“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.