Monday, 29 April 2013


The instinct to survive is powerful in animals, including us. Suicide requires self-consciousness – a sense of futurity and the ability to imagine (accurately or not) what a particular future might be like. Suicide is therefore (as far as we know) possible only for humans; to be able to commit suicide is characteristically human. (Some animals simply lie down and die in certain situations when survival is in fact out of the question. It is hard to call this ‘suicide’.)

A woman was interviewed who had attempted suicide several times, years ago. She said she was glad the attempts had failed. If one of them had succeeded, we could not ask her, and she would not exist to know, if she was glad it had. She is glad to be alive; she could not be glad to be dead. She had a state of mind when she was attempting suicide; she has a state of mind now, but only because she failed; had she succeeded, she would not have a state of mind.

In contemplating committing suicide, we can legitimately take account of how we feel now, and of how we may feel if we do not (or indeed if we fail in attempting to) commit suicide; we cannot meaningfully take account of how we might feel if we succeeded in ending our life, because we would then have no feelings about anything.

While someone can think, ‘I’m glad I failed in killing myself’, no-one can ever think, ‘I’m glad I succeeded in killing myself’. The former implies a comparison that cannot be made. It is therefore, strictly speaking, mere rhetoric.

It is strictly meaningless to say, ‘I wish I were dead’ because you will not be at all when you are dead. In particular, you will not be aware of any relief you hoped for.

It is not meaningless to say, ‘I wish I did not have to face the future I see before me’ or ‘I cannot bear how I feel just now’ or ‘I wish I did not have to live with the memory of my past.’ The completeness of these expressions points to possible ways of dealing with the desire not to be: change your future, feel differently in the present, and (more difficult, this) deal with your past.

Why do we make efforts to discourage people from committing suicide? It cannot reasonably be to save them from some dreadful condition should they succeed; if they succeeded, they would not be in any condition. Our efforts may simply succeed in keeping them (and perhaps those who care for and about them) in their present very unhappy condition.

It’s hard to see how discouraging anyone from suicide can possibly be for their sake. So it must be for the sake of those who would go on living after the suicide, possibly ourselves. What do we get out of keeping alive someone who is suicidally unhappy? We may succeed in keeping them alive until a time when they are no longer suicidally unhappy, and then we will enjoy their gratitude and other benefits from their being alive. It would be humane to do this only if we could reasonably be confident that the person was likely to recover from suicidal unhappiness. The safe decision would be not to discourage suicide; the result of that is certain, while it cannot be certain that the person will recover from their unhappiness.

Our efforts to discourage suicide may be intended to bear witness to the value of human life in general, and to encourage a general sense of hope rather than an inclination to despair. If so, we should admit that we are trying to prolong, or at least risking the prolongation, the desperate unhappiness of the potential suicide for purposes that have nothing to do with their well-being and everything to do with the well-being of society at large. The desired end to their unhappiness is being sacrificed for the greater good. Is this not perhaps as morally compromised as sending conscript soldiers to risk death for the greater good?

Perhaps dissuading the potential suicide gives us a heady sense of having the power to decide between life and death. Is this different from the sense some killers relish of deciding between life and death?

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