The ethics of suicide

Dowie, Suzanne E. (2019) The ethics of suicide. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.
Printed Thesis Information:


There are well established criteria for what constitutes a homicide and under what conditions it is permissible. Since suicide is etymologically and semantically similar to homicide, I argue that deploying the structure of a homicide taxonomy to classify and characterise suicides arrives at a more robust understanding of suicide than alternatives, one that is intuitively plausible, and has the pragmatic quality that it is compatible with clinical assessments of suicide and suicidal behaviour. I show that while suicide may not be the moral equivalent of killing another person, types of suicide can be differentiated according to the same criteria as homicides: intention, mental capacity, diminished responsibility, and foreseeability. Suicides can then be subclassified similarly to homicides according to type: self-murder, justifiable self-manslaughter, voluntary self-manslaughter, involuntary self-manslaughter, and accidental suicide. Some suicides have elements of both homicide and suicide, such as when someone contributes to or encourages a person’s suicide, or when someone kills others when she kills herself, such as a suicide bomber. My view entails that deaths caused by a sublimated death-wish may be a type of suicide, and someone’s behaviour may be suicidal by a matter of degree.

To determine whether an act of suicide is wrong, we must consider the sorts of reasons that people have to kill themselves. I argue that even if we consider that human beings have intrinsic value, it does not follow that all suicides are wrong. On Kant’s view, the maxims that underlie actions, rather than the actions themselves, are fundamental to moral assessment. I show that Kant’s overall moral framework supports subcategorising suicides similarly to homicides. I apply Kant’s distinction between duties to selves and duties to others to show that agents’ obligations pertaining to suicide are only weakly symmetrical to their obligations pertaining to homicide. Kant indicates that duties to oneself and duties to others are not exactly equivalent. We have a duty to respect others’ autonomy, and this means that we do not act upon them as we might do to ourselves, and duties to oneself are not enforceable where duties to others may be. Kant’s position supports the idea that even if a given suicide is wrong, others may not be permitted to forcibly prevent it, and that is not the case with some weakly symmetrical homicides.

Even if we accept that suicide sometimes honours one’s intrinsic value, this may not give adequate weight to the impact that suicide has on others. I argue that role-related special obligations, such as those that parents have towards their children, have contractual elements that preclude permissible suicide. If someone has a role-related obligation to provide continuing care and support, then normally there are strong moral reasons against that person committing suicide. This understands roles as having normative parameters that consist of contractual, voluntarily acquired special obligations. I deploy the conceptual framework of contracts to provide guidance on cases of suicide with respect to role responsibilities. I propose that as we have established criteria for morally acceptable reasons for cancelling, voiding, or amending a contract, we can apply these to the roles to establish grounds for releasing a parent from his role-related and contractual obligations. A parent who is terminally ill, for example, or has other legally and morally compelling reasons for failing to fulfil her role-related contractual obligations, may permissibly kill herself, though she may nonetheless have obligations to her child to find another suitable parent. I argue that the factors that determine culpability for homicides are also relevant for establishing culpability in contractual role-related obligations.

I argue that the conceptual framework of contracts also provides a moral basis for honouring advance decisions to refuse life-saving medical treatment, where a decision pertaining to one’s eventual death as a self-killing takes place over a significant time. This is so, even though metaphysically the moral distinction between killing oneself and killing another person, including a future self, may sometimes break down. I argue that in suicide the agent who kills must be the same agent who dies, or it is not a self-killing at all, but rather a homicide. Nevertheless, we have social and pragmatic reasons for ascribing persisting ‘personal identity,’ and for regarding a psychologically discontinuous self as the same ‘person’ who issued the advance decision, despite metaphysical complications.

The symmetry between homicides and suicides shows that there can be very good reasons for suicide, such as to defend others, or because we value what makes ourselves distinctive and our lives meaningful. Even when suicide is not permissible, it is often not blameworthy, given the extenuating circumstances underlying an agent’s suicide. While classifying suicides may not give comfort to loved ones any more than classifying a homicide as vehicular manslaughter would, it does show that there are many types of suicide, and not all suicides are selfish, senseless, or shameful.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Suicide.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Philosophy
Supervisor's Name: Cowan, Dr. Robert
Date of Award: 2019
Embargo Date: 3 June 2023
Depositing User: Dr. Suzanne E. Dowie
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-73008
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2019 12:29
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2022 08:07
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.73008

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item