Hume on Suicide

Of Suicide” by David Hume

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 4, 2015. )

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, economist, historian and one of the most famous figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist. Hume begins his essay like this:

One considerable advantage that arises from Philosophy, consists in the sovereign antidote which it affords to superstition and false religion…when sound Philosophy has once gained possession of the mind, superstition is effectually excluded; and one may fairly affirm, that her triumph over this enemy is more complete than over most of the vices and imperfections incident to human nature.

Philosophy is an antidote to the superstition and irrationalism that make our lives miserable. The superstitious cannot even take refuge from their misery in sleep because they are haunted by their dreams; nor can they take refuge in their death, even if they are quite miserable or in pain, since they fear offending the gods. Therefore superstition forces them to stay alive, even when dying would be preferable. When fear of death is joined by superstition the result “deprives men of all power over their lives…” We fear bringing about death even though it would often be better to do so.

Hume now turns to the examination of suicide “to restore men to their native liberty … ” He has in mind the superstition that prevents people from committing suicide when in pain. Hume distinguishes the laws by which the gods govern nature, and the laws by which humans govern themselves. Just as nature carries on without considering the interests of humans, so humans may use the power the gods have given them regarding their own happiness. Thus people don’t incur the wrath of a god by exercising their will since the gods have given them this power. If it would be against the gods’ province to choose to commit suicide, then it would be against the province of the gods to preserve life by saving someone from an oncoming boulder.

Similarly, since according to the laws of nature an insect can destroy human life, it would be strange if humans weren’t granted such powers regarding their own lives. Hume believes that the gods must have given us the power to escape a bad life. Consider that if our enemies hurt us, most will allow us to fight back. Why then demand that I resign myself to inaction if threatened by pain and suffering? So Hume argues that people’s lives are their own, to dispose of as they choose because the gods have given us this power. That is why we dam rivers and create vaccines, or act as heroes and risk our lives; we use the power the gods have given us to change the world.

Hume argues that committing suicide does no harm to society. He also says that when we are dead, we no longer receive benefits from society, and hence we no longer have obligations. But even if we did have obligations, surely they are limited. If we are not obligated to do a small good for society at great expense to ourselves, then we are not obligated to suffer greatly for some small benefit to society. If I am old and infirmed I may quit my job, thereby ceasing contributing to society. So why may I not quit life? And if the continuation of my life is a burden to society, then I should be praised for ending it. Or if you are about to be tortured for crimes against society, wouldn’t putting yourself to death be in the public’s interest? That wouldn’t invade the realm of providence anymore than those who ordered the torture did.

I agree with Hume. We should generally respect individual autonomy, including a person’s choice of when to die. Obvious exceptions would be cases in which an individual’s mental capacites are compromised, as in children or the mentally impaired.

2 thoughts on “Hume on Suicide

  1. As a woman, I wonder that I can terminate a life growing inside me based on others’ volatile opinions about what constitutes “viable life,” but I cannot terminate my own life.

    Whom do I belong to that someone else’s feelings, opinions, and perceptions are more important than my own as far as the continuance or termination of my life is concerned? I can make all manner of so-called horrible life errors, and society tells me that they are all my responsibility. That is the cost, I’m told, of being an adult. I can smoke. I can over-indulge in alcohol. I make unhealthful dietary choices. I can engage in unprotected sex with many, many high-risk partners. Once I’m a legal adult, I can refuse to continue my education or get a job. I can become homeless, suffer the sexual and other physical depredations of others, and die slowly and torturously. All these things, though nearly everyone agrees they’re unwise choices–mistakes, I’m free to do. Why? Because I’m a legal adult and I am responsible for my own life, terribly “mistakes” and all. The regrets of others who’ve pursued, or been on these paths, never justify another forcing me to act “wisely.”

    Yet I cannot end my own life.

    Why do the suicidal deserve special protections, while the vast majority of society’s derelict do not? Just about everyone who matters — friends, family, politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, police — tells the societally lost they made mistakes and must now pay for them. Many of them will die painfully, abandoned, and that’s just life. But I cannot end my own life, as many seem to argue, for my own “good”? How is that reasoning at all consistent with our culture’s principles of personal autonomy and responsibility?

    Speaking, too, as a licensed physician, even when I am confident a patient would benefit from additional treatment, I cannot force her or him to accept treatment. Even when the prognosis with treatment is statistically “good,” I can only present patients data–survival rates by years from diagnosis, side effects from treatment… Even if death is imminent without treatment, I cannot impose my will on a (non-minor) patient. So I do not believe the justification mental health professionals give, that acting against patients’ wills is justified based on the clinician’s superior knowledge of the disease state, or on the patient’s lack of clear thinking, or on the regret others who’ve attempted an act but failed at it later express over having attempted at all. At the root of the unique treatment modalities for mental health, in particular suicidal ideation, is an unjustifiable belief — not scientific fact — that life is always better than death. Other scholars in philosophy and medicine have written broadly on why this viewpoint is fallacious and never objective. Just as several European countries have finally concluded that life value can only be determined by a person living life, the rest of the world will eventually follow. The modern mental health therapeutic belief system is wholly untenable since it relies, like religion, on others believing the same principles as clinicians and mental health policy lobbyists — all who have a clear stake in the game.

    Lastly, on a practical note, study after study links quality of social life to depression risk. We’re all advised to have healthy and sufficient connections with others we care about and who care about us. But, who doesn’t want quality social relationships? A mentor of mine from my residency commented about the health protection of friendships that what counselors usually fail to acknowledge is that every relationship requires two people. There are very many reasons outside an individual’s control for her potential isolation. Clinical psychology fails to address how persistent these may be despite therapy, drugs, or other interventions. You can only hope to change an individual, not the others she must interact with. So the clinicians who are adamantly against the right of the patient to choose death, will they commit to being with each patient throughout the week, the day, the night, when loneliness sets in and these people feel abandoned and desperate? Can the clinicians guarantee that whatever treatment-du-jour will overcome the early-life formative experiences we know literally MOLD neurology so that these patients feel radically different, more inclined to stay alive? Will clinicians guarantee patients’ communities will put aside classism, ageism, scathing prejudice based on body habitus, or any of the other myriad prejudices that isolate over a lifetime? Or will clinicians be there, day after day, to provide the intimacy of a hug, holding those who need frequent reassurance? Or can clinicians guarantee a more equitable or hospitable world in general — especially regarding the sometimes monstrously callous or patently malignant mental health system itself?

    I think not.

    So, if clinicians cannot guarantee sufficient quality of life we understand is so crucial to “mental health,” neither should they be entitled to condemn the humans they cannot help to lives patients actually living those lives find to be hellish isolation and hopelessness simply because of clinicians’ assessments of their own lives, life in general, or even other patients’ lives.

    The debate over the right to end our own lives is not a matter of medicine or so-called mental health. We already know this since every day patients whose imminent deaths could be forestalled by medical intervention are permitted to reject medical care, and insurance companies are entitled, based on finances, to reject necessary procedures the medical literature tells us are likely to extend patients’ lives significantly. The debate over the right to end our own lives is shockingly rooted in biased value systems — “shockingly” because other people in this arena uniquely get to command otherwise legal adults not to act on our own bodies.

    To me, there is no greater a contradiction to the concept of personal freedom than this.

  2. Hi Clare:

    I appreciative of your thoughtful comments. I have published a brief 2 page piece on the topic here:

    http://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/08/15/better-off-dead/

    And, fyi, I have summarized some of the main pieces on the literature here. These are outlines of well-known pieces in an ethics textbook that I did for students some years ago. Thanks again for the comments.

    http://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/17/the-euthanasia-debate/

    http://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/18/6331/

    http://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/19/summary-of-active-and-passive-euthanasia-james-rachels/

    http://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/20/summary-of-voluntary-active-euthanasia-dan-brock/

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