The Philosophical Lens (June 2018): Why Defining Suicide is Difficult

the philosophical lens

This month I’ve decided to try something new. Rather than do a round-up of stories from various philosophy related publications, I’ve decided to develop a new segment covering a broad contemporary issue in society from the perspective of philosophy. This month’s topic will be about suicide. If you liked Philosophy in the News, don’t worry, I intend to resume it sometime; however, for the time being you can follow @Philosimplicity on Twitter where I’ll share interesting philosophy articles worth reading. Previous Philosophy in the News segments can be read here.

Early in May, renowned ecologist David Goodall left his home in Australia to go to Switzerland where he could legally be provided assisted suicide. He was 104 years old when he died. The attention surrounding Goodall’s decision presents a case study that has allowed the public a rare opportunity to discuss the philosophy of suicide without necessarily offending common sensibilities. I’m aware that this is a grim, controversial topic at a time where — at least in America — suicide has become a growing issue that even the famous and wealthy aren’t immune from. As a disclaimer, I’ll state that this post is for educational purposes only. It is not intended as an endorsement of suicide, nor does it seek to make light of the emotional pain it can cause. If you or someone you know is suicidal, seek help.

Goodall’s death

Since we’re using Goodall’s death to illuminate some of the facets of suicide, it’s important to know the facts surrounding his death. Having lived up to the age of 104, Goodall experienced a lot of difficulty in his daily life. Although he was healthy for his age, his limited mobility and deteriorating eyesight prevented him from doing many of the things he wished and made him prone to injury. It’s likely this steepening decline that caused Goodall to seek suicide. In Switzerland, Goodall was given a lethal injection that he triggered by flipping a switch.

The aspects that most ethicists would find interesting are Goodall’s state of mind when he came to his reason for wanting to commit suicide, his state of mind when consenting to the physician-assisted suicide, and the manner in which he committed suicide. While no one can attest to the first point, in many of the jurisdictions where either euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide are legal, there are clauses prohibiting individuals with psychological conditions that would otherwise muddle consent (like psychosis or bipolar disorder) from using these services. Goodall himself required doctors to certify his state of mind before he could receive the procedure, proving that he understood what was to happen to him and that he wanted it to happen.

As for the third point, the method of suicide that Switzerland provides illustrates a technical difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide. Although both methods ultimately achieve the same outcome, with assisted suicide agency still remains with the individual wishing to commit suicide. Though this method has a physician provide the means of killing oneself, it’s up to the individual to carry out the process. In Goodall’s case, he had to flick a switch to initiate the sequence leading to his death, again showing individual choice and consent. On the other hand, euthanasia often involves a third-party administering a lethal agent. While consent is still present in this scenario — indeed, it’s a legal requirement — having someone else initiate death involves a third-party.

Defining suicide

Understanding the ethics of suicide requires a working definition of what it is. It’s obvious that suicide is in some sense a “killing” of oneself, but is self-killing a useful definition? It’s not at all clear. Using this definition too broadly gets us examples like accidents caused by distracted driving or lung cancer caused by long-term smoking. In these examples, individuals engage in self-destructive behaviors that they could or should have otherwise avoided if they wished to continue living for as long as possible. But even when more narrowly defined, we encounter examples where self-killing isn’t seen as suicide. Socrates knowingly drank poison, but his death isn’t typically viewed as suicide. Similarly, starvation strikes or other instances where individuals knowingly put their lives on the line for something of presumed value aren’t seen as suicides, though, these instances might justifiably be considered self-killings.

The focus on self-killing also obfuscates other circumstances where we might view the intent of one’s actions as being suicidal. For example, circumstances where individuals are not directly responsible for their deaths like voluntary euthanasia, do involve individuals placing themselves in situations where they’re at elevated risk for death, but they aren’t self-killings. We also understand that attempts at any of these behaviors, even if they fail, might be considered forms of suicide.

Where does that leave us? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy illustrates the nuances of articulating a coherent definition of suicide. While suicide often falls under the purview of self-killing, this definition by itself might not be sufficient for capturing the range of motivation and actions encapsulated by the term.

The importance of defining suicide

Perhaps this focus on the clarity of identifying suicide is illustrative of the out-of-touch-view many people have of philosophers, but this sort of term-building is essential. First and foremost clear definitions allow for us to develop parameters — we can better focus our attention and study something when we develop a shared, clear, and consistent understanding of what something is. With regards to suicide, not only does a clear definition help us study it, but it can also help us reason about the legal and moral implications of suicide which is something we might do in future posts.