By Edward S. Harris, Chowan College
For years our understanding of suicide has been commonly defined, as simply, “the taking of ones own life.” Furthermore the word “suicide” in the western tradition has held a negative connotation; most believe that the use of suicide as a solution to a problem is a cowardly act or the action of someone who is not mentally stable. However, over the last century with the groundbreaking research of Emile Durkeim the definition of suicide has proven insufficient. Tom L. Beauchamp has suggested that in order to fully understand suicide properly, we require a morally neutral definition since many different types of action must be noted as suicide and not all actions in which one takes his/her life are morally reprehensible. Along these lines, I propose that we speak of three kinds of “self-killing”: self-sacrifice, accidental self-destruction, and suicide. Each form of self-killing has different implications for ethics. This will assist us in recognizing what situations amount to suicide and assessing their moral implications.
There are a variety of reasons as to why people part in the behavior of suicide. Some people kill themselves in desperation or in a state of depravity while others end up taking their lives in an act of self-sacrifice. Nonetheless, there is much to be learned when provoking consideration of the question of what exactly is meant by and constitutes as suicide. If you were to ask the average Joe on the streets to define suicide for you, he would probably say, “suicide is when a person takes their own life.” Little do they know, just how inclusive such a definition of suicide really is or the historical developments prescribed within the word. What’s more, the word contains within society certain feelings or connotations that strictly inhibit how we are able to perceive suicide. For example, when looking at the end of the movie Armageddon a question arises, do we really want to associate the act of suicide with the act of self-sacrifice. Bruce Willis’s Character at the end of the movie choose to take his life in an explosion on a meteorite in order to knock the meteor off its earth bound path in order to preserve life on earth. The majority of people do not consider such an act suicide and thus show that even though they may see what Bruce Willis character did as self-killing they are hesitant to label it as “suicide.”
A Historical Analysis
Suicide has always been a term that has caused problems in moral understanding. The moral implications and confounded justice of the act has left language frustrated in expression. In the English language, the word “suicide” was developed somewhere around the time of 1651. English society itself has perceived suicide as a wrong against society and oneself. This is reflected in two distinct ways. First, the word suicide itself is a negatively set term. All the prior English terms up to that point also viewed suicide negatively. “Prior to the seventeenth century the English terms for suicide included self-homicide, self-destruction, and self-murder” (Velasquez 1987). In the articulation of the word suicide one can see the continued development of this view. The English word Suicide is derived from the Latin term suicidium, which simply means self-killing. When the term is broken down into its roots Sui- which means self, and -Cide which means to kill, one finds the basic structure. In carefully emphasizing the root -cide in suicidium English culture has taken a relatively neutral word with negative overtones and turned it into an act injustice. We commonly associate the word suicide with similar word constructs such as: homicide, fratricide, and genocide which all have negative definitions. Thus, Indo-European culture describes suicide as a mode of killing rather than a mode of dying which was how it was perceived in Roman culture.
Roman Culture perceived suicide with more of a grayness. Suicide to Romans had both heroic and immoral associations. Suicide was a means of avoiding disgrace for Romans. It was greater to embrace death than to surrender or be punished. This conception of suicide is not a purely Roman Idea; rather, it is a direct result of their embracing of Greek Culture. The ancient Greeks perceived suicide in terms such as: “to grasp death,” “to die voluntarily,” and “To die by one’s own hand.” (Velasquez, 1987) Such phases show a lack of moral consequence to the modern dilemma of understanding suicide. It is much easier to define and holds little or no need for ethical understanding. Suicide was perceived as a positive mode of dying because it spared its participants of disgrace, and in some cases was associated with acts of courage and bravery. Yet, like the modern explanation the Greek understanding still struggles in that the language used to glorify suicide does not address in detail all the many moral questions that the issue of suicide presents. Though, it is a reflection of ancient Greek culture, do we want such thoughts being pervasive in today’s society?
In full light of the opposite perceptions of suicide found in the modern definition and the ancient Greek, one must ask two questions. First, when and where in history did suicide change its meaning? The change in meaning and feeling toward suicide can be associated with the birth of Christianity. The Indo-European understanding of selfkilling stems directly from the development of Judeo-Christian Ethic and its sweeping influence on both culture and the language. No one truly knows exactly where the idea that suicide is an unforgivable sin originated but St. Augustine is considered the most prominent and influential opponent of suicide from the early Church. Later during medieval times so strong was the opposition towards suicide that proper Christian burial was denied to those who committed suicide (Kennedy 1987). Thus, the Judeo-Christian Ethic is responsible for traditional definition reflects this view applying a negativity to the action.
Secondly, If suicide has been viewed as both moral and immoral then whose understanding is right for something cannot be both moral and immoral at the same time. It just such a question that forces modern scholars to sit down and very closely evaluate the term and seek a concise and decisive understanding for the term suicide in order that moral standing can be easily distinguished.
Understanding the Definition and the Possibilities constructs for Suicide
How do we know what acts are to qualify as suicide? As indicated above social attitudes are commonly reflected in a culture’s conception of the term. Such attitudes also seem to be reflected in just how clearly the word is defined. In cultures where suicide has approval there is a strong understanding of suicide. In Japanese culture, for example, there are basically two types of suicide: honorable and dishonorable suicide. Honorable suicide is a means of protecting the reputation of one’s family after a member has been found guilty a of dishonorable deed such as embezzlement or flunking out of college, or to save the nation as in the case of the kamikaze pilots in World War II. Dishonorable suicide is when one takes his or her life for personal reasons in order to escape some turmoil. This is thought of as a cowardly way out of life and a coward can only bring dishonor to his family. Thus, the definition of suicide in Japanese culture is positive and for the most part concisely defined.
In American culture on the other hand suicide typically defined as a person taking his or her own life. Americans consider suicide as a negative action and take it very seriously to the point of making such acts against the law. Americans attitudes towards suicide take on paternalistic philosophy in seeking to prevent suicide. The philosophy assumes that people, who are found in contemplation of or in the act of attempting suicide are in need of help or not in their right mind. It is thus the responsibility of every person to intercede and stop them from committing the act because it is believed that more often than not individuals who attempt such an action are not taking their own wishes into true consideration. Rather, they are trying to relieve themselves of a problem that can be fixed, only at the present they cannot conceive an end to their problem. As a result they need help to survive the trauma. This view is further supported in the fact that fewer than five percent of persons in the US who attempt suicide actually kill themselves within five years of their original attempt, and only about ten percent of those who attempt suicide ever take their lives (Beauchamp, & Veatch, 1996). Therefore in America there is a very negative association attached to suicide as well as, a very broad black and white understanding of suicide.
Putting the Japanese and American views in perspective, a definition of suicide can either be broad or narrow in arrangement. Both types of definitions have good and bad qualities. A broad definition acts as a sponge in that it meets minimal requirements for understanding ambiguously what constitutes as suicide and shows no bias to any cases. As a result, such definitions are all encompassing in nature and easy to understand. For example, if one defined suicide as, “the act of killing oneself,” then as you can see the definition is very easy to understand and observe. On the other hand, such definition is not broken down in a way to examine the uniqueness of certain aspects of the situation or to differentiate between variables such as accidental death and purposive death. Lastly, vague definitions do not help us understand the situation that is being presented before us. It only devolves into the realm of general knowledge (Velasquez 1987).
A narrow definition allows for a stricter interpretation of a term and forces people to closely examine situations which involve the term. Though, on the onset a narrow definition seem more confusing and complex in nature. However, narrow accomplishes much more than a broad definition by focusing directly in on the many variables offered and making stricter criterion for our individual understanding. Whereas, a broad definition, due to its all out exclusiveness can never be focused. For example, when we look at the American culture we have a broad scope of what it means to be an American. On the other hand within America itself we have many sub-cultures such as the Northern, New England, Southern, Southwestern, Californian, Mid-western, Alaskan, and Western cultures that make up as a whole the American culture but if they are not examined independently to meet several restrictions that reflect that group we will never truly understand American culture. Narrow definitions are thus needed to break down and understand concisely what a term needs to reflect. An example of a narrow definition of suicide would be,
“the purposeful act of seeking death and acting upon that purpose provided that such a death is brought about by one’s own act, that those acts are carried out as premeditated, the motives are selfish in nature, an external object is used, and death is actually brought about” (This definition stated above is not meant be actually used but rather is a half truth used to view what a narrow definition looks like).
As can be seen, such a definition is severely limiting in nature and designed to focus in on and clearly give structure to the language. The problem with narrow definitions is that, in being decisive, they leave a void for understanding other types of situations that may be close to the matter but not applicable; thereby, forcing us to create new terms for comprehensive understanding. Both types of definitions, broad and narrow are needed for full understanding and categorization. A broad definition will encompass a larger set of terms and cases, and a narrow definition will help discriminate between conditions such as reason, behavior and situations to give a stronger definition.
The Defining of Suicide in Philosophical Debate.
The traditional or legal definition of suicide was first given serious clarity by Emile Durkeim. Durkeim defines suicide as. “a death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce that result” (Durkheim, 1966). Though this definition is good in many matters; however, there are distinct problems and issues that are not addressed suicide. Paul Beauchamp addresses some of these issues. First, Beauchamp notes that if a person is coerced into taking his life it should not be considered as suicide. If a person is handed a cyanide pill and told that they have a choice to either kill yourself or we will kill your family then it should not be considered suicide if the individual takes the pill. The reason is that person is not an autonomous individual in that case (Beauchamp 1996). The pressure being applied to that individual has limited their ability to choose and only brought the possibility of person self-killing into existence as a result of an external pressure from some other source (furthermore, he is partaking in a selfless act of sacrifice for the sake of his families lives). It is not the will of the individual to with the pill to die; rather, he or she is being coerced to end his or her existence. In another instance a man is blindfolded and taken to the dock where cement shoes are placed on his feet and his hands are tied behind his back. The individual is then told to jump. If he jumps, is he committing suicide, or is he just facing the reality of his situation in that he is going to die in the next couple of minutes anyway? So then, why not jump? In jumping, the person is not committing suicide since his captors will kill him anyway. Rather, the coercion of his situation has him marked as dead and thus murdered. He is not at any point able to escape his execution and might as well be in control of his end than be pushed. His death is immanent and thus, nonautonomous.
Another problem Beauchamp addresses, is when death results from a condition, such as disease. The best example of this is in cases where a person refuses treatment for disease. The individual did not arrange the disease as a means of death but uses it to aide in death, should then the individual’s action be considered suicide? If a person refuses treatment for a curable disease with the intent of bring about death and thus does die, then his or her death may be labeled as suicide. On the contrary, if an individual has been diagnosed with a terminal decease and rather than lengthening his or her life through medicine, seeks to live qualitatively for the remainder of that life then, such action cannot be considered suicide (Beauchamp, 1996). Furthermore, if someone who is diagnosed with a terminal disease recognizes a lack of quality in life due to the disease and seeks to die at home rather than with pipes and hoses in their mouth and thus refuses treatment then refusal of treatment cannot be contended as suicide. Refusal of treatment because of a lack of cure in pursuit of quality or peace is not suicide but rather a way of leaving respectably and allowing a conscious and honorable way in which to saying goodbye.
Another point made against Durkeim’s definition is that of Germain Grisez and Joseph Boyle Jr. They suggest that when a person is in a non-rational state and death is brought about then it should not be considered suicide. This question however does not really disagree with Durkeim. It is fully compatible with all the measures of reasonability within Durkeim’s solution. However, a case can be made to this point that no one is really rational if they attempt or succeed at suicide. The only rationality that should be excluded from suicide are cases were mental inhibitions or lack of knowledge result in the death of one. Such as in cases where a toddler’s ball rolls out into the middle of the road and the toddler chases it and is hit by an oncoming car. The toddler’s intent was first only to get the ball but the child due to lack of knowledge did kill him or herself. Children though are not really autonomous beings in many cases, and due to lack of cognitive or special development can comprehend nor intentionally commit suicide. In another case if a person who is suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia commits suicide because they the voices in their head told them to, then such an act of death cannot be considered suicide. The mentally ill individual who took his or her life was not in a rational state of mind when said action took place. Rather, they were merely responding to internal stimuli that was beyond their control. The underlying cause in both cases is, “the idea that self-destructive acts should be counted as suicide only if they are morally blameworthy and since the acts of a non-rational person are not morally blameworthy they should not be counted as suicide” (Velasquez, 1987).
One last critique of Durkeim’s definition of suicide deals with the question of whether acts of self-sacrifice should be considered as suicide. If a person dies during an altruistic act, is it really suicide? For example, if a soldier is out in the middle of a battle and a grenade drops in his vicinity, and he jumps on the grenade to save the lives of his compatriots, is he committing suicide? NO. The main reason being, is that he did not throw the grenade himself. Rather, it was an outside force with the purpose of inflicting death that is responsible. The soldier merely saw the greater good that would be achieved if he or she altruistically gave up his or her life for the preservation of others. The rationale was virtuous and should not be grouped together with acts where death was brought about as a result of selfishness. In looking at another case where an underground spy during World War II has been captured by the Nazi’s and to prevent himself from giving out vital information during torture he takes a cyanide pill and kills himself. This individual’s action differs from suicide in that he has made a self-sacrifice but death has been brought about by his own measures. Again the answer is no for he is only a victim of his plight and knows that his death will prevent the capture of others and forward the cause. Therefore, he died because of his cause and not because of himself. Even though he knowingly ended his own life purposely and consciously he is only killing himself in a rational manner that is perceived as a betterment of good..
A New Definition of Suicide.
Beauchamp’s definition of suicide is one of the first corrective attempts to formulate a more narrow and solid definition of suicide. Beauchamp states that,
“an act or omission is a suicide if a person intentionally brings about his or her own death, unless the death (a) is coerced or (b) is caused by conditions that are not specifically arranged by the agent for the purpose of bringing about death” (Beauchamp, 1996).
There are several advantages to Beauchamp’s definition. First, the definition is consistent with a long legal tradition of determining when persons are or are not suicides by reference to the definition. Secondly the definition does not prejudge the morality of suicide; rather, the definition is morally neutral Finally, the definition takes into account our reluctance to categorize certain forms of coercion and treatment refusal as suicide.
All of these points are positive except for the idea of suicide being a morally neutral word in modern societies. I do not know of any tombstones where a person died as a result of an act of altruism as saying that here lies _____ ______ who died as a result of suicide. No. Usually such tombstones honor the individual with a word of self-sacrifice other such epitaphs. Most people would reject heroic acts as suicide, for suicide is considered to be an act of internal despair. Suicide is a negative word, and because of its negative orientation it cannot be viewed in a neutral or positive light. Therefore, the socially accepted orientation of the word should be incorporated into our definition of suicide. It is the everyday understanding of suicide that makes it definable.
Velasquez, on the other hand, agrees with Beauchamp on defending suicide as needing to be conceived as a morally neutral term. Velasquez surmises that being by points out several features that are common to all the objections against Durkeim’s definition. Each objection refer to a type of self-killing that is morally blameworthy. Velasquez identifies three reasons why one should not assume that suicide is by definition immoral. First of all, such a definition would preclude discussion of the question whether suicide is ever morally permissible, when in fact; discussion on moral permissibility will always exist. Even if you classify suicide as having negative moral value, it can still invoke discussion as to the ethics of the situation or to the actions themselves. For example, stealing is considered a morally negative word but we can still consider the possibility that stealing may be justified in certain situations. For example, a man who is hungry and has no money or way of getting money may not be blamed for stealing. Similar situations can be said to exist with respect to suicide. One can argue that certain acts of self-destruction are clearly acts of suicide, yet it can also be argued that they are not morally blameworthy (Such as in altruistic and irrational cases). In refutation, altruism and irrational cases are not suicide at all and are not conceived as suicide; rather, are intrinsically different cases all of their own that require their own definition. Cases of altruism, and irrationalism should be excluded from the category suicide because of the kind of agency or mental state that each case involves. In each type of case the agency and mental state are most always different. Altruistic cases differ totally from suicide cases in motivation, and intention. The only commonality between the two is that self-death occurs. Take the case of the person who killed himself to save his family compared to a case where a person has just been dumped by his girlfriend and can’t stand the pain any longer so he ends his life by shooting himself in the head. The motivation of the man dying in self-sacrifice is his love for his family. On the other hand, the motivation of the individual who lost his girlfriend is the not being able to deal with the pain of rejection, betrayal, and the depravity of life without her. One is motivated by love; the other is motivated by selfishness. As far as intentions are concerned, the man saving his family does not want to die but is willing to do so for the safety of his family. While in the case of the man who lost his girlfriend, he intends to die in order to alleviate the pain inside of him.
A New Understanding
First of all, to fully understand the issues that have been presented above there must be an all encompassing and inclusive word besides suicide that can accommodate the variety of different acts associated with the term suicide. One such term, Selfkilling, fits both in language and in context. It is a term that is practically self-explanatory in nature, vague in descriptions, and yet strong enough in language for evaluation. Selfkilling can be defined as: A death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim him or herself, which will produce that result (Derivation of Durkeim’s definition of suicide). This definition makes selfkilling a morally neutral word that is all-inclusive of any type of death, which is brought about by ones own self. It is morally neutral in that it leaves the question of morality and perception up to much more narrow definitions of which divide and separate the different types of selfkilling into positive, neutral, and negative. Positive selfkilling is called self-sacrifice, neutral selfkilling can be called self-irrationicide, and negative selfkilling can be called suicide.
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Self- Sacrifice Self-Irrationicide Suicide
In defining these three terms there are three different elements of understanding that must be incorporated into the definition in order to segment and differentiate the definitions and stay in step with the traditional legal definition of the term. First of all, there is the element of motivation. What has or is motivating an individual to commit an act of selfkilling? The logic or situations that have lead to the point of participating in selfkilling. The second element is intention. What are the intentions of the individual who is willing to partake in selfkilling? Persons who intend to commit an act of selfkilling have both a motive and intent behind their action or in other words a cause and reason for their course of action. The final element is that of causation or the effect of the motive and intent, which in all cases of selfkilling is death. These set of element, thus; align themselves with the theory of cause and effect which states: For every positive, neutral, or negative action (Motivation) there is (Intention) a positive equal or negative reaction (Causation).
The act of an individual that brings about the individual’s own death due to compassionate and/or belief orientated motivation, which is the result of either extrinsic or intrinsic circumstances.
To save someone’s life at the cost of one own
To die in order to protect the lives of others
To go into a situation that will knowingly cause ones death in order to stand up for what one believes (Kamikaze Pilots of WWII good example).
The act of an individual that brings about the individual’s own death due to inexperience, ignorance, or lack of cognitive understanding of a situation, which is the result of extrinsic circumstances.
A infant who hit by an oncoming car while chasing a ball
To get alcohol poisoning (smoking and chance of cancer)
To die not realize how fast one was going while coming off an ramp and smashing into a stoplight
The act of an individual that brings about the individual’s own death due to selfish motivations, which are a result of intrinsic circumstances.
Depravity of life
Temporary Extreme Mental and Emotional Dissonance
Extreme Persistent Physical Pain (usually as a result of terminal illness)
End of life Depression.
Beauchamp, Tom L. “The Problem of Defining Suicide” Ethical Issues in Death and Dying. Prentice Hall Inc. Upper Saddler River, New Jersey. 1996, Pg. 113-118
Beauchamp, Tom L. & Veatch, Robert M. “Suicide” Ethical Issues in Death and Dying. Prentice Hall Inc. Upper Saddler River, New Jersey. 1996, Pg. 101- 105
Durkhiem, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translation: John A Spaulding and George Simpson. New York: Free Press 1966
Kennedy, Thomas .D. “Suicide and the Silence of Scripture” Christianity Today. March 20, 1987
Velasquez, Manuel, “Defining Suicide.” Issues of Law and Medicine 3. 1987. Pg. 48-49