Suicide And The Tyranny Of Altruism

This “Skeptic’s” column tackles a subject that is both delicate and volatile:  suicide. People who have known me for a fairly long time are well acquainted with a time in my life – during the time in Boston at Harvard and later at Seattle University  during the equally ill-advised quest for the MDiv -- when I was undergoing episodes of very  severe, quite arguably pre-suicidal, clinical depression. So – for the benefit of those people, for “my mariners, souls that have toiled and wrought and thought with me” – I want to emphasize that the following column does not describe me as I am now. Quite the contrary. I am not in crisis. I am not depressed. I am not afflicted with suicidal ideation – a term I came to know all too intimately during the “winter of [my] discontent”. So those of you familiar with my past history and struggles – relax. There has never been a time in my life when I am less in crisis, less depressed, less afflicted with suicidal thoughts than now. Mostly I credit my wife and my absolutely stellar in-law family with this resurrection.  In fact, that I can discuss this subject at all now is exactly because I am calm and at peace.  But not everyone is as fortunate as I.


Albert Camus, writing in the very first sentence of The Myth of Sisyphus, is right:  the question of suicide is the most serious philosophical problem.  He is also right in saying that “[all other philosophical questions] are games; one must first answer”.  The usual response to someone arguing against suicide is to say that the person threatening suicide does so by disregarding the feelings of shock and grief her suicide would leave  behind.  The person seriously contemplating suicide – so this argument goes – values her own desire for relief from feelings of depression, sadness, frustration, etc., over the feelings of bereavement her suicide will engender in the living. On this account, it is often argued that suicide is the ultimate selfish act.  The Catch-22 is obvious:  by terminating oneself, one paradoxically exalts one’s annihilated self above all other considerations on the part of all other still-existing selves. The self that no longer exists is privileged above the selves that survive. Death is privileged above life. This position seems compelling. But the problem is that this argument against committing suicide also lacks integrity because it is equally selfish.

To understand why, turn the previous argument around.  If I know that a good friend is contemplating suicide, what are my feelings? Anticipatory grief, certainly, alarm, an urgent sense of all-overriding aversion, an aversion to the grief I will feel if my friend actually succeeds in her stated intention to kill herself.  I will grieve to the point of agony. Nightmare visions haunt my fitful sleep of what my world will be like without her in it, when her absence begins to haunt me like Banquo’s ghost at MacBeth’s feast. I would do quite literally anything to avoid these consequences.  At this point, I might well employ the argument in the preceding paragraph:  I might very well plead with my friend to relent from her suicidal intent by telling her that killing herself would be the ultimate selfish act, because the consequences of her suicide – her permanent absence – would be indescribably painful to me, in fact, to all those who love and value her.  The question I would ask at this point is simply this:  how is it not equally selfish of me to tell my suicide-prone friend that, no, she must not kill herself because doing so would subject me to levels of agony I would find intolerable.  Consequently, my conclusion is that, in order for me to avoid those consequences to myself, my friend must continue – for my sake and for my convenience – to continue living a life that she herself finds unbearably painful.

So employing the “selfishness argument” to deter someone from committing suicide instantly involves one in a kind of macabre tug-of-war that, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.  No one can win. My suicide-prone friend says to me “I must end my life, even if it inflicts pain on you, because ending my pain takes precedence over causing yours”. Yes, that is a selfish argument. But I, pulling the tug-of-war rope the opposite direction, reply “No, you must not commit suicide because the pain I will experience by your absence takes precedence over the pain you are already experiencing in living your life”.  If you have ever watched the TV series Breaking Bad, you will have seen just this stalemate acted out in the “talking pillow” scene early in the first season when the protagonist, Walter White (unforgettably depicted by Bryan Cranston), sits down with his wife Skyler, their son Walt Jr., Walt’s sister-in-law Marie, and her DEA-agent husband Hank Schrader to discuss Walt’s decision to not undergo treatment for his recently diagnosed stage-4 lung cancer:  the whole “talking pillow” sequence, regardless of whatever specific form it assumes in a particular real-world case, is always a deep-noir zero-sum game in which, if one party wins, the other must lose. Life wagers against death, and any talk of “compromise” is sheer travesty.  It is not clear to me that one direction in this tug-or-war is any less selfish than the other. In fact and on the contrary, selfishness is a useless ethical metric in assessing the morality of suicide. Each party to the conversation is attempting to privilege their pain over that of their conversation partner.

Once rational argument has been exhausted -- assuming it was ever relevant in the first place, which is far from obvious -- the usual alternative is to recur to some religious justification for forbidding suicide.  Again, this strategy is superficially plausible, but turns out to be either useless or worse than useless.  A few examples:

o We are told that life is a gift of God, and that suicide amounts to not only rejecting that gift, but throwing it back in God's face. Fortunately, I doubt that we use this reasoning to critique kids' refusal to eat Halloween candy in which the donor has embedded, say, razor blades. A parent who urged his child to eat the Snickers bar notwithstanding, to somehow overlook the razor blades lacerating his gums as he chewed, and to be grateful to the people generous enough to give such a gift, would be a parent who was a prime candidate for charges of child abuse. The plain fact of the matter -- which I insist we would all acknowledge in any other, non-theological context -- is that some circumstances render life a curse to be avoided instead of a gift to be cherished. That God is the Giver of the gift does not change that conclusion -- though such a "gift" may well fundamentally alter our estimate of God's character. A God Who hides razor blades in the candy of Life is a God from Whom one might well want to keep one's distance.

o Or there is the "sufferings of Christ" argument ... The suffering, physical or psychological, we are experiencing can be viewed as a finite replication of the infinite Suffering of the Crucified Jesus and, not terminated by suicide, but instead offered up to Him as a sacrifice. The most succinct response I can think of is that of a moral theology professor, a friend of mine, who said that when anyone suggests offering up suffering to Jesus, my moral-theologian friend said he is always tempted to ask, and sometimes actually does ask, "What makes you think Jesus wants it?" My response is more cerebrally theological:  Jesus undertook His suffering voluntarily, so on what basis does God overrule my volition and so coerce me into my counterpart? Does God undertake to squeeze suffering out of us coercively rather as one would attempt to squeeze blood out of a turnip? If so, why would I want to please such a Deity?

o Some argue that suicide is a manifestation of God's sovereignty in the sometimes-medicine-has-to-taste-bad-to-do-good sense of  Romans 8:28-35 whereby "all things work together for good" in such a way that humans' -- anyway, some humans' -- intimacy with God and with one another is actually enhanced by one of the two parties taking her / his own life as a gateway into a deeper relationship. No response is better than that of C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed when he writes of his grief over the death of his wife Joy Davidman Gresham:

She used to quote ‘Alone into the Alone.’ She said it felt like that. And how immensely improbable that it should be otherwise! Time and space and body were the very things that brought us together; the telephone wires by which we communicated. Cut one off, or cut both off simultaneously. Either way, mustn’t the conversation stop? Unless you assume that some other means of communication—utterly different, yet doing the same work—would be immediately substituted. But then, what conceivable point could there be in severing the old ones? Is God a clown who whips away your bowl of soup one moment in order, next moment, to replace it with another bowl of the same soup? Even nature isn’t such a clown as that.

(One possible response to Lewis's concluding question might be to point out that, whereas the sufferings inflicted by nature ultimately all result from a confluence of natural laws, which are presumably blindly non-volitional, the sufferings inflicted by, e.g., God's bait-and-switch games with soup are presumably inflicted by Divine will and purpose, which, because they are unknowable, might well be traceable to mendacious motives humans would justifiably call cruel. Such a God undoubtedly would "move[] in mysterious ways". But whether one should be comforted or terrified by that principle is not clear. If God really is ganz andere, all analogies of God with Nature are automatically suspect.)

Of all the theological responses with which I am familiar, however, the only one I have any respect for is taken from Fr. Ron Rolheiser's more-or-less annual column on suicide. Carefully note that I deliberately say "theological" and not "theodical" because Fr. Rolheiser adopts the expedient of skipping theodicy altogether and going directly to theology, understood as discourse on the character of God with no attempt to "justify the ways of God to man".  As I have noted elsewhere, theodicy always entails the attempt to deny certain truths that, in other contexts, are simply too obvious to deny. In other words, theodicy always involves the justification of faith by recourse to bad faith (in Sartre's sense of mauvaise foi) of feigning ignorance by pretending not to know that which we do know all too well. Fr. Rolheiser boldly avoids that quicksand by not going to that part of the forest in the first place, and emphasizing instead that, the theodical dimension of suicide being however it may, Christians may be comforted by the knowledge that, issues of moral right and wrong aside, suicide never separates one from the love and tenderness of God, even on the far side of death. While one might wish that Fr. Rolheiser would be more explicit about his intent to avoid the grasping the Tar Baby of theodicy, in the end I can only admire his refusal to avoid the trap.

His reticence about the former issue renders his response to the latter immeasurably more credible. Often "I don't know" is the only response with any integrity.

James R. Cowles

Image creditsDepressed man with bottles ... A1C Alexander, 49th Medical Group, Air Combat Command ... Public domain
"The Suicide" ... Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803–1860) ... Public domain
"Sisyphus" ... Franz Stuck (1863–1928) ... Public domain
Albert Camus ... UPI ... Public domain
C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham ... ... Public domain



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