Suicide & Autonomy

     From an existential standpoint, the morality of suicide is not always cut and dry. Ironically, this is where an atheist has better ground than a deist in regards to arguing against suicide. If the goal of life, a well lived life, is to be a life of Love, then, from an atheist’s perspective, suicide is the ultimate in destruction of relationship. Death, brought about by choice, ends any and all chances of reconciliation. There are no more opportunities to forgive, or redeem, or interact. No more opportunities to live authentically or with existential purpose. By that merit alone, the act of suicide could be labeled as unhealthy and requiring treatment.
     For deists, there is an afterlife. If we apply the same life goal of living Love, then there is another chance. Christian hymns declare this is “not our home” and that Christians are simply “passing through”. The argument I have heard is that suicide takes over what only God can ordain: Life and death. However, God ordained many people to be born deaf, but we invented cochlear implants. God ordained many people to be born with horrible eyesight, but we invented glasses. If the Old Testament is to be taken literally, God was so threatened by a building he confused our languages, but despite this, many people have learned multiple languages. By these examples, it would seem that God has ultimately ordained us with free will. Would it not logically follow that our freedom of will would extend to the self exercising the will. Christians have used this same argument to defend the death penalty. “The criminal knew the consequences of his behavior and decided to commit murder. Therefore, they assented to loss of their own life”. Yet, ability to assent to loss of life is withheld from those who are suffering.

     Which leads me to this question: If I, as an existential therapist, am presented with someone who is suicidal, what is the proper response? Taking Hippocrates into account, at the very least, my job is to first do no harm. Who here has not seen someone in great emotional, mental, and/or physical torment that seemed to exist with no end? Is it harmful to force that person to live when they could easily take their life? By denying a person the right to commit suicide, am I not denying their own autonomy and therefore reducing them to a being incapable of authentic living? And is this act, in and of itself, a form of existential suicide because it automatically denies a person their free will and attempts to force another to relinquish their personal will to the will of another?

     I do not know if this is the right answer, or if there really is one. Some cultures have extolled the honor of suicide. Others embraced euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. There does not seem to be an innate answer. Regardless, there is an incongruence with any society that upholds death penalties while condemning suicide. Here is why: Existentially, life is about potential. It’s why I struggle with abortion, death penalties, and suicide. While this is not the appropriate place for a debate on what does or does not constitute life, it is an appropriate place to talk about existential potential.

     The murderer could go on to become a healer. The sufferer could go on to be healed. While there is nothing, including serving life in prison, a person can do to bring back the dead, there is still time to make their life greater than it was. While there is nothing anyone can do to remove the scars and pain of past trauma, there is the possibility of converting the trauma into a meaningful beauty. There is potential in our pain, our mistakes, and our crimes. There is space for healing, restitution, and forgiveness. Death is the cessation of that possibility. By that fact alone, suicide may be inherently inauthentic as it denies the person their potential and future self.

(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014
Hanging Question

7 Replies to “Suicide & Autonomy”

  1. What is your personal stance, as a Christian, existential therapist, and human being, on suicide? Right? Wrong? Look at it on a case by case basis?

  2. Ultimately, it denies us our own possibilities. For Christians, that could mean denying ourselves the fulfillment of his plan for us. For atheists, that could mean denying ourselves relationship (which I posit is the primary purpose in life). For other religions, it would be the denial of opportunity and the rejection of the gift of life entrusted to them. Suffering can have meaning and purpose. It is no small burden to shoulder. So it is, that in relationship, or burdens become shared experiences which draw us closer together. That's assuming it is a genuine relationship and not one of tacit convenience.
    To that end, I cannot think of a case where suicide would be an authentic expression of self. Rather, it would seem, suicide is an expression of pain. Pain is not who we are and it is a tragedy if someone were to allow pain or trauma to define them. It is a part of us, but that is all. What we do with it, that is what defines us.

  3. Nathan,

    Your question in paragraph 3, "By denying a person the right to commit suicide, am I not denying their own autonomy and therefore reducing them to a being incapable of authentic living?" led me to consult two of my favorite existentialists and thinkers Rollo May and Thomas Merton.

    Rollo May writes of existential freedom as a life giving force when experienced through our decisions. When we decide we are more alive. Merton wrote of freedom as "a gift God has given us in order that He may be able to love us more perfectly and be loved by us more perfectly in return." Merton also stated "a man who fears to settle his future by a good act of his own free choice does not understand the love of God."

    I would argue that suicide is not a life giving decision. In my experience working with suicidal patients, they are often driven by fear, guilt and intense sorrow and not a desire to live authentically. Their overwhelming desire to excape life as they know it probably prevents authentic living and robs them of the awareness that life giving decisions are out there and that "His love is at work bringing good out of all our mistakes and defeating even our sins" (Merton again).

  4. Thank you! Your comment reminded me of Fromm's book Escape From Freedom where he discusses the very issue you reference. That, in an attempt to alleviate anxiety we subjugate our will to others. If we cannot do this, we become lost. Kierkegaard covered this as well in Sickness Unto Death.

  5. Bonhoeffer (in "Spiritual Care") says suicide is a failure of the Christian community, not of the individual. This is often forgotten when the discussion is framed "is it right or wrong" (i.e., should it be condemned or not).

    Bonhoeffer, an astute Biblical scholar, was well aware of Jesus's use of the word "sin", which Jesus clearly (and repeatedly) defined as failure of communities & cultural institutions (not individuals). This was a consistently held Christian belief in John Wesley's writings & early Wesleyanism (who believed that God's prevenient grace cares for & forgives individuals, as in the case of suicide).

    But I find most Wesleyan traditions have done a complete 180, quick to pass judgment on confused individuals, focusing solely on personal morals, but forgetting almost completely the sins of society.

  6. This is probably true, and an argument against it would be fruitless due to the vastness of the statement.
    Instead, and to remain more existential rather than sociological, what is the responsibility of you, Paul, in meeting with others who are depressed, hopeless, or suicidal? What would response be if you become suicidal? Should I curse the failure of the church, or embrace the opportunity to join with you as we search for your personal hope? For a reason to live which is greater than any reason to die?

Comments are closed.