The Moral Permissibility of Suicide
May 31, 2013
The Moral Permissibility of Suicide
The act of taking one’s life and the absence of morality in doing so has been argued since the time of Plato. Whether one approaches the argument in a Deistic perspective or an Atheistic perspective, there are various views surrounding the argument. This essay will explore philosophers from the various periods and their theories on the moral permissibility of suicide.
Suicide cannot be definined singularily as suicide. According to the Marriam-Webster dictionary, “suicide is the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionaly especially by the person of years of descretion and of sound mind.” The act of self-killing can be caused by an accidental death, an intentional death, or an intentional death for a righteous cause. An accidental death is the instance where the individual does not intentionally take their life but do so in an unintentional fashion. For instance, if a man were cleaning a loaded firearm and accidentally sent a bullet through his skull you could not categorize the circumstance as suicide. He did not intentionally fire the weapon that sent a pellet of lead into his cranium; therefore the event cannot be defined as suicide. The intentional self-killing is classified as suicide for suicide is defined as intentional self-killing. Lastly there is the intentional self-killing for a righteous cause. A relevant example of this form of self-killing is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, for He intentionally and knowingly permitted himself to be crucified upon the cross for the sake of humanity.
The ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle were some of the first philosophical thinkers and theorists to question whether it was morally permissible to take one’s own life. Plato stated that suicide is disgraceful and its perpetrators should be buried in unmarked graves. (Cholbi, 2004) Although his words are harsh, Plato stated four exceptions to this statement:
“(1) When one's mind is morally corrupted and one's character can therefore not be salvaged, (2) when the self-killing is done by judicial order, as in the case of Socrates, (3) when the self-killing is compelled by extreme and unavoidable personal misfortune, and (4) when the self-killing results from shame at having participated in grossly unjust actions.” (Cholbi, 2004 Sect. 2.1)
Aristotle on the otherhand wrote a very miniscule amount of work on the morality of suicide and was slightly vague with regards to the topic. He states that self-killing does not treat oneself unjustly so long as it is done voluntarily because the harm done to oneself is consensual. Aristotle later concludes that suicide is wrong towards society but as the philosopher Miehael Cholbi describes, Aristotle does not explain what exactly the wrong the individual commits. In conclusion both Plato and Aristotle have parallel views on suicide being a wrong towards society. Cholbi made an interesting comment on both Plato’s and Aristoltle’s views on suicide by stating that they both had no concern for the suicidal individual’s well being. They largely focus on the individual’s role and affect on society and not the individual themselves. (Cholbi, 2004 Sect. 2.1)
The next period we will dive into is the Christian Prohibition. During this period Christian philosophers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas collectively agreed that suicide is not morally permissible and is a sin towards God. Although the Christian Scripture does not directly condemn suicide, Augustine saw the restriction of self-killing as an extension of the fifth commandment:
God's command ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ is to be taken as forbidding self-destruction, especially as it does not add ‘thy neighbor’, as it does when it forbids false witness, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’ (Cholbi, 2004...
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