[content warning: did you read the fucking title? Suicidal people, please consider whether it is a good idea for you to read this.]
[epistemic status: I don’t behave as if this were true, but the arguments are reasonable.]
[commenting note: If you wish to comment on this post with earnest recommendations about my mental health, don’t.]
There is a tremendous tragedy in our society today: not enough people have killed themselves.
Naively, one would assume that the individual is best at assessing whether their life is worth living. However, I believe there is a systematic bias in favor of people whose lives are not worth living failing to kill themselves.
First, consider it from an evolutionary perspective. There is considerable selective pressure against committing suicide: if you kill yourself, you won’t have any more children, and you will leave any existing children parentless. Therefore, like most animals, humans have evolved a preference to not kill ourselves, no matter how deeply in pain we are. In my personal experience of attempting suicide, the drive to live live at all costs live prompted by a suicide attempt is one of the strongest and most all-consuming feelings I’ve ever experienced.
However, our society does not leave the evolutionary bias towards life alone, but heightens it. Celebrities routinely discuss how important it is not to kill yourself– from Dan Savage to Lady Gaga to Gerard Way. If you google “suicide”, Google will show you the suicide prevention lifeline; the top results are universally people trying to talk you out of it. Similarly, looking up “suicide” on Tumblr will get you a message about suicide prevention. As a suicidal person, I can attest to the paucity of people who will talk with you openly about your desire to kill yourself without assuming that your desire to die is a cognitive distortion that should be put to bed as quickly as possible.
Information about how to commit suicide is censored to the point of being nigh-unavailable. Books like Final Exit and the Peaceful Pill Handbook are controversial, because how dare anyone give people information that could theoretically cause them to want to die? Similarly, many ‘public health interventions’ consist of nothing more than taking away suicidal people’s ability to control their own destiny. Eliminating coal-burning stoves and thus an effective form of suicide is hailed as saving lives. Today, many advocate for gun control with the same logic.
Of course, any discussion of the social pressure not to commit suicide is incomplete without mentioning the fact that planning for suicide (along with homicidal ideation) is one of the two cases where we consider it acceptable to imprison someone without trial. Fortunately, the crime of saying to a therapist “I wish to kill myself tomorrow, and I have a plan” is only punished by three days’ imprisonment, and such a punishment is trivially easy to avoid, but it speaks to the depth of pressure on the suicidal person not to commit suicide. If I wish to discuss with a trained professional all the options that are on the table– my chance of recovery, my hope for the future, and the prospect that my life will never be worth living– I will never be allowed to do so.
And you’re telling me, looking at all this cultural pressure not to commit suicide, that most people who ought to die do so? Some people report that most suicide attempters are impulsive people who regret it shortly after: of course they are! Anyone who would attempt rational suicide has already been dissuaded by all the people screaming about how rational suicide is wrong wrong wrong and the only moral option is to endure misery until your hopefully early grave.
This pressure not to commit suicide is culturally contingent and not inevitable. As Cicero writes in the De Finibus:
When a man’s circumstances contain a preponderance of things in accordance with nature, it is appropriate for him to remain alive; when he possesses or sees in prospect a majority of the contrary things, it is appropriate for him to depart from life. This makes it plain that it is on occasion appropriate for the Wise Man to quit life although he is happy, and also of the Foolish Man to remain in life although he is miserable. For with the Stoics good and evil, as has repeatedly been said already, are a subsequent outgrowth; whereas the primary things of nature, whether favourable or the reverse, fall under the judgment and choice of the Wise Man, and form so to speak the subject-matter, the given material with which wisdom deals. Therefore the reasons both for remaining in life and for departing from it are to be measured entirely by the primary things of nature aforesaid. For the virtuous man is not necessarily retained in life by virtue, and also those who are devoid of virtue need not necessarily seek death. And very often it is appropriate for the Wise Man to abandon life at a moment when he is enjoying supreme happiness, if an opportunity offers for making a timely exit.
Following this wisdom, Stoics like Seneca and Cato the Younger killed themselves when they felt it was time.
Some will say that suicide is a selfish act, because of the grief others experience. But everyone will die (for now). At some point, my loved ones will experience grief at my passing– or I will experience the grief of having outlived them all. To delay– not to prevent– the pain of grief, anti-suicide proponents ask that the rationally suicidal live in misery for decades upon decades. And somehow committing suicide is the selfish act?
I contend that suicide is the only moral form of death. The death of a happy person whose life was fulfilling and who had many friends? Every one a tragedy. A rational decision, made by a calm person, that the future contains more pain than pleasure in expectation and to a high degree of certainty? Never. Many are not sad when the very old die; they think that they lived a full life and that they would not have had many years left anyway. Surely the loved ones of the rationally suicidal can come to think, “at least they did not suffer, and though I miss them very much, I would not like them to have experienced pain so I would be with them.” Such a kind, selfless attitude may provide them much comfort.
There are three groups of people for whom this argument does not apply. First, chronically suicidal people have no doubt extensively assessed the pros and cons of suicide, and I will not dare to suggest that I know better than they do whether they should be alive. Second, suicidality is somewhat acceptable among terminally ill and incurably physically disabled people; the strength of the stigma on suicide is less, making it more likely (although by no means certain) that those people have an accurate assessment of their situation. Third, parents of children under the age of eighteen may cause their children undue trauma through committing suicide, and thus should wait until their children are grown.
However, many healthy, nonsuicidal individuals live lives of quiet desperation; they may do well to realize that suicide is an option for them. They do not have to continue a life of misery.