NB: This piece speaks about suicide in an abstract and philosophical manner and should not be construed as advocating for or endorsing suicide. If for whatever reason, you have stumbled upon this page and are actively considering suicide, please go here or call 1-800-273-8255.
This is probably not going to be a happy or fun piece. Death is sad. It represents the great unknown; the termination of our fragile existence into something we know not what. It is permanent; more permanent than anything else we deal with in this world. And it causes overwhelming emotions of loss, grief and sadness. Suicide adds many additional dimensions to this. When someone chooses to die, the typical emotions of grief are compounded by a whole host of other emotions; confusion, anger, guilt and helplessness all come along for the ride. Perhaps most pernicious, suicide seems to be contagious in that friends and family of people who have committed suicide are more likely to experience suicidal feelings and even carry it out. Along with criminal acts like rape, incest and murder, suicide is one of the most taboo actions we have in our (read: Western) culture. I struggled with whether or not I should even write this piece lest the unlikely event of someone reading it was driven to commit suicide (hence the disclaimer above). That fear and the stigma surrounding suicide makes it a difficult topic to discuss dispassionately. Why should this be? What goes into a person making the decision to self-terminate? Can it really ever be called a rational decision? These are the questions I’m going to try and tackle.
Who Commits Suicide?
Before getting into this, first I think I better define what I mean when I’m talking about suicide in this piece. There is a somewhat fine line between suicide and euthanasia. When I think of euthanasia, I think of someone with a terminal illness for whom death is imminent regardless of what action they take. They are also suffering greatly and would prefer to “get it over with” rather than suffer through a few more weeks or months of pain before expiring. As is wont to happen, this definition is expanding in places where euthanasia is legal to include people with mental illnesses or non-terminal but painful conditions. After all, we’re all terminal, it’s just a matter of the timescale right? That further blurs the line between suicide and euthanasia. The difference, as I see it, is that someone who is depressed is not going to experience depression as an imminent proximate cause of death. It may be horrendously painful, but there is at least a somewhat decent possibility that that person can receive treatment and return to some kind of baseline level of health. The same cannot (usually) be said of someone with Stage IV brain cancer. There is plenty of debate about euthanasia and its ethical and moral implications as well, and it certainly is related to suicide, but it’s not what I want to talk about here. To that end, when I refer to suicide, I’m talking about a person making a conscious decision to end his life when there is no physical condition that will otherwise cause imminent death. (I can already see you saying “depression is a physical condition!” Yes it is, but if you lock a severely depressed person in a room without the means to kill himself and force feed him to keep him from starving, he’ll certainly be miserable, but the depression on its own won’t cause him to keel over).
Because of stigma and shame surrounding suicide, it’s notoriously difficult to get quality statistics on it. Often, surviving families, if there’s any ambiguity, will try and get the cause of death to be classified as accidental to avoid that shame. For example, it’s estimated that the majority of opiate overdose related deaths are actually intentional, but it’s very likely that most/all of them get classified as accidental. With that caveat, best quality studies put incidence at around 1% of the population or 12 out of every 100,000 people. This number puts it at about the same prevalence as schizophrenia, though the real number is likely higher. About 75% of all suicides occur in the developed world and are overwhelmingly male. Although women are more likely to attempt suicide, approximately four times as many men succeed (some regional variation exists). It’s hard to peel apart “suicidal gestures” and “calls for help” from authentic suicide attempts so that even further muddies the statistical water. Speaking generally, suicide is most common in Europe (especially Eastern Europe), Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. It is least common in East/Southeast Asia (Japan and South Korea being notable exceptions) and Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. There is a pretty solid inverse correlation between the level of collective religiosity of a population and prevalence of suicide. Most religions put a very strong prohibition on suicide, Catholicism going so far as to classify it as a mortal sin on par with murder. Most of these prohibitions stem from the view that life is a gift from G-d and rejecting that gift is the ultimate contemptuous rebellion toward the Creator. Along with explicit prohibition on suicide, religious people are more likely to be members of tight-knit communities of like-minded people; a suicide preventative.
This is the question that invariably haunts friends and loved ones in the aftermath of a suicide. Very occasionally, people will commit ideologically motivated suicide as a political statement (think Buddhist monks self-immolating during Vietnam) and their purpose is pretty clear. These are outliers, however. It is far more common for the reason to be, if not a complete mystery, then opaque at best. Even in the presence of a detailed note, people left behind are often flummoxed about the reasoning of the suicidal individual. However, this is one of the key things to understand about suicide; the suicidal individual’s thinking is often distorted and the reasoning leading to the conclusion that suicide is appropriate only makes sense to said individual. This is important because it calls into question the assumption that suicide is a rational decision. Is distorted logic somehow inferior to “consensus” logic? What does “distorted logic” even mean?
One thing is for certain: suicide almost always leaves a trail of destruction behind it. The shattered families, inconsolable grief, confusion about motive and unanswerable questions will haunt those left behind forever. As stated before, it can be contagious. I have personal experience in which family friends experienced the suicide of the father, then both daughters within a 5 year span, leaving the mother alone. Needless to say, this was an unparalleled tragedy that resulted in nothing but misery, pain and nihilism. After seeing that kind of shitshow, it’s very hard to be dispassionate and logical about the ethical implications of suicide. However, as a group of people driven primarily by principle, such an analysis should be done.
A keystone of libertarian philosophy is the axiom of absolute self-ownership. What you do to yourself, as long as it doesn’t violate the NAP, is permitted unquestionably. This goes for drug use, sexual behavior, obesity etc. All is not fun and games, however, as you are expected to bear the burden of responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Don’t smoke 3 packs a day and then expect the taxpayer to bail you out when you get cancer.
That said, is suicide a violation of the NAP? I’m inclined to say no. You are hurting your loved ones and the people around you, but are you engaging in aggression toward them? Not in the sense that you’re endangering their physical safety or liberty directly. One could argue that smoking 3 packs a day is suicide, just in slow motion. If we agree that’s acceptable behavior, then giving a blow job to a .357 is equally acceptable.
This brings me back to the “distorted thinking” point from earlier. Can someone who chooses to self-terminate really be considered to be “in their right mind” and capable of making such a choice? I say the question is irrelevant because being in a state of “right-mindedness” does not have a clear definition. Distinct from the “reasonable person” standard of law, postulating some kind of philosophical “right mind” takes us down a slippery slope that leads to reeducation, crimethink and “enthusiastic consent” arguments re: drunken sex. What about if someone has dementia or schizophrenia and is imagining things that are objectively false which leads him to suicide? This is a situation in which philosophical vagueness comes into play and I don’t have an easy answer (a bit of shameless self promotion, check out my discourse on vagueness here). The distinction between distorted and undistorted thinking is a blurry one and the unintended consequences of trying to define it solidly are too great. Besides, this goes into a question of motives, which ultimately are irrelevant. Why does someone smoke 3 packs a day when he knows how bad it is for him? Doesn’t matter. Mind your own business. Fuck off, slaver.
These edge cases certainly don’t justify nullifying the larger principle of self-ownership, so I feel comfortable declaring suicide to be ethical from a libertarian perspective. (Reminder: ethics are derived from external codes of conduct and morals are principles on which an individual’s judgement of right and wrong are based; they are intertwined but not identical). If libertarian ethics are derived primarily from the NAP, then I can’t see how suicide is unethical. I believe as libertarians, we have to reserve the right of people to terminate their own existence. After all, your own self is your most fundamental piece of property, and you can dispose of your property however you wish. To say that you are partially owned by your loved ones opens the door to slavery. If one really wanted to construct an ethical argument against suicide without referencing religion (which is easy: G-d said not to), you’d have to fall back on deontological arguments. One could say that implicit in a marriage contract and/or the implied contract between parent and child when said child is brought into the world is a duty to live for the sake of those people. I’m OK if you want to make that argument; it at least seems to be logically consistent, but that’s as far as I go. I don’t believe any similar argument can be made in regards to the relationship between a suicidal person and his parents or his friends. Taking that approach very quickly slides into “social contract” territory and we all know where that ends up (nowhere good). To be sure™, I’m not even sure how I feel about “implicit” clauses in marriage and parental relationships; if your future spouse is known to be suicidal, put a prohibition against suicide in your vows (or better yet, don’t get married to that person).
What of morality? Well, trshmnstr had an excellent piece about, what he called Deferentialism vs. Restraintism (see here) that sums up two opposing philosophies of how libertarians can approach the problems of moral relativism inherent to libertarian thought. In each case, however, I think the approach to the problem of suicide is similar to the problem of drug use. Many libertarians recognize how stupid it is to shoot heroin. They may condemn it as evil and morally reprehensible. However, no libertarian worth his salt would say using it should be illegal or a reason to be locked in a cage. Suicide is trickier because, if carried out properly, there is no one to arrest or lock up. The only way then for it to be codified as wrong is in a personal code of conduct or with a deity. I’ve already argued that, in spite of its colossal collateral damage, suicide is not a strict violation of the NAP. Therefore, it has to fall into the same category as drug use or adultery or promiscuity or a host of other social pathologies that libertarians must tolerate in order to live in a free society. Whether an individual considers it to be immoral likely falls on the Deferentialist/Restraintist spectrum.
When it comes to suicide, I fall on the Restraintist side of the aisle. I strongly condemn it as both immoral and stupid. I recognize a person’s right to take himself out of the game, but I also reserve the right to call that person a moron making a terrible decision. I say this not without compassion for those suffering through deep depression which distorts reality to the point that suicide seems rational. However, life is about taking personal responsibility. Part of being a fully actualized, mature human being is being capable of knowing when things in your life are going sideways, and then acting to fix them. Some people see suicide as “fixing” their problems and I suppose in some ways it does. However, to use a cliché, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s sending your car to the junkyard when the brakes go bad. It’s tunnel vision resulting in extreme selfishness. No matter how much you may think it, people will not be better off without you. And if you need to find a reason to live, you can always look at boobs on the internet.