The Ethics of Suicide

Anand Jayprakash Vaidya considers the "one truly serious philosophical problem".

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the 20th century French-Existentialist Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.”

The film, Plan 75, investigates the question: if a government sponsored a plan for euthanasia for those 75 and older, would you consent to it? The film explores this in the context of Japanese culture, and it does so without explicit reference to people below the age of 75. Nevertheless, there is a choice. You don’t have to do it, but if you want to, you can. This raises the theoretical question about suicide that is asked and explored in depth by Immanuel Kant: Is it ever moral to end one own’s life?

In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant says that the voluntary act of destroying oneself can never, under any circumstances, be regarded as allowable.  And in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant offers an argument for the irrationality of suicide based on the first formulation of the categorical imperative: the universal law formulation, which states rational beings ought to act as if the maxim of their action were to become through their will a universal law of nature. Kant says that the maxim of choosing out of self-love to end their life since it has more suffering than pleasure ahead of it leads to a contradiction, which makes it irrational and immoral to act on. It is a contradiction that arises from the idea that self-love is about prolonging life and in conflict, thus, with destroying it. Kant also argues that ending one’s own life is inconsistent with the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative, which states that it is morally impermissible to treat someone as a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The act of killing oneself is using oneself as a mere means to an end, but not as an end itself.

Next, consider a version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. Mill’s view is that the right action is the act from the available actions that maximizes happiness for all persons involved. One can formulate a version of this for an individual alone. The view would hold that one should always act so as to maximize happiness over their lifespan. Thus, if their life probabilistically has more suffering than pleasure ahead, one can act to end their life. Just as we should act so as to maximize happiness for all persons, we should act to maximize happiness for future stages of ourselves. Ending one’s life early can, in some cases, makes it true that there is more happiness, rather than less.

Another perspective comes from Jainism, where there is a practice known as Sallekhana where one is allowed to fast unto death after having met certain conditions, such as through the approval of a monk. In a way that is similar to the adjusted form of utilitarianism, Jains argue that one is under no requirement to prolong their suffering. As a consequence, they may choose to fast to death in order to end their suffering. Having a debilitating illness qualifies one for the fast. But unlike standard utilitarianism, the Jain view does not take account of any suffering caused by the fast itself. The fast is seen as leading to an enlightened death.

Recently, I stayed with my dad for three months in his condo in Southern California. Jay is eighty-two years old. He was diagnosed with a degenerative condition called Cerebellar Ataxia when he was seventy. His ataxia affects his functional muscular coordination. While he has good strength in each of his limbs, he can only move with the help of a walker. The doctors have told me that he may soon be bed ridden completely.

Jay was also diagnosed at stage 5 on the Global Deterioration Scale for Assessment for Primary Degenerative Dementia. Dementia can be caused by several conditions, such as Parkinson’s’ or Alzheimer’s disease. His is caused by cerebellar ataxia. Being at stage 5 means things are bad, but not that bad. He only needs help taking a shower. He can still eat and go to the toilet by himself. He has problems with cognitive tasks, such as counting backwards from forty by fours or from twenty by twos. He used to read a lot, but now he cannot read a page without getting exhausted.

Males in my father’s family often live well into their nineties. My father is only eighty. Even though he might be in stage five for ten years he will make it to stage six where the doctors have told us that his dementia could eventually lead to several negative outcomes. For example, he could forget names, including those of his children and caretakers. He could become unaware of his surroundings, including what year it is. He could suffer emotional changes and become delusional. In the final stages, he could require assistance toileting and feeding and will lose the power to communicate. He sometimes says, “I want to die.” Far more often though, he expresses his desire to see my brothers’ daughter grow up. Jay’s will to survive is strongly evident to anyone who knows him.

In An Attempted Analysis of the Concept of Freedom, the 20th century Indian philosopher Daya Krishna wrote:

Man is the only Being who can choose not to BE. Therein lies his greatest freedom: the freedom from ends, from Life, from Conscious Being. He is the only animal who can commit suicide – a self-conscious annihilation of itself. Still, the self-conscious annihilation does not present itself as a “must.” It merely presents itself as a choice – a choice that is the ultimate foundation of freedom in man. […] If death is merely seen as external or internal necessity, man can only submit to it – whether with a protest or not, it does not matter. It is only when Death is seen as choice, as the self-conscious annihilation of one’s own Dasein, that it appears as Foundational Freedom.

Although Albert Einstein was likely unfamiliar with Daya Krishna’s work, he died after refusing surgery that would have prolonged his life, saying, “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

Senescence itself is theorized to be caused by resource scarcity. The theory posits that once a human successfully reproduces, their death allows scarce resources to be used by their younger, more vigorous descendants. Perhaps humans will one day live in a post-scarcity world, where these concerns no longer hold. In the meantime, there are already ways to commit suicide “elegantly” in places such as Switzerland. By the time my time comes, it is possible that the technology to achieve a peaceful end will be even more easily available to all. The question in my mind is the one Camus asked, one that I and many others may face someday. Will I take the suicide option, or like Jay, will I choose to prolong my obvious suffering hoping to experience potential rewards? I know how I’d like to answer that question for myself, but only time will tell. What I think now could change.

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Anand Jayprakash Vaidya is professor of philosophy and occasional director of the center for comparative philosophy at San Jose State University. His interests include critical thinking, epistemology, and philosophy of mind from a cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary perspective.