When Is Suicide Morally Right?

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be read and understood as a discussion on the moral permissibility of suicide. It is not to be understood as an incitement to any action that is contrary to the laws of the jurisdiction in which the reader lives.

Welcome to part three of our series on the morality of taking life. This article will continue our exploration of this complex and sometimes distressing subject with an examination of the moral issues surrounding suicide in Codist thought. As with the previous parts of this series, we will endeavour to follow wherever the logic leads us without concern for traditional morality or sensitivities. As such, and as this article will be dealing with the vexed issue of suicide, reader discretion is advised.

To understand this article, suicide must be viewed through the lens of the moral neutrality of the act of killing in Codist philosophy. The act of killing either a person or an animal is neither right nor wrong in and of itself. Instead, it is the consequences of acting or not acting that make it morally right or wrong. To this end using we use the Moral Decision-Making Framework to examine the likely consequences of each choice, looking to see if the outcomes will be positive, negative or neutral to us and our families (RP1’s), and if the consequences will be harmful to our communities. No differentiation is made between killing another being or killing oneself in this moral code. Rather, in each case, a negative outcome for either our families (RP1’s) or our communities is only allowed if it is essential to avoid a worse outcome.

Suicide is a hard subject to discuss. Most of us have lost friends or family members who, propelled by despair, have taken their own lives. When thinking, writing or talking about this subject, it is impossible to not think of them. To see any statement that is critical of their choice as a judgement of their character or as a repudiation of the pain that they ‘selfishly’ inflicted on those close to them. However, in forming a complete judgement of when the ending of a life is morally justified, we cannot turn away from this subject. We must, despite the pain of revisiting this most painful of subjects, be courageous and proceed. Asking, is suicide ever morally justified?

When is it Permissible?

Whenever you ask if suicide is ever justified or even sometimes the honourable choice, the response is an immediate and visceral no. Though, if we think on the subject for a while, we will be presented with a couple of counter-examples. Firstly, the example of a terminally ill person dying slowly in agony may appear, and we may wonder, is it not ok for them to take their own life rather than prolong their suffering?

Terminal Illness

If we were to suffer from a terminal illness that was slowly and painfully killing us, it would be natural for us to wish for the release of death. Yet, the future is never certain, and even diseases that seem to offer only a slow and agonising death for sufferers at one moment may go into remission or be cured in the next. Death, however, is, as far as we know, final and irreversible. Thus, when we are talking about suicide, we are talking about balancing the possibility of future recovery or improvement with the negative impacts of the infirmity on the individual, their family and the community. Let us imagine a condition that is incurable, extremely painful, and will be fatal within a year or two (so the chance of a cure being developed is negligible) and see if we can discover if suicide is a reasonable option.

In this case, death is certain, and thus the only question is one of when and with how much pain will the individual die. If we only needed to consider consequences to the individual, then suicide would be completely justified if they so desired. In this ‘individualistic’ scenario, the sufferer would be free to determine that on balance, the value of the suffering involved in continuing to live was greater than the value of the joy of existence and thus choose to die. However, our duty is not to ourselves alone.

We have a duty to promote the long-term welfare and survival of our families and communities. Thus, before we can ‘free ourselves from suffering’, we must consider how our death at that moment would affect firstly our families and secondly our communities. We must answer the question: if we were to survive another year, or even another day, could we contribute to our families or our communities positively or not?

This is an extremely hard question to answer as we can contribute to our families and communities’ welfare in so many ways. We can contribute simply by being there to listen or provide advice. Our illness can itself bring a cure closer by contributing to the knowledge of the disease. Our sufferings can be valuable as an example for others how to live a worthy life even in the midst of great pain. Even our deaths can be instructive. Yet, by lingering on, we can also cause greater suffering and trauma for those we love. We can dissipate our assets, which could have contributed to our families’ welfares. Or worse, if we lack the resources to fund our own care, we can become a burden on our families, harming their long-term welfare simply to cling to life. Therefore, what choice is the right one must necessarily be dictated by the individual circumstances and the judgment of the individual in question.

In cases where death is less certain, or the progression of the disease is of longer duration, it would seem that the balance between the benefits you could provide to your family vs. the potential harm would tend to fall more strongly on the side of continuing to live. This is principally due to the same logic that compels us to prioritise (all things being equal) a younger person in place of an older person; that with greater time comes greater potentiality. Therefore, in the case of a terminal illness, the nearness of death should be a deciding factor in calculating the permissibility of suicide, with the shorter the expected interval before death or dissolution providing greater confidence in the soundness of the judgement. In other words, if you could be certain somehow that you would die the next day and that, on that day, you would not be lucid and thus could not possibly contribute to your family, it would be morally permissible to kill yourself.

But this is not generally possible with death being both gradual and then sudden. Further complicating matters is the phenomenon of terminal lucidity (Carins, 2021; Nahm, 2011). This is where a dying individual will ‘abruptly become more alert and energetic for an indeterminate period preceding their death’. These lucid moments, when they happen, seem to be very impactful for the families of the dying—seeming to offer both the departing and the bereaved a last chance to communicate. If this tips the balance towards waiting out death, I cannot answer; however, the possibility of contributing positively to your family at the last moment cannot be discounted.

As a rule, the Moral Decision-Making Framework (MDF) and the related prioritisation rules provide the best guidance in these situations. The MDF allows suicide only if, in the sober judgement of the individual, killing themselves is essential to prevent a greater harm from occurring to their children or themselves (RP1’s), with particular weight being placed on the immediacy and irrevocability of the harm. I.e., it is morally permissible to end your own life if you can be confident that to die then would result in the same or less harm to your family than dying later, and if the contiguity with death is immediate and definite.

Permanent Disability

Of course, there are also diseases or injuries that, while not being fatal, leave the individual permanently severely physically and/or mentally disabled. In these cases, it is also natural to wonder if death would be a better option. Similarly, consideration must be given to the effect of the individual’s death on their family and community. It seems clear that the form and level of disability experienced must be the primary determiner in this judgement. Mental disablement being the most consequential, followed by physical disablement.

Essentially, the question comes down to if the individual is able to positively contribute to the welfare of their family and community or not. Effectively, the same test as was proposed in part two dealing with the abortion of disabled children is applicable here with suicide being morally permissible where the individual’s disability is significant enough that they will require full-time care throughout the entirety of their life and their death will result in the same or less harm to their family.

To Protect Others

Another situation that presents itself when we are considering the permissibility of suicide is the rather theatrical situation when a soldier throws themselves on a grenade to save their comrades. While this particular situation is rare, it raises the question of whether suicide is morally justified to save others’ lives. Considering the prioritisation rules, it would seem that it is permissible in two circumstances.

To Protect Your Children

In the first instance, as your children have greater priority than you, if it is essential that you sacrifice yourself to protect them, it is not only permissible but required that you do so. This is a natural impulse in most parents and can be seen in the instinctive way, where they shield their children from danger with their bodies or in the self-sacrificing behaviours many animal species manifest. The key element in this sacrificial suicide is its necessity. I.e., to not sacrifice/kill yourself would result in your child/children being killed or harmed.

To Minimise Harm

The second situation where sacrificial suicide is permissible is where death is both inevitable and immediate for yourself and members of your family or community. But, by sacrificing yourself, you can reduce the harm to others. This is the classical throwing yourself on the grenade situation. As both acting and not acting will result in your death, the choice devolves down to one of harm minimisation. As not acting will result in greater harm than acting, you are compelled to act. It’s worth reiterating that this is an option of last resort, to be taken only when your death is inevitable and sacrificial suicide is the least bad option. If you are able to save yourself, you should always do so even at the cost of other people’s lives (except in the case of your children). Thus, sacrificial suicide is only a morally justified option if you will die either way, but by sacrificing yourself, you can save others.

Moral Decision-Making Framework

Figure 1 Moral Decision Making Flow Chart Suicide

When it is not Permissible

Thus, we have four situations where it is morally permissible to kill yourself. In each case, suicide is only permissible as it is essential to avoid greater harm to others:

1. Where you can be confident that to die then would result in the same or less harm to your family than dying later, and if the contiguity with death is immediate and definite. I.e., you will definitely die in a short period of time (<1 year) with or without your interference.

2. Where you suffer from a permanent disability that requires full-time care for the remainder of your life and your death will result in the same or less harm to your family.

3. When it is the only way to protect your children, i.e., those with a higher priority to yourself.

4. When your death is certain and near, but by sacrificing yourself, you can minimise the harm to others in your family or community.

In all other situations, suicide is not morally permissible. No matter how old or sick they are, the death of any person is always harmful to their family and community. It robs them of that person’s knowledge, experience, and most importantly, whatever they could be and do in the future. However bad a situation seems, remember that life is like a game of chance. You might be losing now, but tomorrow, your luck may turn, and everything may be different.

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