12th April 2011
There is no “fundamental right” to suicide!!
From the issue of the Anna Hazare fast to death came the absurd argument from Bhagwad Jal that there is a fundamental right to suicide. This deserves a separate post. Here's my response.
Bhagwad Jal's argument:
I am indeed saying that we have a fundamental right to suicide. And you're wrong when you say that no major philosopher has agreed with suicide.
Indeed, the right to suicide is the most basic right of all. Without the right to commit suicide, none of our other rights is worth having. If freedom is a value, then the suicide is the ultimate freedom. One of the definitions of freedom is self ownership. If that is so, then the right to end the ownership of the self is a natural consequence.
The very fact that Gandhi was willing to go on a fast unto death meant that he was comfortable with the idea of ending one's own life by one's own free will.
Also, you're making an error of causality. One is responsible for one's own actions. If A threatens to commit suicide based on whether or not B does something, then A and A alone is responsible for their choice to kill themselves. Unless you can show that A loses the power to choose whether or not they want to kill themselves, B is in no way responsible for the choice that A makes.
Suppose a parent threatens to kill themselves if their daughter marries outside their gotra (or whatever.) Is the daughter responsible for the death of her parent? Such a position is absurd since it's the parent's choice to kill themselves which is more fundamental.
There is no right to suicide in the classical liberal school of thought that promotes LIFE and liberty. Liberty taken to the extreme is called libertarianism and fanaticism that contradicts itself and ties itself up in knots.
I have argued extensively (and in my view conclusively) against the freedom to commit suicide – given that of the 10 million suicide attempts each year in the world the overwhelming majority are by mentally distressed people.
As I have noted in DOF (still a draft manuscript):
Our lower and mid-brain can, of course, in moments of extreme emotionality, lead us dangerously astray, even to suicide. We remain the only animal known to take its own life.
Had we created our life we might have possibly held some such claim, but we cannot give claim the right to destroy a human life (ours) that we didn’t create. Note also that if suicide were acceptable then arguments against suicide-bombing would weaken considerably (for how would it matter to us – if our death by our own hands is admissible – if we also unleash death on others while on our way out of this world?). On the other hand, however, euthanasia under controlled conditions is justifiable in at least a few rare cases.
Further, in DOF (note that there are many more aspects of suicide and such things discussed in DOF. This is merely a key extract)
Not free to injure ourselves
Some aspects of morality are culture-specific, but it does appear, at the broadest level, that all conceptions of morality hinge ultimately on these two propositions. In that sense, Albert Schweitzer’s approach (sanctity of life) is useful as long as we don’t go overboard. Together, life and liberty form the basis of all moral questions. Both the Golden Rule and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative reflect these two basic principles (Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’; Kant’s categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’).
What happens if these two propositions come into conflict? Are we free, for example, to harm ourselves? More bluntly, can our liberty be permitted to destroy our life? I explore this difficult issue at some length, below.
We are the only creature known to take its own life. Although behaviour that resembles depression is displayed by some primates cast out from their tribes, no other creature consciously and deliberately self-destructs. Since no predominantly rational argument can be made in favour of suicide, its existence should be considered as the price we (as a species) pay for our complex brain that can generate mixed signals. Suicide can only be motivated when conflicting signals from the mid- and lower- brain – emotional distress, depression, or guilt – mingle with our higher brain capacity to plan and enact self-destruction. No healthy and wealthy person has yet been born who has gotten up from bed one fine day to ‘rationally’ declare: ‘I own a healthy body and happy mind, thus I have the theoretical option of killing myself. And so, today, instead of going on my planned holiday with my beautiful wife and children whom I adore, let me go and kill myself’. This never happens. Someone who is healthy and happy never commits suicide.
The existence of suicide, indeed the monotonous statistical regularity of the world’s suicide rate, poses a serious conundrum to philosophy.
Suicide rates in USA and India are both being quite high and thus clearly unrelated to the level of wealth or freedom.
Overall, between ten to twenty million people attempt suicide globally each year, of which about a million ‘succeed’ in killing themselves. This means about 100 million people committed suicide in the 20th
century. Indeed, ‘More people die from suicide [in an average year] than in all of the several armed conflicts around the world’
(noting that this claim doesn’t quite match the rate of war and genocide fatalities reported by Rudolph
Emotional factors that can lead to suicide are matters for sociologists and psychiatrists to investigate and address. I want to examine underlying philosophical issue. Does being free give us the option to commit suicide?
David Hume (1711-76) thought it does, arguing that ‘no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping’. Also: ‘I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expence of a great harm to myself; why then should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?’
Hume assumed that people rationally determine whether their life is worth prolonging. But no suicide (excluding euthanasia) is based even remotely on rational thought. It is irrational – under almost all circumstances – to not
strongly defend one’s life. Hume perhaps had a spell of irrationality while thinking about suicide!
Nozick’s strong version of self-ownership also affirms his right to suicide. Even J.S. Mill seems to suggest that this may be the case. Thus, he writes:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [bolding mine]
Clearly, if we were to possess absolute self-ownership, then we must have all rights to deal with our body and life as we please, including the ‘natural’ right to euthanasia. But Mill fails to confirm this. For instance, he
denies us the liberty to dispose ourselves into slavery: ‘The principle of freedom cannot require that … [a person] should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate … [a person’s] freedom’.
And if we are not free to become a slave because that alienates our freedom, we can’t be free to commit suicide – for that would alienate all
our future freedoms. Mill also wanted the state to intervene and abolish (the purportedly) voluntary act of self-immolation that some Indian women undertook on the funeral pyre of their husband (sati):
Suttee, or the voluntary burning of widows on the funeral piles of their husbands, after having been long discouraged by every means short of positive prohibition, was finally made a criminal offence in all who abetted it, by a legislative Act of Lord W. Bentinck’s administration, and has now entirely ceased in the provinces subject to British administration. … Various other modes of self-immolation practised in India,—by drowning, burying alive, or starvation,—have been, with equal success, prohibited and suppressed.
And so, Mill’s view of self-ownership did not translate into a right to suicide (effectively nullifying the concept of self-ownership). Rawls and Nozick both supported ‘rational’ euthanasia. Rawls too advocated personal property, including a weak form of self-ownership (recall that he believed that our talents belonged to the entire society). Therefore he agreed with Nozick on this matter. But both then restricted this further. Reasonable restrictions could be imposed, they said, to prevent irrational euthanasia. Thus, the ‘[s]tates have a constitutionally legitimate interest in protecting individuals from irrational, ill-informed, pressured or unstable decisions to hasten their own death.’ For grievous self-harm to be a valid moral option, the decision must at least be made rationally, and thus in full command of one’s faculties. One should provide a coherent, detailed justification of the self-harm proposal. Nozick thus ruled out the ‘right’ to emotionally driven suicide, weakening if not entirely destroying his self-ownership claims.
John Locke was explicitly against suicide.
[T]hough this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of License, though Man in that State have an uncontroleable Liberty, to dispose of his Person or Possessions, yet he has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it. [emphasis mine]
Kant’s categorical imperative would automatically reject suicide. Suicide would be permissible only if it is good for everyone else in the world to do so! Suicide is thus necessarily immoral. It also violates our accountabilities (refer: Proposition 3), because it can harm others in many ways, not just psychologically. An unsuccessful attempted suicide can permanently disable a person, such as by damaging the brain, and thus impose a significant economic burden on the (consequently) disabled person’s family. This could then lead to a demand from the family on taxpayers. On the other hand, if (say) a young person successfully commits suicide, he would have destroyed the time and money invested by his parents in bringing him up, not to speak of the severe emotional loss involved. We do not get to choose to be born, but we do become accountable for our actions if we were happy upon birth. Since I have yet to come across any infant who does not display genuine pleasure in his life, we all become accountable for our parents’ investment in upbringing us up. The free society must therefore impose brakes on our alleged ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ to kill ourselves.
Our innate physical animal power to destroy ourselves can’t ever be taken away (except through imprisonment – and even that does not guarantee this), the free society can prevent suicide by providing emergency counselling services as part of a publicly funded social insurance scheme. This service should assist those who are emotionally distraught and actively considering suicide. When the rational circuits of the brain of a suicidal person become overwhelmed with emotion, it may even be necessary to temporarily lock up this person, for the defence of life must necessarily take precedence over the claims of liberty.
Cited in Anton-Hermann Chroust, ‘About a Fourth Formula of the Categorical Imperative in Kant’ in The Philosophical Review
, Vol. 51, No. 6, (Nov., 1942), pp. 600.
, Chapter 1.
Mill, J.S. , ‘On Liberty’, On Liberty and Other Essays
, Oxford: Oxford University Press, World Classics Paperback 1991, p.114.
Locke, in his second Treatise.
Euthanasia needs a lot more work before it can be accepted: "Studies of those who sought out Kevorkian, however, suggest that though many had a worsening illness, cancer perhaps or a neurological disease, it was not usually terminal. Autopsies showed five people had no disease at all. Little over a third were in pain. Some presumably suffered from from no more than hypochondria or depression." [Source