PHIL 176: Death

Lecture 26

 - Suicide, Part III: The Morality of Suicide and Course Conclusion


The lecture begins by examining the consequences a suicide has on both the person committing it and those around this person. The question is raised, however, whether this factor is the only that counts morally, as utilitarians claim, or whether other factors matter morally as well, as deontologists claim. The moral relevance of a deontological prohibition against harming the innocent is considered. A concluding summary of the course is offered.

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PHIL 176 - Lecture 26 - Suicide, Part III: The Morality of Suicide and Course Conclusion

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Consequences of Suicide [00:00:00]

Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time we turned to questions about the morality of suicide, and I started with two arguments that I called quick and dirty arguments. I suppose it would have been fairer to say that they were really theological arguments, or they were moral arguments that used, in part, theological premises. I suggested that, at least if we look at them in their quick and dirty versions, they were inadequate, and if we’re going to make a more careful argument about the morality of suicide, we need to turn to a more systematic view about the contents of morality. We need to look at suicide in terms of the basic moral principles. Now, that’s not something we’ve got the chance to do in detail, but I think we can at least say enough about a couple of basic approaches to the contents of morality, or the basic moral rules, to get the beginnings of an understanding of what might emerge about the morality of suicide if we were to do that more carefully.

So, holding off on suicide for the moment, let’s ask ourselves, what is it that makes an action morally acceptable or morally forbidden? This is, unsurprisingly, something that different moral theories disagree about. But there’s at least one factor or one feature that all, or almost all, moral theories agree about. And that is that the consequences of your action matter. That is, we might or might not think that consequences are the only things that are morally relevant when we think about the morality of your action, but surely it is one thing that’s morally relevant — what are the consequences of your action going to be.

So, let’s think about the morality of suicide with an eye towards consequences, bearing in mind that since we’re talking about a moral point of view we need to take into account the consequences as they affect everybody. Now, the person who, of course, is most affected by suicide is, of course, the person who is killing themself. And at first glance it might seem pretty clear that the consequences of suicide are bad for that person. After all, the person was alive and now they’re dead, and we normally would take death to be a bad result.

If I were to tell you, “Oh, here’s a switch on the wall. If you were to flip the switch, a thousand people who would otherwise be alive would end up dead,” you would normally take that to be a pretty compelling argument against flipping the switch. Why? Because the result would be bad. Why? Because a thousand people would end up dead.

Well, one person ending up dead isn’t as bad as a thousand people ending up dead, but for all that shouldn’t we still say it’s a bad consequence? And as a result of that, shouldn’t we say that however far appeal to consequences goes in terms of giving us our moral theory, don’t we have to say in terms of consequences, or with regard to consequences, suicide is immoral?

But not so quick! Even though it’s true that normally death is a bad thing, it’s not always a bad thing. This is the sort of thing that we’ve learned by thinking about what does the badness of death consist in. Typical cases are ones in which the person’s dying robs them of a chunk of life that would’ve been good for them overall, and because of that dying then is bad for them. But in the kinds of cases that we’re thinking about, cases where suicide would be rationally acceptable, and we’re now asking whether or not it’s morally acceptable — in those sorts of cases, at least the kind of paradigm examples that we’ve been focused on, the person is better off dead. They’re better off dead, meaning that what life now holds out for them — although perhaps not negative through and through — is negative on balance. It’s negative on balance; they’re not better off continuing to live. They’re better off dying. And that means, of course, that dying isn’t bad for them, but rather good for them, and so their death is not a bad consequence, but rather a good consequence.

Provided that you’re prepared to accept the possibility of cases in which somebody would be better off if their life ended sooner rather than later, we’re led to the conclusion that — from the moral point of view as far as focusing on consequences goes — the consequences might actually be good rather than bad if the person were to kill themself. They will free themself, let’s suppose, of the suffering they would otherwise have to undergo. Well, that’s — first glance said, consequences says suicide’s wrong. Second glance says, consequences says, as least in certain circumstances, suicide’s right. Of course, third glance suggests, we can’t just focus on consequences for the person who is contemplating suicide. Because from the point of view of morality we have to look at the consequences for everybody.

Who else might get affected by the death or suicide of the person? Well, the most obvious people for us to think about at that point then are the family and loved ones — the people who most directly know about and care about the person who is contemplating suicide. And again — I’m running out of glances, but at first glance you might say, well, there the consequences are clearly bad. When the person kills themself that causes, typically, a great deal of distress for the family and friends of the person who has killed themself.

Even if that’s true, we now have to ask, how do the consequences weigh out? After all, we live in a world in which no single act typically has only good consequences, or no single act has bad consequences and only bad consequences. Often our choices are mixed packages where we have to ask whether the good that we can do is greater than the bad that we’d be doing with this act or that act or some third act.

Even if there are, then, negative consequences in terms of distress to the family, friends, and loved ones, of the person who kills themself, that might still be outweighed by the benefit to the person himself or herself, if it was really the case that he or she would be better off dying.

But it’s also worth bearing in mind that insofar as we’re thinking about people who love and care about the person who is considering dying, then they may actually overall, on balance, be relieved that the suffering of their loved one has come to an end. We will, of course, all be horribly distressed that nature, or the Fates, or what have you, has brought it about that this person’s choices are now reduced to killing themself on the one hand, or continuing the terminal stages of some illness where they’re incapacitated and in pain. We will, of course, wish there was a serious prospect of a cure, some chance of recovery, wish they’d never gotten ill in the first place.

But given the limited choices, continued suffering and pain, on the one hand, or having an end to that suffering and pain, if the person can rationally assess their prospects and reasonably come to believe they’re better off dead, then that’s a judgment their loved ones can come to share as well. They may well regret the fact — more than regret, curse the fact — that these are the only choices they’ve got, but still, given the limited choices they may agree, they may come to agree, better to put an end to the suffering. And so when the person kills themself, they may second that choice. They may say, “At least they’re not in pain and agony anymore.”

Chapter 2. Utilitarianism on the Morality of Suicide [00:08:25]

So, if we look at it from the point of view of consequences — in fact, suppose we had a moral view that said consequences aren’t just one thing that was morally relevant in thinking about what makes an action right or wrong. Suppose we took the bold claim that consequences are the only thing that’s morally relevant. There are moral views that take this position. I suppose the best-known example of this kind of consequence-only approach to morality is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that says right and wrong is a matter of producing as much happiness for everybody as possible, counting everybody’s happiness equally. And when you can’t produce happiness, then at least trying to minimize the misery and suffering, counting everybody’s misery and suffering equally.

So, suppose we accept this utilitarian position. What conclusions would we come to then about the morality of suicide? I suppose the conclusion would be a kind of moderate one. On the one hand, we’d be rejecting the extreme that says suicide is never morally acceptable, because to say that, you’d have to be claiming suicide always has bad consequences overall. And that strikes me, although it’s an empirical claim, it strikes me as a rather implausible empirical claim. It’s, sadly enough, not too difficult to describe cases in which the results may actually be better if the person kills themself rather than having their suffering continue. It may be better for them and better for their family.

On the other hand, we certainly wouldn’t want — if we were utilitarians — we also wouldn’t want to go to the other extreme and say suicide is always morally acceptable, because, of course, to say that it’s always morally acceptable is to say that the consequences are never bad when you kill yourself. And that’s also pretty obviously an implausible thing to claim. You guys are young, you’re healthy, you’ve got a great future in front of you. If you were to kill yourself, the results wouldn’t be good. The results would be worse overall than if you had refrained from killing yourself.

So, the utilitarian position is in the middle. It doesn’t say suicide’s never acceptable, doesn’t say suicide is always acceptable. It says, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s sometimes acceptable; it depends on the facts. It depends on the results. It depends on comparing the results of this action, killing yourself, to the alternatives open to you. We have to ask, is your life worse than nothing? Is there some medical procedure available to you that would cure you? If there is, and even if your life is worse than nothing, that still doesn’t make it the best choice in terms of the consequences. Getting medical help is a preferable choice in terms of the consequences.

We can even think of cases where your life is worse than nothing, you’d be better off dead, and there is no medical alternative of a cure available to you, but for all that, it still isn’t morally legitimate to kill yourself in terms of the utilitarian outlook. Because, as always, we have to think about the consequences for others. And there may be others who’d be so adversely affected by your death that the harm to them outweighs the cost to you of keeping yourself alive. Suppose, for example, that you’re the single parent of young children. You’ve got a kind of moral obligation to look after them. If you were to die, they’d really have it horribly. It’s conceivable then, in cases like that, the suffering of your children, were you to kill yourself, would outweigh the suffering that you’d have to undergo were you to keep yourself alive for the sake of your children. So, it all depends on the facts.

Still, if we accept the utilitarian position, we do end up with a moderate conclusion. In certain circumstances suicide will be morally justified — roughly speaking, in those cases where you’re better off dead and the effects on others aren’t so great as to outweigh that. Those will be the paradigm cases in which suicide makes sense or is legitimate, morally speaking, from the utilitarian perspective.

Chapter 3. Deontology and Prohibition against Harming the Innocent [00:13:21]

But of course, that doesn’t mean that suicide is indeed ever morally legitimate. Because we don’t necessarily want to embrace the utilitarian theory of morality. Utilitarianism is what you get, roughly speaking, when we say consequences matter and they’re all that matters. But most of us are inclined to think that there’s more to morality than consequences. Most of us are inclined to think that there are cases in which actions can have bad results — rather, actions can have good results and yet, for all that, be morally forbidden. Or actions could have bad results and yet, for all that, still be morally required. That’s not to say that consequences don’t matter morally; it’s to claim, rather, that consequences aren’t the only thing that matters morally. Consequences can be outweighed by other morally relevant factors. Well, that’s the position that’s held by the branch of moral theory known as deontology.

So deontologists say other things matter morally besides consequences. In deciding whether your action is right or wrong, you have to pay attention to the consequences, but you have to pay attention to other things as well. What other things? Well, unsurprisingly, this is an area then in which different deontologists will disagree one to the next in terms of what else they want to add to the list of morally relevant factors. But there’s one kind of additional factor that most of us in our deontological moods would want to add to the list, and that’s this — so one, at any rate, that’s relevant I think, most directly relevant for thinking about suicide. That factor is the factor of not just what was the upshot of your action but how you produced that upshot; not just what the results were, but what was your means of getting those results and more particularly still, did you have to harm anybody to produce the results?

Most of us are inclined to think it’s wrong to harm people, or at least innocent people. It’s wrong to harm innocent people even if the results of doing that might be good. Now, I threw in the qualification about innocent people because, of course, it’s also true that most of us are inclined to think that self-defense might be justified. Harming people who are attacking you or your friends or your fellow countrymen — that may be legitimate. And so it’s not as though we want to say it’s never legitimate to harm somebody. But those people are guilty; they’re aggressors. What most of us in our deontological moods are inclined to think is it’s never legitimate to harm an innocent person. And the crucial point is that’s true even if the results would be better.

Look, there’s no debate between deontologists and utilitarians about harming innocent people in the normal case, because normally of course — you know, suppose I, to make an example — to end the class with a nice big bang, right — I brought my Uzi sub-machine gun. I now take it and go rat-a-tat-tat, killing 15 of you. Well, that would not be something that would have good results. And so, clearly, the utilitarian is going to reject that as well as the deontologist. They’re in agreement about that. In the typical case, killing an innocent person has bad results, harms them. It’s wrong, full stop, we’re done.

But what should we say about cases where killing an innocent person has better results? In real life, it’s hard to think of cases like that, but we can at least go “science-fictiony” and tell an example. So, here is one of my favorite examples in moral philosophy.

Suppose that we have five patients in a hospital who are going to die because of organ failures of one sort or another. One of them needs a heart transplant, one of them needs a kidney transplant, one of them needs a liver transplant, and so forth and so on. Unfortunately, because of tissue incompatibilities, even as they begin to die we can’t use the organs from the ones that have died to save the others. Meanwhile, here in the hospital for a routine check-up is John. John’s perfectly healthy. And as you’re doing your exams on him you discover that he’s exactly suitable to be an organ donor for all five of the patients. And it occurs to you that if you were to find some way to kill him, but cover up the cause of death so it looked like he died of some unexpected freak seizure, you could then use his organs to save the five. This one gets the kidney, that one gets the other kidney, that one gets the heart, that one gets the liver, and that one gets the lungs. So your choice, roughly, is this. Just give John his routine medical exam, in which case the five other patients die, or chop up John, kill him and chop him up, using his organs to save the five patients.

Well, what should we say is the right thing to do the organ transplant case? In terms of consequences it looks as though, if we tell the story right at least, the results would be better if we chop up John. After all, it’s one versus five. And although the death of John is a horrible bad result, the death of the five is a horrible bad result. And so the results would be better if we were to kill innocent John.

Well, if we had more time we could argue about are the results really going to be better, is that a realistic story — what have you — are there other long-term effects on the healthcare profession that we haven’t taken into account? But we don’t have time to really pursue this story in detail. Let’s just suppose we could eventually get the details right; the results really would be better if we chopped up John. Is that the right thing to do?

Well, maybe utilitarianism says it’s the right thing to do, but it’s precisely for that reason that most of us would then say, you know, there’s more to morality than what utilitarianism says. Now, whether that objection is a good one is a very, very complicated question, and if you want — if you’d like to pursue it — if you want to pursue it — then I invite you to take an introductory class in moral philosophy. For our purposes, let’s just suppose that most of us are on board with the deontologists when they say there’s more to morality than what the utilitarian has, and this example brings it out. It’s wrong to kill somebody who is innocent even though by hypothesis the results would be better — it’s five to one. People have a right to life, a right not to be killed. And that right weighs in when we’re deciding what to do morally, so that it’s wrong to kill an innocent person even if the results really would be better.

All right, let’s suppose we agree with that — accept that. Again, in a fuller class on moral philosophy we’d have to ask ourselves what is the basis of that right, what other deontological rights do people have, what exactly are the contours of that right? But here we can just ask, suppose we accept a right like that, what are the implications of that for the morality of suicide? And now, it seems what we have to say is, suicide is wrong. Suicide is morally unacceptable. Because when I kill myself, well, I’m killing somebody. And didn’t we just say as deontologists that killing an innocent person — and I’m an innocent person — killing an innocent person is morally wrong? Well, I’m a person. So, killing me is morally wrong.

And it’s not really any help to come back and say, but look, we’ve stipulated that this is a case where the person is better off dead. The results will really be better overall if he kills himself. Yeah, that’s right. Maybe that is right. It doesn’t matter — because as deontologists we said the right to life is so powerful it outweighs consequences. Just as it was wrong to chop up John, even though the results would be better — five versus one — it’s wrong to kill yourself, even if the results would be better. Even if that’s the only way to put yourself out of pain, and those are good results, it doesn’t matter. The right to life outweighs the appeal to consequences. So as deontologists, it seems, we have to say suicide is forbidden — full stop.

Well, as usual in philosophy, it’s not quite as simple as that. One possible response somebody might make is, but look, morality is only about how I treat others. It’s not about how I treat myself. And if we were to accept that claim, then we could say the right to life only covers how I treat others. In particular, it rules out my killing other people even when the results would be good. But it doesn’t have any implications for how I treat myself. And in particular then, if the right to life doesn’t exclude self-killing, well then, suicide is acceptable.

That’s a possible moral view, but I find it rather implausible. If we were to start to explain what it is about you that explains why it’s wrong for me to kill you, we’d start saying things about how, well, you’re a person and, as such, you’ve got all these plans and so forth and so on. And as a person, you’ve got certain rights, certain things that shouldn’t be done to you. You’re not just, — This is the thought that lies behind much deontological thinking, right? People aren’t objects. We can’t just destroy them for the sake of better results. Well, that’s right; people aren’t objects. But of course, I’m a person too. And so when I contemplate killing myself, I’m contemplating destroying a person. So, it’s at least difficult to see why we would accept the claim that morality only governs how I treat other people. It seems — although the issue is a complicated one, which we don’t have time to pursue further today — it seems to me more plausible to say morality includes rules not only governing how I treat others but also how I treat myself.

Yet, if that’s right, and if among the moral rules are a right to life, a prohibition against harming people, then don’t we have to say, look, it’s wrong from the deontological perspective to kill yourself. Well, of course, the natural response to this line of thought is to say, but look, when I kill myself — unlike the case of chopping up John to save five others — when I kill myself, I’m doing it for my own sake. I’m harming myself for my own sake. That seems highly relevant in thinking about the morality of suicide.

It does seem relevant, though it’s not 100 % clear what to do with that thought. Here are two possible interpretations of that thought. First of all, you might think that the relevance of saying that I’m harming myself for my own sake is this. If I’m harming myself for my own sake, what I’m saying is, despite the fact that I’m harming myself, I’m better off. After all, we stipulated that we were focusing on cases in which suicide was rational. So, the person is better off dead. If they’re better off dead, then although it’s certainly true that there’s a sense in which they’re harming themself — I mean killing yourself is doing harm to yourself — still it’s not harm overall. The bottom line, we were imagining, is positive when you kill yourself. And so, although, unlike the case of John where you’ve harmed him and benefited others — so you have harmed him overall — in the case of suicide, when I harm myself to avoid the suffering I would otherwise go through, I’m not really, as we might say, harming myself overall.

So, perhaps the deontological prohibition against harm is really a prohibition against harming people overall. Look, you’ve got some sort of a disease in your — infection in your leg that has now spread and it’s going to kill you unless we amputate your leg. So, you go into surgery and the surgeon chops off your leg. Has he done something immoral? It doesn’t seem as though he has. But after all, he chopped off your leg! He harmed you! You used to have a leg and now you don’t have one. Well, what we want to say is he didn’t harm you overall. He harmed you in such a way that it was the only way to leave you better off bottom line, and that’s not a violation of the rule against harming. At least, that’s a possible thing to say. And if that’s the right thing to say, then maybe that’s what we should say about the suicide case yet again. Yeah, there’s a deontological prohibition against harming innocent people, but what it’s really a prohibition against, is leaving them worse off overall. And when I kill myself, I’m not leaving myself worse off overall. And if that’s right, then even from the deontological perspective suicide may be morally legitimate. Well, that’s at least one possible way to carry out the deontological stand, one possible way of interpreting the remark, “But look, when I kill myself, I’m doing it for my own benefit.”

Chapter 4. Factoring Consent into Committing Suicide [00:28:33]

Here’s another possible way of interpreting that thought. When I kill myself, given that I’m doing it for my own benefit, I’ve obviously got my own agreement. I can’t kill myself against my will. Suicide is something you do to yourself. And so, I have my own consent to what I’m doing. That seems pretty important. Notice how different it is from the case of John. When I chopped up John, I imagine I don’t have John’s approval. Consent seems to be present in the case of suicide but not in the case of chopping up John. Maybe that’s morally relevant as well. Now, to accept that view is, of course, to say we need to add yet another factor into our deontological theory. We have consequences, we have harm doing, but we also have the factor of consent. And so we need to think about the moral relevance of having the consent of the victim. And once we start thinking about that, I think most of us would be inclined to accept the conclusion that consent can make it acceptable to do to someone what would normally be wrong in the absence of their consent.

By the by, you’ll notice that that seems to be one of the things that’s relevant in thinking about the surgery case, not the organ transplant case but the performing the amputation of the leg, to save the person who would otherwise die. Surely it seems relevant that the patient has given you permission to operate on them.

Here’s another example that shows you the relevance of consent. It would not be okay — it would not be morally acceptable for me to go up and hit you in the nose. Just like it wouldn’t be okay for you to go up and hit me in the face or the gut. And yet, boxing matches are, I suppose, morally acceptable. Why is that? Because from a deontological perspective the answer is, when people are boxing they’ve agreed to it. I give you permission to hit me, or at least to try to hit me, in exchange for your giving me permission to hit you, or at least to try to hit you. And it’s the presence of that consent that makes it permissible for you to harm me, assuming that you’re a better boxer than I am, which I’m confident would have to be the case.

So, consent makes it legitimate to harm people, even though in the absence of consent it wouldn’t be legitimate. All right, if that’s right, then bring that thought home to thinking about the case of suicide. Suicide might be wrong, because after all I’m a person, at first glance. But since I’m killing myself, I’ve given myself permission. I’ve given myself consent to harm myself. And if consent makes it permissible to do what would normally be forbidden, then consent makes it permissible for me to kill myself. And so, now we’re led again to the conclusion that from a more fully developed deontological perspective we ought to say suicide is permissible, at least if we’re prepared to throw in this kind of factor of consent and think that it can just wipe out the protections that would otherwise normally be in place.

Indeed, if we think that, we’re going to be led to a rather bold and extreme conclusion about the morality of suicide. The person has killed himself, so he’s clearly consented, and so in every case what he’s done is acceptable. Well, maybe that’s right — if we’re prepared to go that far with the principle of consent. But maybe we shouldn’t go that far with the principle of consent.

Suppose we’re talking after class and you say to me, “Shelly, you’ve got my permission to kill me.” And so I get out my gun and I shoot you to death. It doesn’t seem morally acceptable, even though you gave me your permission, especially — Think of even weirder cases. Suppose that you are feeling like you want to killed because you’re overcome with guilt because you believe you killed John Smith. But you’re crazy. You didn’t kill John Smith. John Smith’s not even dead. But in your insanity you think you did do it, and so you say, “Shelly, please kill me.” And I know that you’re insane, but hey, you know, consent’s consent, and so I kill you. Well, that clearly isn’t acceptable. Or suppose you’re playing with your three-year-old nephew. He says, “Oh yeah, I don’t really like being alive. Kill me.” Well, that clearly doesn’t make it acceptable to kill him or her — well, nephew, it’s a him.

So, if we start accepting this consent principle, we’re led to some pretty implausible conclusions. So, maybe we should throw it out. Maybe we should say, no, consent really doesn’t have the kind of power that a minute ago it looked like it did. But I’m inclined to think we shouldn’t go that far and throw away the consent principle altogether. Because if we do throw out the consent principle, we’re going to find ourselves unable to say some things that I think it’s pretty important to us to say.

Consider the following example. Suppose that we’re in war and we’re in the foxhole and a hand grenade has been thrown into the foxhole. And unless something happens quick, the hand grenade is going to blow up and it will kill my five buddies who are near the hand grenade. Unfortunately, because they’re playing cards or whatever, they don’t see it. But I see it. But I don’t have time to warn them. By the time I tell them what’s going on, they won’t have time to react. Really, it’s do nothing, let them get killed but I probably won’t be hurt very much, or throw myself on the hand grenade, my body absorbs the blow, saves my buddies, kills me.

Imagine what happens is that I throw myself on the hand grenade. I’ve sacrificed myself for them. I’ve done something amazing. Few of us would have it within ourselves to do this, but amazingly enough some people do. And we admire and praise these people. They’ve committed — they’ve undertaken an incredible act of heroic self-sacrifice — morally commendable, above and beyond the call of duty we want to say, praiseworthy. But wait a minute, how could it be praiseworthy? The person threw himself on a hand grenade, knowing the result of this was that he was going to die. And so he killed a person, thereby, apparently, violating the deontological right not to have innocent people be killed.

Don’t talk about “the results are better.” Yeah, of course, five buddies saved; the results are better. But that doesn’t seem enough to use in our deontological moods. After all, suppose that I see the hand grenade, and so what I do is I take Jones and throw him on the grenade. Well, that’s not okay, even though the results are the same.

What makes the difference? Why is it morally legitimate for Jones to throw himself on the grenade? The only answer that I can see is, because he agrees to it. He did it to himself; he volunteered, it has his consent. If we throw away the consent principle, we’re forced to say what Jones did isn’t morally admirable. It’s morally appalling, it’s morally forbidden. I can’t believe that.

So, we need a consent principle. But on the other hand, we don’t want to go with such a strong consent principle that we say, oh, it’s okay to kill crazy people, or kill children, just because they say, “Oh, kill me.” So we need something — a more moderate form of the consent principle. We need to say consent can do its thing, but only under certain conditions. What exactly are the relevant conditions? Well, this is, of course, one more topic open for debate. We might insist that, look, the permission has got to be given freely. It’s got to be given knowing what the upshots are going to be. It’s got to be given by somebody who is sane, who is rational, who is competent, who’s — and that may deal with the child case as well, who is not yet competent to make this sort of decision. There’s room for disagreement about what exactly are the relevant conditions to put into a proper version of the consent principle.

We might also want to throw in some requirement that the person have good reasons for his giving you permission. That might deal with the case where you just come up to me after class and say, “Kill me.” I mean you’re not insane. Well, at least you might not be insane. You know what’s going to happen. In some sense, you’ve reached the age of competence, but you don’t have any good reasons for it. Maybe that’s enough to undermine the force of consent.

Well, suppose we’ve got some kind of modified consent principle. What should we say about suicide then? Well, it seems to me what we’re led to is, once again, a modest view about suicide. The mere fact that the person killed themself won’t show that it was morally legitimate because, of course, even though they’ve given themself permission, they may not have had, for example, good reason, or they might be insane. But for all that, if we can have cases — and I take it we can have cases — where somebody rationally assesses their situation, sees that they’re better off dead, thinks the case through, doesn’t rush into it, makes an informed and voluntary decision, with good reason behind it — in a situation like that it seems to me the consent principle might well come into play, in which case consent will trump or nullify the force of the deontological prohibition against harming innocent people. So, suicide will again be acceptable in some cases, though not in all.

And that’s the conclusion that seems to me to be the right one, whether we accept the utilitarian position or one of these deontological positions. Suicide isn’t always legitimate, but it’s sometimes legitimate.

It still leaves the question, what should we do when we see, when we come across, somebody trying to kill themself?” And there I think there is good reason to ask yourself, are you confident that the person has satisfied the conditions on the consent principle? Perhaps we should err on the side of caution, and assume that the person may be acting under distress, not thinking clearly, not informed, not altogether competent, not acting for good reasons. But to accept that is not to accept the stronger conclusion that we must never permit somebody to kill themself. If we become convinced that they have thought it through, that they do have good reason, that they are informed, that they are acting voluntarily, in some such cases it may be legitimate for them to kill themself, and for us to let them.

Chapter 5. Summary and Conclusion [00:41:17]

All right, almost out of time. So, let me shift gears for the very last time, and take a quick look at where we’ve been. At the start of the semester, I invited you to think hard about the nature of death or the facts about life and death. Most of us try very hard to not think hard about death. It seems to be an unpleasant topic, and we put it out of our mind. We don’t think about it, even when there’s a sense in which it’s staring us in the face. Every single class of this semester, every single day of this semester, you’ve come into this building and have walked past a cemetery right across the street. How many times did you notice it? How many times did you stop to think about the complete visual reminder that we are on this Earth for a while, and then we’re not anymore? Most of us just don’t think about it.

Well, of course you are, in some sense, the exceptions. You’ve spent a semester thinking about it, and I’ll be largely content if you’ve taken the opportunity this semester to take a hard look at the things you believe. Whether or not you ended up agreeing with me, about the various claims that I’ve put forward, is less important than that you’ve taken the chance to take a hard look at your beliefs and asked yourself not just what you hoped or wished or kind of believed was true, but what you could actually defend. Still, having said that, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I don’t also hope that you’ve come around — if you didn’t start out believing what I believe — that you’ve come around to believing what I believe.

As I pointed out on the first day, most people accept a great deal of this package of beliefs about the nature of life and death, that — They believe we have a soul, that there’s something more to us than our bodies. And they believe that because they think, given the existence of a soul, we’ll have the possibility of living forever. Immortality is a possibility, and we all hope for and crave the possibility that we will live forever because death is, and must be, horrible. It’s so horrible that we try not to think about it. It’s so horrible that when we do think about it we’re filled with dread, terror and fear. And it’s just obvious that that’s the only sensible reaction to the facts about life and death. Life is so incredible that under no circumstances could it ever make sense to be glad that it had come to an end. Immortality would be desirable; suicide could never be a reasonable response.

Over the course of this semester, I’ve argued that that package of beliefs, common as it may be, is mistaken, virtually from start to finish. There is no soul, we are just machines. We’re not just any old machine; we are amazing machines. We are machines capable of loving, capable of dreaming, capable of being creative, capable of making plans and sharing them with others. We are people. But we’re just machines anyway. And when the machine breaks, that’s the end. Death is not some big mystery which we can’t get our heads around. Death is in some sense no more mysterious than the fact that your lamp can break, or your computer can break, or any other machine will eventually fail.

I never meant to claim that it’s not regrettable that we die the way we do. As I argued when talking about immortality, better still would be if only we had the prospect of living as long as life still had something left to offer us. As long as life would be good overall, death is bad, and I think for most of us death comes too soon. But having said that, it doesn’t follow that immortality would be a good thing. On the contrary, immortality would be a bad thing.

The reaction that makes sense in thinking about the facts of death is not to find it as some great mystery too dreadful to think about, too overwhelming. But rather, fear, far from being the rationally appropriate response I think, is an inappropriate response. Although we can be sad that we die too soon, that perhaps should be balanced by the fact of — the recognition of — just how incredibly lucky we all are to have been alive at all.

Yet, at the same time, recognizing that sense of luck and being fortunate doesn’t mean that we’re always lucky to be remaining alive. For some of us the time will come in which that’s no longer true, and when that happens life is not something to be held onto, come what may, under any and all circumstances. The time could come for some of us in which it’s time to let go.

What I then invited you to do, over the course of the semester, is not only to think for yourself about the facts of life and death, but I invite you all to come to face death without fear and without illusion. Thanks very much [applause].

[end of transcript]

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