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?