Suicide used to be thought of as a criminal action, but in modern society, the view has softened into seeing suicide as a result of mental illness. On SS, we often affirm that committing suicide is a decision we have the right to make because we have dominion over our bodies and lives. However, those who oppose pro-choice ideas often believe that people own their lives and bodies yet come to very different conclusions about suicide. This is due to operating under a different value system.
In this post, I will go over two related suicide topics. The first part of my post will address the value of life, suicide from the perspective of autonomy, and the rationality (or irrationality) of ending one’s life. The second part will address the harms of standard suicide prevention tactics.
The Value of Life
Sheldon Solomon defined the cultural scheme of things to be “a shared lens for viewing life and reality that (a) gives life meaning and significance (b) is perceived as permanent and enduring over time (c) establishes the standards of values for individuals with the culture to live up to” (3). The cultural scheme of things can be thought of as the “symbolic world” that exists in each person’s mind that not only gives people a means to integrate and process their experiences but also posits the nature of reality and lays down a framework of values and standards.
One value that is near-universal, so much so that it is thought to be self-evident, is life. To most, life is thought to be inherently valuable, an end rather than a means to an end, and requires no justification or explanation. There is often little philosophical reasoning provided for this idea that life is inherently worthwhile and valuable; for most, it is merely a feeling. This belief is, in essence, part of one’s cultural scheme of things masquerading as objective reality. Anyone who disagrees with this idea is not only seen as wrong but as being pathologically out of touch with reality. There are, however, a few asymmetries in life that those arguing for its inherent good should answer for.
While some may regard life as a gift, it is undeniable that life comes with striving, and in many ways, this striving is asymmetrically tilted towards suffering. Negative states such as thirst, hunger, and old age (with all of its accompanying pains) come naturally, while one must strive not only to stave off or remove negative states but to reach positive states. In addition to this, one often spends far more time striving for positive states in relation to how long the positive state lasts. One pertinent example is the amount of energy, time, and oftentimes animal suffering it takes to make a meal yet how ephemeral the ensuing gustatory pleasure is. It is rarely denied that life is inculcated with striving, yet this view is often mitigated by arguing that one misses out on the pleasures that life brings when they die. But just as the time before one was born was not a deprivation, the time after one dies will not be either. In the words of Nabakov, who put it far better than I ever can, "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for"
Not only must we strive, we strive alone. A fundamental part of our inner selves is separated from others and while this gap can be indirectly bridged through the use of language, touch and other symbolic means such as art and music, every individual is ultimately alone in their own head. There is no one but them alone who experiences the suffering (or pleasure) that they are experiencing. We may share moments with someone else, yet they are never in that moment with us, ie, the qualia of those moments is something felt by us and us alone. Ernest Becker touched on this when he wrote, “We touch people on the outsides of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get at their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority—it is utterly personal and unrevealable. Often we want to say something unusually intimate to a spouse, a parent, a friend, communicate something of how we are really feeling about a sunset, who we really feel we are—only to fall strangely and miserably flat” (207). It is therefore fitting that each individual should be able to ascertain whether the current costs of existence are worth it and how valuable the potential for future pleasure is relative to current suffering.
Mainstream suicide prevention
Suicide preventionists like to hide their paternalism under the guise of protecting a suicidal person’s (or, in many cases, a suspected suicidal person’s) “real, future self” from their “mentally ill and pathologically out of touch with reality current self." As I addressed in the previous part of my post, the view that suicidal people are pathologically out of touch with reality is unsubstantiated.
Perhaps the most vile method of suicide prevention is forcible psychiatric detention. In essence, this involves subjecting a suicidal person to what would otherwise be considered abuse, violence, and kidnapping if not committed against a suicidal person by medical authorities. Despite the good intentions of medical authorities, the phenomenological experience of the detained person is that of kidnapping and bodily violation. The voice of the suicidal person does not matter. If they try to resist, they will be violently forced into submission through either brute physical force, being tied down, or being drugged. Any other values that a suicidal person may hold, such as bodily inviolability or autonomy, are rendered null. The indignity of being forcibly detained is considered worth it by others if it saves a life, regardless of whether the person who is being subjected to forcible detention values their life more than dignity, autonomy, and bodily inviolability. This line of thought insinuates a deep lack of respect as respect entails allowing someone to act in their own best interests in accordance with their own values and not forcing them into following their “best interests” as defined by others. This also applies to many people who are mentally ill, as mental illness does not necessarily render someone globally irrational and all of their values (besides life) null.
As much as the mental health movement likes to talk about destigmatizing suicide, there is very little that is more stigmatizing than taking away someone’s voice and violently forcing them into submission. Medical authorities have their hearts in the right place, yet they are subjecting another human being to cruel treatment on the chance that they will be grateful for it some day. Without a doubt some people are grateful, but it comes at the cost of making the dignity, autonomy, and peace of mind of a suicidal person disposable.
This is less of a suicide prevention tactic and more of an attitude. We all know this attitude well; it is the idea that suicidal people ought to keep living, and anything that is not prolife content is encouraging suicide. While suicidal people are often implored to choose life, there is no true choice unless one is allowed to do the opposite. By not allowing one to opt-out of life, pro-lifers see life not as a choice but as an obligation. If an adult cannot make an autonomous decision about what to do with their own body and life, then they do not own their body or life. This is an odious conclusion. I have had friends on this site who I deeply wish were still here, yet it was their life to take and do with it what they please, not mine to keep.
The zeal in which society wants to prevent suicide is fascinating because one is allowed to do many things that are analogous to suicide, such as cutting off all contact with loved ones or making life-altering irreversible decisions. This incongruence is once again caused by seeing life as inherently valuable and worthwhile.
I have written this post hoping that it will explain the "why" behind many of the ideas often expressed on SS. For anyone who has gotten this far, thank you for reading.
It should be noted that I am not against suicide prevention - only the coercive means of doing so, such as throttling information and denying access to peaceful methods of suicide and locking someone up on the chance that they will end their life. These tactics cause someone to stay alive not because they voluntarily choose to live but because they have to. I am not pro suicide, I am pro voluntary life.
Nabokov, V. V., & Boyd, B. (1999). Speak, memory: An autobiography revisited. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Solomon, Sheldon. Denying Death.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. A. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. Penguin Random House.