Suicide is defined as “the act of killing oneself purposely”. It is an act wherein you put an end to your own life. Suicide is an enigmatic and disconcerting phenomenon. Because of others' inability to directly occupy the mental world of the suicidal, suicide appears to elude easy explanation. This inexplicability is stunningly captured by Jeffrey Eugenides in his novel The Virgin Suicides. In the novel, the narrator describes the reactions of several teenaged boys to the suicides of five sisters. The boys keep a collection of the dead girls' belongings, repeatedly sifting through them in a vain attempt to understand their deaths. In the end we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn't name. (Eugenides 1993, 246) Undoubtedly, the challenge of simply fathoming suicide accounts for the vast array of attitudes toward suicide found in the history of Western civilization: bafflement, dismissal, heroic glorification, sympathy, anger, moral or religious condemnation. Suicide is now an object of multidisciplinary scientific study, with sociology, anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry each providing important insights into suicide. Particularly promising are the significant advances being made in our scientific understanding of the neurological basis of suicidal behavior (Stoff and Mann 1997) and the mental conditions associated with it. Nonetheless, certain questions about suicide seem to fall at least partially outside the domain of science, and indeed, suicide has been a focus of philosophical examination in the West since at least the time of Plato. For philosophers, suicide raises a host of conceptual, theological, moral, and psychological questions. Among these questions are: What makes a person's behavior suicidal? What motivates such behavior? Is suicide morally permissible, or even morally required in some extraordinary circumstances? Is suicidal behavior rational? This article will examine the main currents of historical and contemporary philosophical thought surrounding these questions.
1. Characterizing Suicide
Surprisingly, philosophical difficulties emerge when we even attempt to characterize suicide precisely, and attempts to do so introduce intricate issues about how to describe and explain human action. In particular, identifying a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for suicide that fits well with our typical usage of the term is especially challenging. A further challenge is that because suicide is strongly colored by negative emotional or moral connotations, efforts to distinguish suicidal behavior from other behavior often clandestinely import moral judgments about the aims or moral worth of such behavior. That is, views about the nature of suicide often incorporate, sometimes unknowingly, views about the prudential or moral justifiability of suicide and are therefore not value-neutral descriptions of suicide. Definitions of suicide are “sometimes dependent on prior judgments about its justifiability” (Lebacqz & Englehardt 1980, 701). Theorists about suicide often fail to divorce questions about whether an act was suicide from whether its motives were admirable or odious. Hitler, most people contend, was clearly a suicide, but Socrates and Jesus were not. (Though on Socrates, see Frey 1978) Suicide still carries a strongly negative subtext, and on the whole, we exhibit a greater willingness to categorize self-killings intended to avoid one's just deserts as suicides than self-killings intended to benefit others (Beauchamp & Childress 1983, 93–94.) Some go so far as to deny the possibility that an act of self- killing motivated by altruism can count as suicide (Margolis 1980). Such conceptual slipperiness complicates moral arguments about the justifiability of suicide by permitting us to ‘define away’ self-killings we believe are...