Is suicide always immoral?

In recent decades, led by the Catholic Church, Christians seem to have adopted a cult of the maintenance physical life for its own sake, regardless of how torturous, painful, and hopeless it may be.

I must make a confession. I have never been in sympathy with this Christian belief. Personally I have never understood or agreed with the idea that a person must never take his own life. From the time I was I my teens, I have always felt it was right and natural that a person might choose the time of his own demise, if his life has become unbearable. The American Indian idea of a man, when he knew that his time was up and no decent acceptable life was left to him, going off somewhere by himself to lie down on the top of a mountain and let himself peacefully expire, struck me as noble and romantic.

So I would ask Christian readers who may be more knowledgeable on these issues than I am, why is it morally obligatory for a person whose life has become physical torture and who has no hope of healing, to stretch out the torture as long as possible? Why is it wrong for him to end his own life? Is it God’s will that the final chapter of a person’s life consist of extended physical torture, and that no matter how horrible and hopeless his life has become, it must be maintained at all costs? Does God want us to be tortured without hope of relief? I don’t see how that view of things is Godly, right, or moral.

(Note, 5:21 p.m.: For those readers who are worried about the possible personal implications of what I have said here, please understand that I have not posted this entry in the context of some thought of imminent personal action. However, as you will see in the below discussion, I have raised this issue, because it is now personally real to me.)

- end of initial entry -

Posted at 4:50 p.m.

Ed M. writes:

In I Samuel 28:19, Samuel tells Saul that the next day, he will be in Heaven:

Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the Lord also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.

Then in 1 Samuel 31:

3 And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was sore wounded of the archers.

4 Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.

5 And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him.

6 So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.

A good discussion of this topic is here.

This has always informed my opinion of suicide as being no different than any other form of death.

LA replies:

Very good. Even though Saul is dying in the manner of an ancient Roman, in order to avoid dishonor and mistreatment, which seems un-biblical and un-Christian, it is not considered sin.

Daniel S. writes:

Oddly enough, I had been thinking about this theme myself recently. It was brought to my mind after re-reading a pair of articles at Alternative Right from a few years ago, one by Jack Donovan articulating a position defending suicide, and one opposing suicide from a traditionalist Christian standpoint by my friend Mark Hackard. Seeing that you have raised this topic again I thought it wise on my part to consult what previous classical and Christian thinkers have said of suicide, hoping that our tradition could illuminate the subject for us.

The concept of suicide was addressed by the classical Greek philosophers. According to Plato in his Phaedo the followers of Pythagoras forbade suicide. They viewed the body as a prison and that one must be steadfast in serving one’s time, until God sees fit to release our souls. They believed that if one took one’s own life before the appointed time you would incur the anger and punishment of God. (Plato, through his Socrates character, suggest some sympathy toward this view, but doesn’t elaborate further in the dialogue.) Cicero attributes to the followers of Pythagoras this saying: “To leave the place that one is assigned in life is not permitted without an [____] from the leader, who is God.”

The subject is raised again later by Plato in his Laws. He makes a qualified condemnation of suicide in Book Nine. Like the Pythagoreans he suggest that the one who commits suicide is using violence to take his fate out of the hands of destiny and divine providence, it is acting against the state (the Greeks did not view the issue of suicide in purely individualist terms), and is an act of sloth (which the philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us is not merely laziness, but a form of despair) and cowardice. He does say that when denouncing suicide he is speaking of the one “whose hand is not forced by the pressure of some excruciating and unavoidable misfortune”. Such a statement implies that there are certain circumstances in which Plato considered one perhaps excused to commit suicide, but he never clarifies this statement further and soon moves on from the topic.

Aristotle briefly addresses suicide in his Nicomachean Ethics when he discuss the ways a man can do injustice to himself. He says that to kill oneself is a voluntary act, if it is against reason, and thus is not unjust on the individual level. It is however an unjust act toward the city, and is thus dishonorable. Aristotle doesn’t speak of suicide beyond this context, so we don’t know to what extent he applies this principle. Would he make exceptions as Plato did? We simply do not know. (I checked Aquinas’ commentary on the Ethics to see if he provides any further insight here, but he merely repeats what Aristotle said about suicide, and didn’t seem to feel the need to elaborate.)

It is not until the time of Stoic philosophers that we find a treatment of suicide in Western thought on a more individualist level. The great Roman statesman Cicero, who was much influenced by the Stoics, says in De Finibus that if a man’s life is dominated by miseries contrary to nature it is appropriate for him to take his own life. The Stoic Cato the Younger was viewed by the Romans as being quite noble for committing suicide rather than live under the rule of Julius Caesar. Later Stoics like Seneca went so far as to suggest that suicide is a matter of one’s private good. Thus if one’s life is lacking in quality suicide is an entirely acceptable, moral option. The path of escape from suffering is divinely sanctioned according to Seneca: “Wherever you do not want to fight, it is always possible to retreat. You have been given nothing easier than death.” (The traditionalist writer Julius Evola in his book Ride the Tiger spends a page or so providing a sympathetic commentary on Seneca’s view of suicide, which I could quote if others so desire.)

That is a brief summary of the classical view of suicide among the Greeks and Romans. I hope to get a chance later today to outline the medieval Christian positions and then move on to an actual critique of the different views in hopes of finding a suitable answer to the question of suicide (indeed, the only remaining serious philosophical question according to Albert Camus).

LA replies:

This is very helpful. I admire the extent of your reading.

Ed H. writes:

Your recent post about suicide distresses me deeply. Are you receiving no medical attention? What happened to the gastroenterologist? What part of your pain is the delay or inadequacy of the correct medical diagnosis and treatment ? You may have not found the right doctor.

LA replies:

I’ve been getting medical care. Yesterday my pain management specialist gave me a ciliac nerve plexus block. It is a local anesthesia delivered into the center of the body, via the lower back, intended to anesthetize the nerve complex in which I have been getting the unbearable pain in my belly. The doctor told me beforehand that it might not work. Apparently it did not work. During the night the pain returned. This destroyed—at least temporarily—my last and only hope of lasting pain relief. The only options for me now are a variety of oral pain killers. I see my future now as basically incurable intolerable pain. And that is what motivated me to write this entry.

However, the verdict on the nerve block is not final. Perhaps the nerve block is only delayed in its working. (Also, perhaps it is working. For the last three hours, from 2 p.m., to almost 5 p.m., I have been without pain, which may not mean that the nerve block is working, but maybe it does.)

Also, as a friend points out, there may be further pain killing options that I have not heard of. I will get second opinions from other pain management specialists. h

As for the cause of the pain, that is still not known. The favored theory is new cancer implants pressing on nerves. But that seems unlikely since I had gut pain (though not as bad) earlier in this now-seven week episode, and a CT scan on January 9 showed no further spread of the cancer, though it’s possible that it has spread since then.

Mike M. writes:

This is indeed a troubling issue, one with which Christians have struggled. Decades ago when I was a student in a Catholic elementary school we were always taught that people who committed suicide were wrong in that their actions were morally reprehensible, cutting themselves off from the love of God.

I am no theologian or in any way an expert but I take my Christianity seriously. I remained a Catholic for 64 years until a few years ago when I converted to Lutheranism. Both religions, whoever, still teach that the concept of taking one’s own life goes counter to what we normally do, i.e., I avoid stepping in to oncoming traffic, don’t grab live electrical wires, etc. in short, people try to avoid being killed or injured as part of living on this planet.

That said, both religions now emphasize that for someone deliberately to take an action that could end his own life indicates that he is experiencing something in his life that is so serious, so all-encompassing, that the normal reasoning that he would exhibit is being in a sense short-circuited, and that as Christians we should realize that he needs our assistance. We must view him charitably, as suffering from an illness of spirit rather than condemning him. In the case of medical issues, it may well be that a person considering suicide because of a dire situation might eventually find relief in a different treatment or remission of the illness. We should help the person as much as possible and urge him to seek appropriate help and counsel.

Are people who commit suicide forgiven? Forgiveness comes from our belief in the all-redeeming power of Christ’s sacrifice; his sacrifice on the cross opened up salvation for me and all other believers and washed away the punishment for my sin and that of others. Salvation doesn’t depend on my good works and it certainly isn’t dependent on anything else that I’ve done; salvation comes from Christ sacrificing himself for mankind’s sins so while suicide is definitely discouraged we believe as Christians that due to the extraordinary action that is suicide, the antithesis of all that we normally do, the individual who erroneously sees suicide as a solution remains in God’s love.

Romans 8 says: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We live “in the sure and certain resurrection” that God has given.

God told us so. Blessings to you today and always.

Alan Roebuck writes:

Here’s a preliminary response to your suicide post. Although you are referring to the morality, not the legality, it must be said that whenever suicide or assisted suicide become legal, some people are always “suicided” against their will, especially in an era of government-run medicine, where the state wants to control costs. So a legal prohibition serves at least the purpose of controlling “involuntary euthanasia.”

As for the morality, I do know that the basic Christian case is that we belong to God and therefore do not have a right to terminate our lives.

Sterling H. writes:

While part of me wishes to say this issue is best left between a man and his God, I would also refer you to Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who established Jewish safe houses in World War II, and was later sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. In 1978 she suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed and totally dependent on others. She lay in this condition for five years before her death. A strong and independent woman throughout her life, she was tempted to despair by her condition, and no doubt the idea of help in ending her life entered her mind. However, in later communication with others she related that God been closest to her and taught her some of her most valuable lessons in her extreme weakness and dependence. She was thankful she had left the time and manner of her death in his hands. As it happened, she passed away on her birthday, by Jewish tradition the sign of of a special blessing from God. My prayers for you, sir.

Paul K. writes:

I can’t answer your question from a religious perspective, but can only share some thoughts on it that come out of my experience with my mother.

My 96-year-old mother is a devout Catholic who was a nun for six months in her youth. During that time she worked a Catholic home for the elderly. Residents would be served breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a dining room and at the end of meal the tables would be cleared, whether the resident had eaten his food or not. If a resident didn’t come to meals or didn’t eat the food in front of him, that was his choice and nothing was made of it even if it led to his death. When they feel it is their time to go, many elderly people do so by stopping eating. It is a natural and relatively painless way to die and the Catholic facility evidently had no issue with it.

About eight years ago my mother’s senile dementia (or perhaps Alzheimer’s) got to the point that she posed a danger being at home with my father. She ate less and less and began rapidly losing weight. It seemed she felt it was her time to go and consciously or unconsciously she was taking this course. However, we brought her to the hospital where she was fed intravenously and her health restored.

After her return home her delusions grew so severe and her behavior so difficult that we eventually had to place her in an Alzheimer’s facility. Her outlook improved there, but her ongoing existence in that facility seemed purposeless to her. At the end of one of my visits I asked her if there was anything she needed that I could bring her. Sounding unusually lucid, she said, “The best thing you could bring me would be a pill that would put me to sleep and I wouldn’t wake up.”

Was that wrong of her? She has a strong religious faith and doesn’t fear death. She just feels it is time for her to move on.

In the past three or four years, my mother has rarely spoken, and what she says is usually incomprehensible. However, a few months ago she distinctly told me, “I am miserable here. I am ready to die. I could go tomorrow.”

I feel a sense of shame and helplessness that I can’t do anything to fulfill her sincere and reasonable wish. If she contracts an infection like pneumonia, I could ask that she not be given antibiotics, but I know that my older brother would object to that. So her long spell in limbo continues.

Roger G. writes:

I don’t pretend to understand the matter. I have read that people who think they want to commit suicide really want the horrible pain to stop. I sent you my pain articles before; here they are again. Maybe what you need is a doctor who is willing treat the pain very aggressively, while you fight the disease. I think anyone who discourages your use of whatever amount of opioid you need is doing you a huge disservice. First beat the cancer. if the only other issue is addiction, you will beat that later.

Ortelio writes:

The Catholic Church does not teach that life must be maintained as long as possible or at all costs. It teaches that we must not try to end it, that is, choose to do or omit something in order to end or shorten life (one’s own or somebody else’s). But it also teaches that you do not have to undertake or accept or continue treatments that are expensive or burdensome or are futile because they bring no benefits proportionate to the suffering or expense they incur or prolong; and you can make this refusal of treatment even when you know it will result in your early death. This is part of a wider teaching about the relationship between God and evil: God does not intend evil, that is, does and omits nothing precisely in order to bring about evil; he wills to permit evils as side effects of the good states of affairs he does will. Intention is the criterion, to be distinguished from acceptance of side effects even when they are certain. Death can be welcomed—you can welcome your own death, as a relief from suffering and the gateway to a hoped-for better world—but it should never be intended either as an end in itself or as a means. Such intentions open up a new world of doing evil for the sake of good, a world which Christianity judges wrong it to enter.

Alex B. writes:

You are not thinking about yourself, are you? Please don’t do it. You are still needed here.

LA replies:

I am thinking of myself, but I am not thinking of doing something imminently.

A friend called me to say how upsetting my friends and readers found this entry. My response was that my policy as a blogger has always been that if I believe something is true, and if I believe it is worthwhile and appropriate to say, I say it.

Kristor writes:

“Thou shalt do no murder” covers self-murder. So, yes, setting out to kill yourself is always wrong. As mortal sins go, suicide is peculiarly evil, because almost by definition it rules out any possibility of repentance and absolution.

Brandon F. writes:

I can’t speak for Christians or Christianity, which I respect in its higher forms. But I couldn’t agree with you more. So does Schopenhauer:

“They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice…. that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person. “

Brandon F. continues:

After years of serious bouts with depression, even hospitalization for it, I have spent much time thinking about this issue. It is healthy to think about it and our natural desire to live will trump that final solution most of the time. Chronic pain is just as debilitating as severe depression. Judging by what you have said about your health you still may have some good and bearable time ahead of you. I hope you don’t consider it too much right now. You are needed and loved.

LA replies:

Thank you. I am not thinking about it imminently. But I am thinking about it. Last night my view of things and of my own life fundamentally changed. Instead of waiting in unexpressed terror for death to come upon us, the idea of taking charge of one’s life—and one’s death—seemed the better way, the nobler and more virtuous way. This is not my final thought, but I have raised it as a topic for discussion, and of course, I am personally profiting from the opinions and wisdom of readers, which is another great thing about blogging.

Hannon writes:

About the same early point in life as you, I had nearly identical feelings on this subject and still do. Whether the suffering is mental or physical, or both, no one should be encouraged to end his life. But how can someone on the outside know what is happening to another’s innermost being? For the poor soul who contemplates suicide, is it a question of losing faith, or of one’s grasp of rational thought? Possibly neither, but maybe both. Yet if a man has lost his hope then he can regain it.

I recall distinctly when I was about sixteen I was in great despair during a summer otherwise filled with enjoyment. I remember turning inward and thinking about that option, thinking deep down, trying to rationally sort through things. For some reason I held in mind the perceived consequences and not strictly my own suffering. I came to the conclusion that it was not worth it to succumb to the darkness. It would hurt those I loved too much. My thoughts were not about “it will get better,” but rather the immediate damage that would be caused by the action itself. The unknown consequences for myself were undoubtedly a powerful factor as well. This was my last encounter with the sharp end of depression. I believe that was about the same time that an organic pathway to transcendent belief began.

Posted 5:56 p.m.

Karl D. writes:

My personal opinion is that it is not immoral. I believe that suffering and pain are part of God’s plan for us individually as are joy and love. When God throws down the gauntlet of pain and suffering in our lives, it is usually so we can learn from it and come out on the other side. That being said, if there is no other side to come out upon except death, and the pain has become unbearable and untreatable, I see nothing immoral in ending ones life. I simply cannot believe that God would look upon suicide as a sin if the ending was inevitable and unbearable. [LA replies: This has been my personal view since my youth, though I have never discussed it publicly, perhaps because most conservatives and Christians consider it wrong and I was not prepared to argue for my view and against the received Christian view.] I always found that people who are militantly against end of life suicide at any cost are people who have never experienced chronic and excruciating pain. Until they have been in that little corner of Hell they will never understand.

That being said, pain management has come a very long way. Keep trying at it Larry. If you have to go on a morphine pump, go on a morphine pump. Swallow pills by the bucket load, injections, you name it.

All the best and hang in there,

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 03, 2013 09:39 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):