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

 

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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!

A Retrospective View

 

 

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Oddly enough it has been 10 years since I first ever ventured into blogging. I had a humanities class back in Community College that required we maintain a blog. Adding a modern twist to the old assignment of familiar college essay. The course was fixated on life and death. Taught by two instructors. The professor that led the death portion of the class Dr. A. Keith Carreiro left a real impression upon me. He certainly had a “Dead Poet Society” kind of vibe about him. I would also say that he was a little darker and more intense version of Robin Williams character in the 1989 film. He often was irked and perplexed by the disinterest and ignorance of the students in the class. As a now 31-year old University graduate, I can understand his frustration. A man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge was basically speaking to the wall. The insouciance of 18-24 year-olds at times can be astounding. However, Dr. Carreiro I was listening. 10-years later I can truly say that you have impacted my life.

 

He really demonstrated to me the interconnected nature of life and death. Oftentimes our lifestyle determines our manner of death. One salient example being choosing to smoke. On an even deeper life, if we live a moral life we can leave behind a legacy of pride versus memories of regret.  In sense, he posited an indirect form of existential thought. Taking responsibility your life on this Earth will make coming to terms with your mortality slightly easier. Beyond these insights I was also indirectly learned to avoid apathy. To not become Nietzsche’s archetypal “last man”.  Content with the status quo and unwilling to grapple with the bigger questions of life. To have our lives revolve around menial tasks and distractions. Especially in a comfortable society that has an endless cornucopia of “bread-and-circus” veering us away from the pursuit of genuine truth. His class was a jolting and jarring wake up call for me. I would attribute his influence to why I blog about economics and philosophy today.

 

I vividly recall anxiously working on assignments for Dr. C’s course. Overcome by worry I step outside of my basement to my backyard. Greeted by the brisk and stinging wind of New England winter. I pull a crudely made hand-rolled tobacco cigarette from my pocket. Bracing from the wintry gales as I attempt to lit it. Taking my first drag I inhale with consternation. Questioning my own intellectual abilities. I was advised against going to college by my high School guidance counselor. Should I even be attempting transferring to a state school? Then subsequently exhaling figuratively and literally releasing my trepidation of the unknown. In a sense mirroring ontological confrontation. Aside from smoking being a well known cause of death, for the record I quit 7 years ago. Death is unknown. Much like the further. The uncertainty fuels our fear.

 

Ten years older, ten years wiser I know understand that both the future and death are immutable fixtures of life. They are unpleasant truths that we must reluctantly embrace.  Neither can be dispensed with. Uncertainty doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. Three years later I took responsibility for my health by quitting smoking. All because death in inevitable doesn’t mean we can try to live well while on this planet. That is a sentiment that I know Dr. C. could agree with. Lets live well emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. After all, time waits for no man. This isn’t a dress rehearsal, life is happening now!

 

I would be the first to say that I am far from being totally enlightened. There is still a lot of learning that I have to do. I still fall prey to certain distractions in life. I do enjoy moderate consumption of craft beer, whisk(e)y, and martinis. I do watch NFL football. Self-improvement is a work in progress. However, I do read a lot more and get plenty of cardiovascular exercise in these days. All we can do is strive for better. Once we settle for resting on our laurels that is when we run into the danger of becoming the “last man”. We should always be aiming to be the better version of ourselves. Perfection is unattainable therefore all we can do is try.

 

Here is the link to my blog for the course.  Certainly not my best work. I was a far cry from a young Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken. However, it was my first sincere attempt at exploring one of the major mysteries of life. Considering we in contemporary American society don’t have much of a context for addressing such inquires, I think I did okay.

 

Is Nothing actually Something?

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It could be argued that the concept of “nothing” is something of a misnomer. Nothing is interestingly enough quite easy to quantify but difficult to characterize. It mirroring its conceptual reciprocal infinity. In colloquial speech, we tend to often misuse the word “nothing”.  If our mailbox is empty we are tempted to say “There is nothing in the mailbox”. However, is this actually true? Not technically. While there may not be any mail inside the mailbox it does contain other things. Such as the air, microorganisms, and even the atoms comprising the internal structure of the mailbox. From more of a finetuned perspective saying that the mailbox contains nothing is grossly inaccurate.

 

Many of you are probably thinking “who cares”! I am being too pedantic. How we speak is generally figurative anyhow. Some may even believe that such inquiries are a hair above semantics rather than true philosophic discourse. I recently read an essay published in Philosophy Now that has inspired this blog entry. The essay in question is entitled  An Essay on Nothing by Sophia Gottfried. Gottfried details how existence is often addressed in philosophical discourse and absence of existence is generally not. Sure nihilism addresses the absence of moral values, but few philosophical schools examine “nothingness” in its totality.

She touches upon an excellent point, we have profound difficulty comprehending the concept of “nothing”. Even for the nihilist, the proclamation of an absence of moral convicts is still moral convictions. Even for the anarchist, advocating for the absence of a formal government is still a policy prescription. We encounter the paradox of nothing actually being something. Gottfried explains how to some extent we do have some ontological apprehension of thoroughly thinking about a pure state of “nothing”.  As she states :

Death, the ultimate void for humans, makes people uneasy for obvious reasons: all that they are will be forever reduced to a blank space felt only by loved ones… and even that absence will someday be forgotten. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) [1].

 

 

Throughout human history, religion has attempted to provide answers to the mystery of the afterlife.  Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Are we reincarnated? Even atheists have expressed discomfort with the potential of their human essence dissipating into oblivion. Death is unsettling because it is a conspicuous reminder of our potential for nonexistence. No frontier is more unchartered as the other side of the slivery brook. It is difficult to fathom nonexistence when existence is all that we have known. Just about every thought we have cannot adequately reflect a pure conception of nil. Because our thoughts are still something, they are still concepts, constructs, assumptions, language, etc.

 

The problem extends beyond the human mind having the faculties to properly understand the pure absence of everything. How can we ponder the enigmatic truths of death if we can’t even cope with awkward silence? In social situations, people are distressed by the absence of conversation. Mind you not the absence of sound (background noise), but the lack of verbal communication. When compared to the concern of the end of existence is much more trivial. This fact would further substantiate the point that humans are fundamentally uncomfortable with the concept of nothing. Both intellectually and emotionally. The absence of something has been allotted a myriad of negative adjectives. It is synonymous with awkwardness, loss, misfortune, death, immorality, chaos, ineptitude, etc. Rather shouldn’t “nothing” be viewed as value-neutral? After all, the numeric expression of nothing operates as neither a positive or negative integer. If “pure nothing” is actually neutral, we are merely projecting our own negative perceptions on the phrase/ state of being. In a pure state of nothing, there aren’t any negative characteristics to make attributions of.

 

It would be reasonable to question how we as a species have ended up engaging in this fallacy. Thankfully, Gottfried has provided some insight into the potential reason for our potential misconceptions about the idea of “nothing”.  She divides nothingness into “perceptive nothingness” and “pure nothingness”. Outside of an astrophysicist who studies black holes the vast majority of us have a very weak understanding of  “pure nothingness”. At least they would possess the foundational knowledge required to expound upon such a concept. When the average person uses the term “nothing” it is more from the standpoint of “perceptive nothingness”. Which is defined as:

 

The nothingness is a negotiation of expectation: expecting something and being denied the expectation by reality. It is constructed by the individual mind, frequently through the comparison with a socially constructed concept. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) [2].

 

This explanation sheds some light on how we tend to misapply the concept of “nothing”. It is an attempt to reconcile aspects of reality that depart from our expectations.  Let’s say that you reach for your wallet and that you have no money in your wallet. Colloquially we say ” I have nothing in my wallet”. This is a severe overgeneralization. Even if we avoid distilling it down to the hyper granular level of the molecular, there isn’t truly nothing in your wallet. You are ignoring all of the receipts, coupons, etc. that are physically in your wallet. Nevermind the air and the constituent molecules that comprise the leather that lines the interior of your wallet.

 

In my opinion, “perceptive nothingness” is merely a heuristic to help us better navigate the mental complexities of our world. It is quicker and easier to perceive the mailbox as empty rather than further dissect the actual contents down to the molecular level. The mailbox isn’t truly empty. It would be efficient or cognitively adaptive for every person finding it necessary to get that specific. Especially when odds are you have concerns that are of higher priority than whether or not your mailbox is truly empty.