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The act of suicide most likely has been around since the dawn of human history. The reasons that an individual chooses to take their own life run the gamut. Suicide much like other decisions has a litany of moral considerations. It should be noted that many religions actually have prescriptions explicitly against the act. Any steadfast contrarian would question whether suicide can be ethically justified. Some thinkers would even be so bold to address whether or not we have the right to commit suicide.

 

Two marquee names of the 18th century European Enlightenment were bold enough to expound this morbid topic. Although, both came to very different conclusions about ethical considerations of suicide. German philosopher Immanuel Kant viewed suicide to be unquestionably immoral. In contrast, Scottish thinker David Hume struggled to find the immortality within the act. Both taking on diametrically opposing views.

 

Kant not only found it impossible to rationalize the act of suicide. He expresses the utmost censure for those who dared to commit such an atrocity. Kant believes since we were created by God we belong to him. Operating on the understanding that our life is not ours to dispose of on our whim. However, Kant took it one step further by equating the victim of suicide to the level of a lowly beast.

Man can only dispose of things; beasts are things in this sense; but man is not a thing, not a beast. If he disposes of himself, he treats his value as that of a beast. He who so behaves, who has no respect for human behavior, makes a thing of himself.”[1].

Unrelentingly harsh.  Certainly, a severe assessment to make. Especially considering most people plagued by suicidal thoughts are generally psychologically tormented. Kant’s thinking is notorious for being complex and nuanced, but he was quite rigid in the realm of morality. The topic of suicide is no exception.  From Kant’s perspective, if you killed yourself you would no longer be able to engage in moral acts. This highest duty to our self, due to all other duties being contingent upon being able to be moral [2]. If an individual dies of natural causes he did not choose this path. If an individual dies in combat defending his country this is a valiant act of bravery. From Kant’s perspective, the soldier sacrificed his life to spare his fellow countrymen from such a fate. In contrast to selfishly taking one’s life. May alleviate the victim of suicide, but does not help society in any way. It could be argued that suicide inflicts more harm on society making it immoral.

Kant’s perception of those who have committed society is quite brutal. The opposing views of David Hume provide more clemency towards suicide victims. Rather than morally browbeating them. David Hume expressed his views on suicide in the 1755 essay Of Suicide expressing some of the logical fallacies implied in arguments against suicide.  Hume suggests that God allows us to control other aspects of nature, for example harnessing and collecting natural resources. So why would suicide be the one exception (Hume, 1775, p. 3) [3][4]. Beyond that point :

…. divine order’ is meant simply that which occurs according to God’s consent, then God appears to consent to all our actions (since an omnipotent God can presumably intervene in our acts at any point) and no distinction exists between those of our actions to which God consents and those to which He does not. If God has placed us upon the Earth like a “sentinel,” then our choice to leave this post and take our lives occurs as much with his cooperation as with any other actions we perform [5].

 

Hume has addressed the theological concerns of suicide.  But what about the duty to ourselves and others?  The way Hume saw it, you do not harm society by taking your life. You only “.. cease to do good..” (Hume, 1755, p.8) [6]. Almost perceiving the act without any further context is morally neutral. Considering how drastic the act of suicide is this is kind of a far-fetched notion.  Odds are whatever moral contributions we have to offer society are minuscule. It is absurd to stay alive to provide a mere “frivolous advantage” to the public (Hume, 1755, p.8) [7]. Hume also argues that suicide isn’t necessarily an abdication of duty to ourselves.  If affiliated with sickness and other ailments synonymous with advanced age, what is the point of living? To a certain extent, you are existing to endure more misery (Hume 1755, P.8-9) [8]. With such health conditions, you could only prove to be a detriment to others. This could result in more mental anguish.  Making staying alive merely for its own sake fruitless.

 

To conclude, I see some profound problems with both perspectives.  Kant is far too judgmental and rigid concerning suicide. The last thing you should ever do is deride someone for having suicidal proclivities. Chances are it will only exacerbate the problem rather than persuade them to not commit suicide. Also, suppose the scenario where you and your child are held at gunpoint. You are told by the assailant “either take this gun and shot yourself or I am killing your kid”. It may be debatable if this scenario would constitute suicide. If we argue it does, clearly killing yourself would be more moral than continuing to live. While there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, Kant’s moral absolutism can prove to be problematic.

On the other hand, David Hume is far too flippant about the subject as a whole. There are profound consequences that result from committing suicide. I am a fierce defender of individuality. But suicide impacts people other than yourself. The impact is not isolated to you and you only. Friends and family of the victim will be devasted by the unexpected turn of events. People at work depended on the victim. Believing that suicide is morally neutral is a fallacy. I would advise against codifying the moral considerations of suicide in law. End of life decisions should be left to the individual. Especially if they are suffering from a terminal illness. Making something legally accessible doesn’t make it right. Many states have annulled anachronistic laws prohibiting adultery. That does not excuse the moral failings of adultery. However, to humiliate and denigrate those with suicidal thoughts is also wrong. Downright cruel!

3 thoughts on “Hume v.s. Kant- Thoughts on the Act of Suicide

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      Like

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