances. The death of a loved one causes grief and distress to relatives and friends, especially when the death seems unnatural or is premature. A death is always the loss of a unique individual – these children have lost their mother, this husband has lost his wife, this community has lost a dedicated nurse or a talented musician. Death deprives the living of the one who dies. They lose that person’s contribution to their lives, and the death may also cause them very specific harm. Parents grieving the death of a child, for instance, have lost the love, care and support their child would otherwise have given them in their old age.


Killing one person to save another

As Glover’s principle recognises, we should not claim that there is an absolute right to life. It is not always wrong to kill someone. It is not wrong to kill in self-defence if there is no other way of saving your own life, and in the last resort it is not wrong to kill to save an innocent person from being killed. And killing is sometimes justified in other extreme situations where it is only possible to save one life by taking another. The American philosopher James Rachels (1941-2003) described the case of conjoined twins Jodie and Mary who were born in 2000. These infants were joined at the lower abdomen. Their spines were fused together, and they had only one heart and one set of lungs between them. Jodie was the stronger of the two, and she was providing blood for her sister. Some sets of conjoined twins do well, but the prospects for Jodie and Mary were very poor. Both would die in six months without a surgical operation to separate them, but the operation would only save Jodie. Tragically, Mary would die as soon as she was separated from her sister. In the event, the operation went ahead, and Jodie lived and Mary died.


Better off dead?

We have a moral obligation to preserve life because in all normal circumstances people value their lives and want to go on living. So we should assume in any emergency that someone who is at risk of dying does indeed wish to live, and we should do whatever we reasonably can to save their life. But if the situation is not an emergency, we should allow competent adults to decide for themselves whether their lives are worth living. And this remains true regardless of what we may think about it ourselves. The value of a life can only be judged from the inside, so to speak, and personal autonomy must include the freedom to do things which others believe are not truly in our own best interests. A competent adult should not be prevented from taking decisions which appear from another person’s point of view to be foolish, short-sighted or even self-defeating.


We need the freedom to pursue our goals and live our lives as we think best, and this includes the freedom to continue to lead a life which others think would be better ended. Even someone who is in very great pain or distress may wish to go on living if they have some project to complete or if they hope to experience some future event such as the marriage of a daughter or the birth of a grandchild. They may also wish to go on living if they believe that things will improve for them or if they simply have a great fear of death. Even if we are convinced that someone would be better off dead, this will never justify killing a competent person against their will.


Oates of the Antarctic and altruistic suicide

The moral status of suicide depends greatly on why someone intends to kill themselves. In the case of ‘altruistic suicide’ the intention is that a person’s death will benefit one or more other people. So someone who is dying may decide to kill themselves to spare others the burden of having to look after them or, in an extreme situation, someone may kill themselves as a political protest or to save the lives of others. In 1912, as a member of Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ expedition to the South Pole, Captain Lawrence Oates suffered severe frostbite in his feet which limited the expedition’s progress to a mere three miles a day, making it impossible for them to reach their next supply depot before their food ran out. Oates thus walked out of their tent into a blizzard one night and was not seen again. According to Scott, his last words were: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ His body has never been found. In other cases, which are sometimes called ‘rational suicide’, people decide that their lives have become unendurable and that it is better for them to die than to go on living. Perhaps a person wishes to escape from a very distressing life-limiting or terminal illness. If their suffering is truly unbearable, and nothing can be done to relieve it, they may decide that their best option is to kill themselves.


Arguments against suicide

It is a tragic fact that many people who take their own lives do so when they are severely depressed and in this state of mind they are often very wrong about their chances of being happy at some time in the future. Severe depression not only makes people extremely unhappy, it can also make them believe that their unhappiness will never end. But we often largely recover from bereavement, from a broken heart, and from other serious losses as well. Even the deepest depression may become less severe over time, and depression is often curable. This will probably be no comfort at all to someone who is extremely depressed. Even so, if someone who is considering suicide will in time become less depressed, their thoughts of suicide seem to be irrational because, if they continue to live, their future will be better than their past. And many people who try to kill themselves but fail are glad that they failed. It is also the case that a suicide can have a truly devastating effect on the relatives and friends of the deceased. The suicide of someone you love can be impossible to understand and very hard to accept. And suicide can be contagious. If one person kills themselves, another person may be led to do the same.


Nevertheless, it is a hard truth that some people have good reason to believe that they would be better off dead, and in these rare cases we should respect the right of competent adults to take their own decisions.


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