Q of the Week: Suicide

The Irish story of Deirdre of the Sorrows ends with a kind of stand-off between Conchobor, the king who loved (or, more acurately, who lusted for) Deirdre, and Deirdre herself, who despises the king. Conchobor had arranged for the betrayal and murder of Deirdre’s lover Naoise and his two brothers, the sons of Uisneach. He locked her in one of the houses of Emain Macha. He composed songs for her, gave her gifts, and practically broke his own heart trying to win the Deirdre’s favour. But she would not have him for any reason. Finally in frustration, Conchobor sends her away to live for a year in the household of a man she despises more than Conchobor himself. While on the way, Deirdre throws herself from the chariot into a ravine, cracks her head on an outcropping of rock, and dies.

This week’s question concerns suicide. In the story of Deirdre, it’s fairly clear that Deirdre’s suicide was deliberate and rational. She concluded that the continuation of her life would bring her only continued suffering and misery, for the loss of her lover Naoise, and for the unwanted (and frankly oppressive) romantic overtures from Conchobor. This, she reasoned, rendered her life no longer worth continuing.

One could look to various other examples too: Samurai warriors taking their own lives in response to a loss of honour; the various “Sacred Kings” described by James Frazer who practically volunteer themselves for human sacrifices, and so on. In cases like these, people choose to die, for reasons that seem to make sense to them (if not to us).

When I discuss life-and-death issues with my philosophy students at the university, I often put the question this way: there are two “base categories” of moral value. One I called the “sanctity of life” view, and it holds that a human life is inherently valuable. Therefore, in any moral decision affecting whether someone lives or dies, the choice to make is the one which preserves and protects human life, no matter what the conditions or circumstances of that life. The other I called the “worthwhile life” view, in which what matters is the quality of life, and the desirability of its circumstances. A life is to be preserved and protected if the person whose life it is desires to continue living it.

The first view, because it prioritises the continuation of human life, rejects decisions like suicide: it holds that a life must always be preserved. Even those whose lives are full of misery and who foresee no end to that misery, should soldier on. Those who opposed the removal of the feeding tube from Terri Shiavo are those who support the sanctity of life view. Probably the clearest and strongest statement of this view is the Declaration on Euthanasia by the Roman Catholic Church. Some of my pagan friends endorse a view like this when they say things like “No matter what your situation, there is always something beautiful happening around you”; the hidden implication is that the benefit of being alive always outweighs whatever harms or burdens one might be enduring, no matter how severe.

The second view, because it prioritises the quality of human life, allows for (yet does not demand) decisions like suicide. It holds that if a life is no longer deemed worthwhile by the person who is living that life, then it is not wrong for that person to end his life. Someone who, because he has an incurable disease that causes him acute suffering, or someone who has lost his friends and family, might decide that his life is no longer worth continuing. People like Sue Rodriguez who campaign for the right to die are proponents of this view. Some pagan friends of mine, although they say that all life is sacred, also say that life is not worth having at any price, and that death is part of life, and death is sacred too, and so that it can be acceptable to plan one’s own death, especially if doing so would prevent the continuation of needless suffering.

Are people who contemplate suicide under something like a moral obligation to “cheer up”, to change how they relate to others, and to find or even invent a reason to go on? Or, are there circumstances, situations, or reasons why, in your view, it is acceptable to take one’s own life? Might there be such a thing as a sacred death? Which of the two base categories of value described here is the strong one in your mind? Or is there some synthesis of the two that you can see? Or is there a third view?

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6 Responses to Q of the Week: Suicide

  1. alfrecht says:

    Alas, this is an inherently contentious issue when it comes to paganism–“noble suicide” has been a bit part of many of the heroic cultures from which pagans draw inspiration…

    This has been an especially contentious issue within certain sections of the Ekklesía Antínoou, because one common theory of historians (based on some further muckraking, scandal-mongering historians of the first few centuries CE whose biased opinions have been read too literally and taken too seriously) is that Antinous’ death was not, as Hadrian said, an accident, nor a murder plot (the evidence for that is almost non-existent, and yet that’s never stopped anyone from creating a theory), but suicide in the guise of noble sacrifice on behalf of the Emperor and the Empire in order to extend the life of both, under advice from the priests of Egypt. Romans, in general, were against the idea of human sacrifice (unless Gauls were involved), but did have some regard for noble suicide in certain circumstances (Cato of Utica, for example). But the insidious thing about the theory on Antinous is that they explain it by saying that he had nothing left to live for, he would have forever been branded as the Emperor’s butt-boy, and could never have lived that down, and therefore in his depression at his lot in life, he killed himself knowing that everyone would read it as a noble sacrifice on behalf of others.

    I call bullshit on this, because that assumes a modern, homophobic view of things as being the reality in the early second century pagan Roman empire. And, even if there were some truth to it (which can’t be proven definitively), it’s a poor theological stance to take nowadays. LGBTQ suicide, especially amongst youths, is upsettingly and disturbingly high enough as it is, we really don’t need anything which suggests that such a suicidal death was “a good thing” and could earn one heroization or deification.

    As someone who is seriously ill, with no health insurance, and as a result a deteriorating quality of life, the assisted suicide issue is also something that is on my mind quite a bit. For myself, I’m saying no to it, because I’m not done with what I want to do, and every moment I can spend doing what I want and what I love is valuable to me, so I’m not going to willingly cash in my chips anytime soon.

    I think this is one of those matters that one can’t really make an across-the-board decision about; every circumstance is different, every person’s situation will be different, and what may be appropriate and honorable and positive for one person may not be any of those things for another.

    • alfrecht says:

      Sorry, in the first sentence that should have been “‘noble suicide’ has been a big part of many of the heroic cultures…”

      (If it were only a bit part, it wouldn’t be such a contentious issue!)

  2. marytek says:

    I can see the desire to take one’s own life, if for medical reasons – like Sue Rodriguez, and countless others where it would be a cruelty to prolong their *physical* suffering.

    But to take one’s own life because of some other situation – psychological issues, not getting the perfect grades, not getting the girl/boy (and that does happen amongst teens as an example), difficult home-life, etc.. that is not a noble death. If they commit suicide it is a selfish act, they couldn’t or wouldn’t get the help they need and if they do manage to succeed in their goal of self-obliteration, they leave people behind who will go through the most difficult torment — why didn’t I see the signs? what could I have done? Is this my fault? Did I put too much pressure on my child/wife/husband?

    I don’t hold to the idea of suicide as being part of the concept known as noble death. Sacrificing one’s self for a colleague/family in war, a shoot out, etc I can see that as a noble death. Suicide either ends physical suffering or is a selfish act.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m not settled on where I am. On one hand, I rejected the sanctity-of-life view after some major consideration, on the event of becoming pro-choice.

    On the other hand, I’m decidedly unsettled on questions like suicide, euthanasia, and so forth. Enough of what I’ve read, namely near-death experiences and several books about Edgar Cayce, indicate that suicide is frequently the wrong option. After winter comes spring. If you give up hope, you can exit the play, but you’ll be on the same stage again in some future incarnation.

    Then again, if someone is basically helpless without technology and caretakers, should they be required to stay here? I’m inclined to think not, but who are we to say who lives and dies? And yet… it doesn’t seem “right” yet, either way.

    I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable with a general rule for these things. I place too great a value on individual judgment, by people who understand the actual circumstances, to wish for an immutable blanket rule.

    Hm. I seem to need some new LJ account that won’t connect my past and present.

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