Suicide is a taboo subject. It's hard to raise without creating the impression upon others that there might be something wrong with your life. This alone makes me curious. Why do people have the attitudes that they do about suicide? I'll have to set that aside for another day. Today, I reflect on a related subject, the ethics of suicide.
First I should specify on the sort of suicide I'm considering here. Not all suicide is considered immoral. In some cultures or time periods, suicide was not only permissible, but considered either obligatory or laudatory. I'm thinking of Japanese ritual suicide in feudal Japan or suicide bombers in radical Islamist groups. Some types of suicide is controversial in that there isn't yet any consensus as to whether it is morally permissible. Here I'm thinking of assisted suicide, usually done in the context of terminal illness. The type of suicide I consider here is the type most think of when they hear the word 'suicide.' It is the act of ending one's life in response to what is perceived to be an unbearable amount of emotional pain or suffering. It is essentially an act of despair.
When someone commits suicide, are they committing an immoral act? If so, on what basis? Two dominant ways of thinking about ethics is consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialist ethics says that the morally of an action depends on the sorts of consequences of the action. Deontological ethics says that the morally of the action depends on the obligations of the individual committing the action.
So, let's ask the question about suicide from both perspectives. According to consequentialism, suicide would be immoral if it led to bad consequences. What sorts of consequences are considered relevant will depend on the type of consequentialism that you adopt. The most popular is utilitarianism, which considers the net pleasure or pain generated to be the sorts of consequences that are relevant. So, according to utilitarianism, if the act of suicide generates more net pain than pleasure, then it is considered to be immoral. We can easily imagine cases in which this is true. Robin Williams' suicide probably generated more net pain than pleasure, and would seem to be considered immoral from the perspective of utilitarianism.
However, we can, probably just as easily, imagine cases in which the act of suicide would not generate more pain than pleasure. In fact we could imagine the opposite. If someone is experiencing a great amount of emotional or physical pain, and that individual is not directly related to anyone else, then his suicide would generate less pain than if his life continued. For example, imagine a homeless guy in the grip of despair. He has no family or friends. His death would not be noticed by anyone other than possibly the local coroner, to whom he would just be considered a "John Doe." If he were to commit suicide, then a utilitarian would concede that he did not act immorally.
Okay, let's shift to deontology. Here, instead of consequences, we talk about obligations. The kinds of obligations we are most familiar with are those that we have towards others. A woman who is embedded in a social network probably has a variety of obligations. If she is a mother, she has obligations toward her children. Likewise, she may have obligations as a wife, daughter, sibling, employee, employer, friend, neighbor, colleague, etc. For her to commit suicide from this perspective would be considered immoral because she would be violating or shirking these obligations.
But, what if we were to consider this woman as a lonely homeless individual? It seems in this case that she has no obligations, assuming that she has no family, no friends, no job, etc. In this case, her suicide would not violate or shirk any obligations. Wouldn't the deontologist concede that she is not acting immorally? One might respond by claiming that she has an obligation to herself. What does that mean? What sorts of obligations do we have ourselves and why? How does this square with the sorts of personal freedoms that we have? Do I have an obligations to maintain a certain standard of physical health? Don't I also have the freedom to act in certain ways that might be detrimental to my health, such as smoking, eating junk food, etc?
This leads us to another perspective on morality, i.e. the religious. Perhaps suicide is morally wrong because we have some obligation towards God. What does this mean? Religious individuals, or at least Christians, are pretty down on suicide. Some go so far as to say that suicide damns you to hell. Why? What is the theological argument against the moral permissibility of suicide? Again, is it that we have some obligation to God? In Christian theology, we have lots of obligations to God. Why this one in particular? Why is suicide considered a sin? Notice that not all killing is considered sinful. God commanded the Israelites to basically commit genocide against the Canaanite nations in the Old Testament book of Joshua. It would probably be contradictory act if God commanded the Israelites to kill, and all killing is considered sinful. So, if not all killing is considered sinful, then why is suicide considered sinful?
It might be easy to see why people think that there is something wrong with suicide out of despair. It's tragic and indicates that the world isn't as it should be. But it's harder to see why exactly this sort of suicide is morally wrong. If someone has no obligations and commits suicide out of despair without harming anyone, then how is that individual to be considered blameworthy for what they did? What is ethically wrong with that/