Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Between deterrence and despair

In this post I'm going to revisit the ethics of suicide. This post will take for granted my previous discussion on the subject, viz.

i) For several reasons, I imagine that suicide is an especially difficult issue for pastors to address. To begin with, I wonder how many seminaries offer courses which give adequate attention to the ethics of suicide, as well as the pastoral dimensions thereof. I expect many pastors have to grope at working out their own position.

ii) Another complication is that a pastor is pulled in two diametrically opposing directions on this issue. How to strike the right balance between deterrence and despair. 

As a rule, we want to say whatever we can to strongly discourage suicide. Taken to a logic extreme, that would commit us to an utterly merciless attitude towards those who take their own life. That functions as a disincentive to commit suicide. Utter disapproval. The threat of damnation.

On the other hand, what if, despite our best efforts, the deterrent fails? Then we find ourselves trapped by our rhetoric from offering any possible consolation to the survivors. 

So I imagine that pastors often find themselves in a bind. Suppose he preaches at the funeral of someone (maybe a church member, or child thereof) who committed suicide. Suppose he holds out hope for the suicide. That's comforting to the family.

But suppose another church member commits suicide a few months later. That family might blame him. Had he taken harder line at the funeral, maybe their loved one would never have considered suicide. That crack of hope was all they needed. So whatever position a pastor takes, he's liable to have parishioners mad at him. 

iii) My point is not that we should settle a pragmatic compromise that maximizes the benefits of both positions without the extremes. This is not about splitting the difference. Clearly whatever position we ultimately take must be grounded in sound theological principles. My point, rather, is that both these opposing concerns are legitimate concerns. We need to try and do justice to both because both are valid principles. 

iv) A further complication is the euthanasia debate. The ethics of suicide intersects with voluntary euthanasia (i.e. assisted suicide). In fact, Peter Geach defines euthanasia as "suicide to escape pain and disability" (The Virtues, 143). So there's the additional challenge of carving out a pastoral position that doesn't fuel euthanasia. 

v) It's striking that the Bible has no direct prohibition against suicide. How should we interpret the silence of Scripture in that regard?

There is, of course, the traditional Catholic view that prooftexts a prohibition against suicide from the 6th commandment. Problem is, that inference is fallacious. As Catholic philosopher and logician Peter Geach says:

Now the arguments against suicide are often as bad as the arguments in defense of traditional sexual morality. The argument that suicide is self-murder is none the better for it antiquity. As Antony Flew once pointed out, you might equally condemn matrimonial intercourse, as own-wife adultery; both as regards "x kills y" and as regards "x copulates with y's wife", identifying the variables so that you have "x" both times makes a difference that may well be morally relevant. Again, the argument that suicide cuts off a chance to repent of what you have done may sufficed to show that if suicide is a sin it is a very great sin, but it cannot be used to show that suicide is a sin. The Virtues (Cambridge 1979), 143. 

Geach is opposed to suicide, but he's clearing away the dead underbrush of bad traditional arguments for make room for better arguments supporting the traditional prohibition. 

That doesn't mean suicide is licit. It just means you can't prooftext your opposition from the 6th commandment. That's not a valid inference. 

vi) In theory, one could construe the silence of Scripture to mean that whatever is not forbidden is permitted. And there are certainly many instances in which that's the case. That, however, is not a reliable principle

Indeed, one could take the silence of Scripture in the opposite direction. Scripture doesn't specifically forbid some activities because they were so obviously evil that it's unnecessary to spell it out. The Bible doesn't attempt to provide an exhaustive list of what's permissible and impermissible. 

vii) Another explanation might be that biblical laws codes and vice lists deal with typical behavior rather than exceptional behavior. The will to survive is strong. It's unnecessary for Scripture to explicitly forbid suicide inasmuch as there's a natural aversion to suicide, unlike most sins. 

Even if that's a partial explanation, it can't be the whole explanation. Although suicide is statistically unusual, there's a fraction of the population that resorts to suicide, for a variety of reasons. That's been the case throughout history. 

viii) I think the absence of a Biblical prohibition makes it harder to argue that suicide is intrinsically evil or damnable. It's not disobeying God or breaking God's law (cf. Rom 4:15). 

ix) Of course, suicide could still be generally wrong because it indirectly conflicts with certain Biblical duties. To take an obvious example, consider a family man. As a husband and father, he has an obligation to support his dependents. By committing suicide, he is shirking his social responsibilities. 

x) This can also apply to potential or prospective duties as well as actual duties. Take a teenager. He's single. Has no dependents. 

Yet his parents may need him to provide for them when they become enfeebled by old age. If he commits suicide, he is denying them the support he owed them. Actions have consequences. Part of moral evaluation is to consider the likely or foreseeable consequences of our actions. Will that unjustly harm others? 

xi) You also have the emotional devastation that suicide often inflicts on the survivors. Indeed, one suicide can precipitate another suicide. If a survivor is inconsolable, he (or she) may commit suicide.

xii) Let's take a more difficult case. A man with grown children is diagnosed with terminal cancer or mild dementia. Not only is death inevitable (barring the unexpected), but death will be preceded by physical and mental incapacitation. Some people fear that more than death. 

However, that's also a great opportunity for a family to pull together. Draw closer. Undergo emotional healing and reconciliation. Suicide short-circuits that opportunity.

xiii) Let's take an even more difficult case. Say a childless widower is diagnosed with terminal cancer or mild dementia. He will be tempted to end his life while he still has the presence of mind to make decisions for himself. He fears being at the mercy of strangers. Does he have a duty to let nature take it's course? 

However we answer that question, this is an opportunity for the church to practice outreach to people who otherwise face abandonment at a time of life when they are most vulnerable.  

ix) The claim that suicide is unforgivable because it's too late to repent is complicated. 

a) That depends on the method. If you use an instantaneous method, then once you pull the trigger or step in front of the train, it will be too late to regret it–this side of the grave.

b) But other methods allow for regret. If you jump off a skyscraper, you may regret it a split-second later. You may regret it all the way down. At that point, the dilemma is not that you can't regret your rash act, but that you can't reverse it. Same with other methods which may induce mental or physical incapacitation prior to death. There may be time enough to regret it, but not enough time to reverse it. 

c) The actual claim may be, not that you can't repent, but that you can't confess to a priest and receive absolution. It's too late for that. But, of course, that's bound up with a particular theological tradition. 

x) I'd also like to make a point about euthanasia. Many people support socialized medicine. At least they support the idea of socialized medicine. They don't think healthcare should be a business. 

I'd simply point out that as long as healthcare is in the private sector, you can't be euthanized against your will. You have contracted with a healthcare provider. That may include advance directives prohibiting passive euthanasia (i.e. death by dehydration). And you may have granted a second party medical power of attorney to enforce your directives. Even if the physicians wish to euthanize you, under that private sector arrangement they lack the legal authority to defy your advance directives (a legal instrument) or overrule the medical power of attorney. 

If, however, physicians are public employees, then end-to-life policies will be set by gov't bureaucrats. Physicians are accountable, not to the client/patient, but to their gov't employer.


  1. I know this is a serious post, but this struck me as funny: If you jump off a skyscraper, you may regret it a split-second later. You may regret it all the way down.

  2. I think the absence of a Biblical prohibition makes it harder to argue that suicide is intrinsically evil or damnable. It's not disobeying God or breaking God's law.

    Agreed. But doesn't this apply to homicide as well? The Bible offers explicit justifications for certain cases of homicide. Since suicide is a type of homicide, it would fall under the same prohibition and same exceptions (and perhaps others).

    1. An interesting comparison that's worth developing.

  3. A very tough topic, thanks for tackling it now and in your earlier post. As a physician I've had some family members come to me distraught over a loved one's suicide. I've also had folks declare to me, either in reference to a particular suicide or the topic 'in vitro' as it were, that suicide always results in damnation. I usually do try to back away a bit from that latter opinion. While my profession tends to go far overboard in declaring mental/behavioral problems that may actually be 'soulish' to be physical (the infamous 'chemical imbalances' one hears so much about; but who knows what causes the imbalance, eh?), we don't want to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'. Physical problems can clearly cause mental/behavioral issues. One thinks of certain brain tumors, e.g. Is it possible that there are physical causes of at least some 'depressions' deep enough to trigger suicide? I think so, but can't prove it.