January 1982 III/5


The Question

When discussing ethical issues surrounding suicide, our main question is not, "Should people who commit suicide be criticized morally?" Experience and intuition demonstrate that most persons who take their own lives do so because they are emotionally disturbed and act compulsively. Thus their freedom of choice is greatly restricted or nonexistent. Too many of us know dear friends or family members whose suicidal deaths demonstrate the lack of psychological freedom. Indeed, many experts in suicidology today seem to take it for granted that all suicides are compulsive and irrational (1). Rather then, our question in this essay concerns the contemporary tendency to present suicide as "a rational choice," that is, to present it as the best manner to die in some circumstances (2).


Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, suicide was both condemned and defended as it also was in Eastern cultures. The Epicureans who considered pleasure and peace of mind the highest good, argued that it was better to kill oneself than endure life if it had become more painful than pleasurable or peaceful. The Stoics, who believed that rigid self-control was the highest good, argued that it was permissible to kill oneself if suffering or torture might force one to lose self-control. Dualists taught that the soul which is the real person is burdened by the body in this life; hence suicide might be justified as a laying down of this burden. Even today, some believe it ethical to choose suicide for the sake of honor. Recently some Irishmen and Vietnamese chose suicide by self-starvation and self-immolation to protest injustice and oppression.

However, the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have always opposed suicide because they regard life as God's gift which people are to use not as owners but as faithful stewards. Consequently, we cannot escape accounting to God for our stewardship of this one life which is given on earth, nor can we reject the body which will always be part of us. This view was anticipated by Plato, who argued that suicide is a rejection of our responsibility to self, to the community of which one is a part, to God who gave life. In a different way, another philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, argued that suicide is the greatest of crimes because it is man's rejection of mortality itself, since man must be his own moral lawgiver. For a person to kill himself is to treat himself as a thing. (means) rather than as a person (an end in himself). In sum, in theological and philosophical reasoning, suicide has been considered for centuries as an unethical act even though responsibility was seldom imputed to the unfortunate persons who performed the action.

Mythologizing Suicide

Today, however, this classical stand is being called into question. In the United States and England, societies exist which promote suicide as an ethical action, a "rational" alternative to life, especially if a person is beset by depression, loneliness, severe infirmity or serious suffering. Usually the reasons put forward for approving suicide as an ethical choice are that people should have the right to be autonomous, to control their own destiny, or that people should not have to suffer pain, loneliness, or degradation at the time of death. Though these are professed reasons for the modern reexamination of the traditional stance, a noted psychiatrist and suicidologist, David Peretz, sees a more subtle cause for this change of thought:

"Under the unprecedented stress of recent decades denial mechanisms are breaking down and we have become increasingly vulnerable to the threats of intensely painful feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, rage, guilt, shame, grief, longing and helplessness. In order to avoid being overwhelmed, we seek new ways to adapt.... I believe that the growing concern with a good death, death with dignity and the right to die reflect this search.... If our deepest known fear is of being destroyed, and we cannot deal with that fear, we take refuge in planning death and rational suicide. We find comfort in the illusion, 'It will not be done to me... I will do it myself.'"(3)

Peretz feels this is a dangerous motivation because it fosters the harmful illusion of personal omnipotence.

Two other unrealistic and therefore unethical elements are involved in rational suicide. First, the call for rational suicide is based upon the notion that personal autonomy or independence is the goal of human life. Rational suicide says: If one cannot be autonomous or independent, then life is not worth living. This is simply one more expression of radical individualism, a philosophy which weakens human community and places little value upon social justice. Both experience and wisdom demonstrate, however, that interdependence, not independence, is the goal of human life. To admit that one is weak and needs help is not a denial or a perversion of one's humanity. Rather, accepting help is a means to fulfill one's humanity. The weak and suffering offer an opportunity to others to fulfill their humanity by responding with care and kindness. The perfectly autonomous person would not need other people; can you imagine a more boring and self-centered individual?

A second unethical element in rational suicide is that it mythologizes the act of self-destruction. To mythologize something is to give it powers it does not possess. Rational suicide presents self-destruction as a problem-free solution to the very serious human problems of physical suffering, loneliness, severe depression or infirm old age. But we do not eliminate human problems by eliminating human beings. Rather, we eliminate or alleviate human problems through compassion, care and loving concerning. The problems that rational suicide would pretend to eliminate are often problems with which individuals learn to live through the help of caring relatives or friends.


The present day emphasis upon the right to die and death with dignity may blind us to the right to life of the weak, infirm and aged. The cost of combating the human problems of loneliness, infirmity and depression is not self-destruction, rather it is the development of a compassionate, caring and generous community. Though this is not simple, it is a development rather than a perversion of our humanity.

Kevin O'Rourke, OP


(1) D. Novak, Suicide Morality. NY: Schollars Press, 1071.

(2) M. Battin and D. Mayo, ed., Suicide: The Philosophical Issues. NY: St.Martin's Press, 1980.

(3) D.Peretz, "The Illusion of Rational Suicide," Hastings Center Report; Dec. 1981, p.40-42.

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.